Spirit of Hong Kong

Autistic Hongkonger overcomes adversity to thrive in food processing social enterprise

Lee Kwong-tak overcame an inability to communicate and temper tantrums; he has now been nominated for a Spirit of Hong Kong award

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 4:52pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 5:52pm

Lee Kwong-tak starts work at 4am, six days a week. “I like it,” he says, “It’s so quiet at that time. I feel comforted by the tranquility.”

The 32-year-old, who is autistic and mildly intellectually disabled, says he enjoys the bus rides every morning from his Ap Lei Chau home to a market in Kwai Fong, where he is a production instructor at a vegetable and fruit processing social enterprise. There, he oversees the logistical operations and makes sure the produce is handled properly.

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It took Lee a decade to work his way up to this position. He started off as part of the processing team, learning to peel and cut fruit and vegetables. “Different clients have different requests for different vegetables,” Lee explains. “I learned to cut them in chunks, cubes, slices, The hardest was to cut things in thin strips. Took me ages.”

Lee speaks confidently, and though no eye contact is made, he comes across as friendly and engaging.

John Wong Gee-chung, Lee’s boss, notes this is in stark contrast from before.

“The job was really tough for him at first. His autism meant he had problems communicating, so when he couldn’t get the tasks right, he never asked anyone. Then he would get so upset with himself for making repeated mistakes.”

Lee also had a rage issue. Wong recalls regular frightful tantrums in the early days.

However, Wong, whose enterprise hires mostly intellectually disabled staff, admires how Lee avoided affecting others when he did throw a fit. “He would just walk to one side of the room, and stomp and kick around in fury by himself until he felt better. He didn’t know how to communicate with the others, but he was considerate to them.”

Over time, Lee would try again and fail again until he learned to control his emotions, learned to work with others and eventually learned how to manage people.

He saw a doctor about his rage and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He now takes medicine for it and reminds himself to relax any time he feels stressed or upset.

Lee says he enjoys hearing nice feedback from happy customers. He also loves thinking about the people who are able to eat food happily because he helped to process it for them.

When he took up the job, Lee’s father had suffered a stroke and he had a younger brother at school, so he needed to help pay the family bills. He bore the responsibility with resolve. Keeping up this early work schedule since 2004, Lee has even helped his family pay off their mortgage.

The Tung Wah Group Enterprise Vegetable and Fruit Processing and Supply Service has nominated Lee for an Overcoming Personal Challenge Award in the Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, which is run by the South China Morning Post.

Wong is thrilled to see Lee’s hard work pay off over the years.

The team gathers for a retreat every year, and initially Lee couldn’t deal with being around everyone. Wong says: “We’d be all around the table discussing something and he would just get up and go for a walk.”

But in the past few years, Lee has stayed at the table with everyone else right until the end. “I don’t know if he actually enjoys it, but it’s clearly a huge step for him at least to be willing and able to sit with us now.”