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HK Magazine Archive

Hong Kong's Lonely Jobs

The city’s a frantic place—for most of us. But there are still those who work alone in a sea of humanity.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 11:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:55pm
Graphic by Pierre Pang. Photos by Kirk Kenny

Neal Tang, 92: Funeral parlor owner

It doesn’t get any lonelier than working with the dead. Neal Tang is one of the owners of the Kowloon Funeral Parlour in Tai Kok Tsui. He tells us about being the only warm body in the room.

"I was born in 1923, so you can do the math. I was originally from a poor part of Guangdong. I came to Hong Kong in 1939, in World War II, when running away from the Japanese.There weren’t that many jobs available at the time. Because of the war, there was one place always hiring—the coffin maker. I started as an apprentice in Yau Ma Tei, learning how to carve a coffin—amongst other duties that were not so pleasant.

I was young and poor so of course I had to do everything. From woodwork on the coffins to carrying the dead to the burial ground, to digging the bones out of the ground. It was a very tough job.

Jobs at a funeral parlor are divided into many parts for different workers. There are workers for the more labor-intensive jobs: moving and dressing corpses, carrying the coffins. It can be quite gruesome, especially for those who didn’t die of natural causes. There are also make-up artists for the dead, Taoist priests for the ceremonies, waiters, drivers, customer service officers, accountants, etc. Some work in groups and some alone, depending on the job.

"You get used to the dead bodies."

There are around 60 people working at this company. But even though there are that many people, it can still be a lonely job. There’s still some stigma to the industry. Some people do try to distance themselves once they figure out where we work. Some won’t even walk past a funeral parlor. But this is all psychological, and society is changing. People are more open to this industry.

Around 46,000 people die per year, and they need to be taken care of. Honestly, it’s more of a psychiatric treatment for the living. The dead are already dead. The funeral is to comfort the living.

There aren’t that many people joining the industry now. Maybe it’s because of the stigma, maybe it’s because of the money—the industry is a bit saturated. There are more than 100 coffin stores in Hong Kong—that’s too many. People who are not familiar with us think it’s a booming industry, but that’s not the case.

You get used to the dead bodies. After all, it’s just a job and everyone’s just trying to make a living. There’s nothing scary about it."

Ming, 60: Refuse transfer point night-shift manager

Ming manages a refuse transfer point in Sai Kung late at night. He’s only been doing the job for about a year, but he says there are benefits.

"I am the station manager here. My duties include keeping the station tidy, making sure cars don’t park here, and ensuring that garbage all goes into the trash compactor. In the morning the truck takes all the trash to a landfill.

As a night shift station manager, I work from 3:30pm to 11:30 pm. I have an hour’s break in between. I buy take-out food most of the time, because sometimes when I eat out, the station is really messy after I get back because people throw their trash anywhere, and it takes a while to clean up.

It is a lonely job. You have to take care of garbage, all alone. Nothing special happens: It’s basically the same every day. I don’t go and look at the garbage. It’s just stuff other people don’t need. Sometimes grannies try to collect cardboard boxes here, but it’s my job not to allow people in.

"It is a lonely job. You have to take care of garbage, all alone."

I have been here for a year. This job might be lonely to young people, but I’m 60 now. Young people always look for excitement in jobs. Old people just see it as a job. I am happy with my job, and I’m happier to see my grandson on my days off."

Chung Wai-hong, 25: Truck driver

Wai-hong is a delivery driver based in Sai Kung. He spends a lot of time waiting for deliveries… but it’s all for a good cause.

“I deliver goods like electronic devices and wines. I help companies to transport goods from one warehouse to another warehouse. I get orders every morning at 7am, and I can clock off as soon as I finish working. Sometimes there are one or two spots, sometimes there are seven or eight.

"I’ll daydream or listen to K-Pop. I don’t know much about politics—I probably think about my wife most of the time."

My company is not big. It only has five trucks and five staff, including the boss. While other companies might have more than one person per truck, we work alone. But that’s OK for me as I'm a quiet person. I don't talk much anyway.

I get a monthly salary, I get extra money when we work overtime, and lunch is included. I’m used to buying lunchboxes and eating in the truck. Sometimes we need to wait up to five hours, queuing up to get into the warehouse. I don’t think the job is boring. l’ll play games on my phone to kill time. Sometimes I’ll daydream or listen to K-Pop. I don’t know much about politics—I probably think about my wife most of the time. Sometimes I talk to my boss on the phone. But there's nothing much we can talk about. We’ve already been friends since secondary school.

I’m still in contact with my friends from school, but we rarely meet. We only have karaoke or dinner once every two months, and most of the time I rush home immediately to take care of my wife. She’s pregnant, and this job can keep us living happily—so I’m satisfied.”

Kan Fu, 51: Postman

Fu has been a postman at the Shau Kei Wan Post Office, covering the route to Taikoo Shing, for the past 31 years. For him, this solitary job is full of human encounters.

“I started working here in 1985. It’s been more than 30 years now. Office hours are from 8am to 4pm everyday, but I get to work at around 7 since there are so many letters. After we sort all the letters at around 10am, we get on the staff bus and then start delivering letters.

Although there are more than a hundred postman in the office, we all deliver mail separately so we’re alone most of the time. There’s a lot of mail every day and the mailbag is heavy. But I don’t feel lonely. There are happy memories within these 30 years.

I have a nickname, 'Uncle Chocolate Postman.' Once I was delivering mail in Taikoo Shing as usual. A little girl looked at me and asked if there was any mail for her. She was upset because she still hadn’t got her birthday present from her parents, who lived overseas. I checked and found that the parcel had been sent back to the Central main office. I ran to the office after work so I could get the parcel for her. She was so happy and ended up sharing her gift with me: They were chocolates. Since then people in that building have called me 'Uncle Chocolate Postman.'

What do I think about when delivering letters? I basically think about nothing except for the mail. They might just be letters to you, but they’re so meaningful to others. I can’t make mistakes."