In all my years in HK I can’t honestly say I’ve seen poverty. I have seen people looking through rubbish bins for recyclables and senior citizens pushing trolleys laden with cardboards and these surprised me but I wouldn’t call it poverty. In wealthy HK, it is unimaginable that people could go hungry or homeless. That was my assumption until I came face to face with homelessness and hunger in Sham Shui Po one evening. A friend had joined a volunteer program to feed the poor in Sham Shui Po and I asked to tag along. The program has been running for some time and it was well organised and meaningful. Sham Shui Po was picked as it is one of the areas in HK with high numbers of homeless and poor people.
Firstly all volunteers were given some money and a list of groceries, which we had to purchase from small stalls in that area. This was symbolic as it was a way to give back to the same society that supports these homeless and poor people. We bought fruits, can food, bottles of water and biscuits, while another group organised boxed meals. We then carried the food to an area under a highway bridge where many people had already gathered. The organisers estimated that around 1000 people came that night to receive the food. A team of volunteers were already present to control the crowd and ensure orderliness.
Despite crowd management, several small scruffles and near riots broke out as recipients pushed and grabbed at the food. I was worried that someone would get hurt. Besides the scruffling and grabbing, many recipients resorted to hiding and lying about the food they had collected so that they could collect more. As a volunteer, I felt terrible having to enforce a quota on the food that I was giving out as demand was far greater than supply. It also disappointed me that the recipients were not more considerate of other recipients and instead they behaved selfishly to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others. This troubled me greatly and when I shared my views with several veteran volunteers, they said that such behavior is excusable because they (the recipients) have a real need and if that extra fruit means one less day without food, then they are going to take as much as they can get.
Most of the recipients were elderly men and women and a few families with children. The demographics surprised me because in a Confucius society like HK, which emphasises on family and filial piety, every one is expected to care for their elders. It may be that these elderly people are without family or may be cast away from family. Regardless of the why, it is atrocious that HK would allow its elders to suffer this fate.
It’s been a month since this program and I still think about it almost daily. Mostly I think about the options one has when one is homeless and hungry. How does one get out of poverty when even a daily meal is hard to come by? I wonder about the effects of hardship on people’s values, where desperation may drive many to behave unusually. The reflections usually end with me feeling both grateful and guilty; grateful that I haven’t yet experienced such poverty and guilty that I should have so much when some have so little.