Spirit of Hong Kong

Giving the helpless a glimmer of hope

Social worker gave up a cushy job offer to devote his life to the goal of setting the downtrodden free from the bars of poverty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:19pm

After 22 years of 12-hour days, social worker Ng Wai-tung is as fired up as ever about helping the city's most disadvantaged people - and pushing for policy change so that the plight of the poor is not ignored.

"Each society needs some crazy people for it to improve," said Ng of his choice to forgo a comfortable life in the banking sector in favour of rights advocacy and social work.

For his work, he received the Outstanding Social Worker Award this year, an annual award given jointly by the Council of Social Service, Social Workers Association and International Federation of Social Workers.

Ng's passion to help the needy started at an early age. As a child, he spent his weekends helping out in trade unions where his parents were volunteers. Being exposed to the plight of the oppressed had an impact on him.

In 1989, during his third year of studying economics at Chinese University, Ng was shaken by the Tiananmen crackdown. For the first time, he realised advocacy could be a full-time job.

When he graduated, he was offered two jobs - one at a bank and the other from the Society for Community Organisation. He accepted the latter.

Ng worked with the elderly in his first nine years on the job. Then he took up work with street sleepers, former prisoners and low-income families. The early years were tough because he saw no change in the situation of those he worked with, despite all that he did.

"I held press conferences, led protests, sent letters [to the government and lawmakers] - and still nothing changed," he said.

But encouragement from the people Ng helped kept him going. "The support I got from the elderly in my earlier years kept me going. They would always ask if I'd eaten, and many would tell me to slow down and take a break," he said.

Helping the street sleepers encouraged Ng, too.

"Most of them have been through a life of hardship and sadness," he said. "If you talk to any one of them … you'll find out that most came from broken families by the age of six - either their parents separated, didn't want them, or just disappeared.

"Then they'd live with their grandparents - this is true for 90 per cent of the street sleepers."

Ng said these people would grow up on the streets and fall into the wrong crowd. They would learn to brag and lie, which were essential skills for survival on the streets, he said.

"Most have low EQ and don't know how to control their tempers," he said. "So when we interact with them, they very quickly curse at us and all our family members."

And the inability to control their emotions would greatly affect their likelihood of keeping a regular job, he added.

In 2005, in a bid to bring change into these street sleepers' lives, Ng organised a Hong Kong team for the Homeless World Cup - an international football tournament for homeless people. The game is held in a different country each year.

His first four-person team was plucked off the streets, with another four players as backup. With just enough money to hire an umpire and rent a field for four matches, he had to "bribe" the street sleepers to return with promises of free cup noodles and juice. When the team lost in their first match, they heaped obscenities on Ng, and told him to "pick a team our age and size next time".

But Ng took it positively. "That gave me hope," he said. "Street sleepers never think of the future - there's never a 'next time'. So their reaction told me there was a change - they wanted to play again, and they hoped to win."

The street sleepers also learned to honour the rules of the game - even if grudgingly - and would not fight in front of Ng or smoke on the field.

Ng was encouraged, as having confidence, discipline and hope were the crucial first steps for transiting out of homelessness, he said.

I feel like … the government seldom listens to the underprivileged and their desperation

Today, the process of picking the players to represent Hong Kong has become a tournament. Now, multiple teams from different NGO-galvanised groups play for the eight spots on the team.

There will be fundraising matches at the end of June, where teams can donate HK$15,000 and play a friendly match against the street sleepers' team. They are aiming to raise HK$300,000 for the team to go to Poland for the world cup this year.

"It's a privilege to … serve these people," said Ng. "Sometimes I do feel very helpless. But when I see the trust and the faith [that the elderly, the street sleepers and the underprivileged] have in us, it keeps us going."

But Ng is less heartened by the policymakers. He said the government was too slow to bring in policies to alleviate poverty and reform the welfare system.

Even though the poverty line was supposed to be drawn this year, it might be another long wait for policies to be pushed out and implemented. "I feel like … the government seldom listens to the underprivileged and their desperation," said Ng.

He admits that his hours and the consuming nature of his job often eats into time with his wife and children. "Even when I'm on holiday … if I see some shop hiring, I immediately think of someone who could take it and write down the phone number or go in to enquire. I may be off work, but my brain doesn't stop," he said.

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