A city's hidden heart and soul

A city's hidden heart and soul

A student walks the sweltering streets and meets Hong Kong's poor and ignored

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A city's hidden heart and soul_L
Illustration: Martin Megino

I used to know none of them. The pressure of life in Hong Kong is so great, we scarcely pay attention to the people around us. As the crowds dash across streets and vehicles waiting nose-to-tail on flyovers hoot impatiently, these people go unnoticed. But while I'm on my way to school, they are all working hard, sweat soaking their collars.

Ah Mui, the barber

The blazing sun was high in the sky, its warmth and light prickling my skin. I hung around, looking for something to write about until the heat became unbearable and sent me in search of shelter.

As I made my way through the narrow lanes that twisted between shabby buildings, an old woman, wearing a plain blue shirt and holding a pair of scissors, came into view. She stood on a gloomy corner under a roof made from pieces of worn canvas, probably collected from the refuse dump. The sheets overlapped in such a way that the countless holes were covered.

Behind the woman was a large rectangular mirror, its layer of silver flecked with rust. On the table beneath lay several pairs of scissors and a reddish-purple hair dryer that was probably older than I. Bottles of shampoo and hair conditioner were neatly arranged in a wooden cupboard, its glass door covered with dust.

Weak yellow light emitted by a nearly burnt-out fluorescent tube struggled against the gloom. Below this, a fan in a rusted metal case gave out a "woo-woo" as its motor strained with all its might. The breeze from this fan wafted the threads and strips of plastic that hung from the worn, imitation-leather chair. While there was no barber's pole, the permanent wave machine advertised the nature of the business.

The old woman made her pitch. "Hi, young man. Today's really hot, isn't it? Feel like having your hair cut?"

Her words brought me back from my daydream. "Oh, yes. I'm really fed up with long hair. It traps the heat and is so uncomfortable."

"Chin level or ear length? Or do you want your head shaved?" The old woman giggled.

"Ear length," I replied coldly, hoping that I could get my hair cut as quickly as possible and get away from the heat. "And don't make it too eye-catching."

Picking up the silver scissors, the old woman's fingers moved swiftly and deftly. "Are you fed up with the heat, young man? I know it feels unbearable, but you have to overcome it. When I was small, there was no air conditioning or electric fans. Even when I first opened this little stall, I had no electric fan. I had to wait until I had saved enough money to buy one."

"Really?" I replied, driven by curiosity. "How did you withstand the hot summers?"

"Many of my customers asked the same question. Well, if you've got to feed yourself, you sometimes have to bear some discomfort. That's what Lao Ye told me as he took his last breath. Life can be harsh, but this can motivate you: a big city is built by millions of small people working behind the scenes, and this has been my contribution."

The old woman sighed.

"Although I never longed to be a famous hairstylist, opening a barber's shop in an air-conditioned mall used to be my dream... Anyway, I'm too old now for that. My only property is this little stall, and I just hope I can keep it until I leave this world."

"How is business? Is it OK?" I asked, although I was sure I already knew the answer.

"I'd need to burn incense if I got 20 customers a week," the old woman joked. "When some of my regulars come to get their hair cut, they often mock me, 'Ah Mui, it's time for me to give you some financial assistance.'"

"Ah Mui, have you ever thought about retiring?" I asked, seriously.

"Nope. Who's going to feed me? Nobody but my pair of hands ..."

"Then why don't you apply for CSSA [Comprehensive Social Security Assistance]?" I interrupted.

"I'm in good health and I can work. CSSA? I've never thought about it. Erm... done!" Ah Mui announced, untying the strings of my plastic smock. "Look in the mirror and see if it's OK."

As she beamed at me, the smile on the face of Ah Mui the barber was the loveliest I'd ever seen.

Old Pang, the chestnut fryer

Walking out onto the main road, I caught the fragrance of roasted chestnuts, one of my favourite snacks. Dark coals in the large furnace emitted reddish-yellow flames along with choking black smoke.

In the wok above, the mixture of black sand and chestnuts was hopping happily. Some of the burst chestnuts seemed to be smiling at me. Several yellowish-brown paper bags containing cooked chestnuts hung next to the furnace.

A man wearing a white hair band was using a silver cooking shovel to stir the sand and chestnuts. The steam rising into the air made the surrounding area unbearably hot. The man's T-shirt was soaked in sweat.

"Sir, how much does a bag of roasted chestnuts cost?" I shouted above the cracking sound of the chestnuts.

"Don't call me sir," said the man. "But Old Pang. I'll give you a discount. Er ... 20 each. Then, because it's so hot today, you'd better get back to somewhere air-conditioned so you don't get sick. Exams are coming, right?"

"Yes," I replied timidly. "And I'll take a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts. I don't mind waiting."

"Yes, of course. Just wait a moment, I'll get them done as quickly as possible."

My curiosity got the better of me. "Old Pang, why do you insist on frying chestnuts in this intolerable heat? If I were you, I'd have already fainted from heatstroke."

"Perhaps it's because of my father. I followed him into this job. He worked for more than 60 years as a hawker, frying chestnuts day and night with no holidays. I was just amazed at his industriousness. He told me it was the delight on his customers' faces which drove him to work day after day. He is such an admirable person."

"So are you. Tell me, will you fry chestnuts for your entire life?"

"Probably ... I'll carry on until I'm caught by the police," said Old Pang with a warm smile. "Here's your bag of chestnuts."

Mr Wong, the cardboard collector

With my mouth full of tasty chestnuts, I looked up at the sky with the sun sinking. With a gentle evening breeze sweeping away the scorching heat, it was time to head home.

Suddenly, an old man hauling a cart staggered across the street in front of me. He stopped and, with difficulty, started to pick up a packing box.

Out of sympathy, I bent to help him.

He seemed astonished by my action and his eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, young man. Thank you very much."

"You're welcome," I said weakly.

"No, your kindness is not only in what you've done but also in your attitude towards me. Not many teens would do the same. If Ah Fong was a good girl like you, she'd ... she'd ..." His voice quivering, the old man left the sentence unfinished.

"Who's Ah Fong?" I asked. "Your daughter?"

"Yep," the old man muttered bitterly. "She left home 10 years ago ... to give birth to a baby girl with no father."

"Do you know how she's doing now?"

"Of course not. Her mother passed away a month ago. I posted notices in the papers, hoping that she could at least come and say goodbye to her mum. It didn't help. Perhaps she's already forgotten us. I'm too old now and I'll soon kick the bucket. I don't think she's ever going to see me again, either."

I shook my head sympathetically. "Why are you still picking up cardboard at your age?"

"To save the money to buy my coffin. No one else will do it."

At this, I couldn't help myself. "I don't believe you. I know you're saving money for Ah Fong and your beloved granddaughter. And they will come and see you one day, so you have to stay positive."

He sighed. "Thanks for comforting me, but nobody will come to my funeral. I'm doomed to die alone. Now go home before your mother starts to worry."

I felt tears well up in my eyes. "No, it should be me thanking you. You're such a kind man. I'll come to chat to you again."

"Well, I'm always here waiting for my daughter. My name is Mr Wong."

And, waving goodbye, Mr Wong watched me go.

Three stories about three different people. They all live in a city called Hong Kong. They all work hard. They are unknown to us, although we come across them every day.

Theirs are the real stories of Hong Kong, but do you recognise their faces?

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