A 5kg bag of rice, the kind charity groups have been handing out free to old folks, costs about $40. Used sparingly, it could last a month or two. Collect about six bags from the various handouts by charities during the Hungry Ghost Festival, and there will be enough free rice to feed an elderly person for many months.
I am not sure how many free bags 82-year-old Cheung Yee had already collected when she travelled from her home in Lam Tin two weeks ago to Tsim Sha Tsui, where more rice was being distributed. But that detail is no longer important, for Cheung is now dead, her life snatched from her on a park bench, near where she collapsed when her frail body could no longer take the stress of a free rice queue.
Her death has caused much bickering about why it happened, who is to blame, and if there is a more civilised way to hand out rice. But no one is asking the one question that, if answered satisfactorily, could at least add a meaningful chapter to this sad story: why so many old people stand in line, often overnight, in the heat and rain just to get free rice worth $40, and why the lines become stampedes.
It could be need, or it could be greed, likely a combination of both. But remove the greedy ones and the lines of the needy will still stretch long. I've taken to wondering lately if our financial secretary ever thinks about old people stampeding for rice when he appears before the television cameras, as he frequently does in his designer suits, to boast about Hong Kong's rebounding economy.
Is our chief executive, with his collection of $1,000 bowties, capable of understanding what $40 means to a needy old woman? When you see a really old woman, hunched with age, but still having to struggle for a living by scavenging cardboard boxes or beer cans, do you stop and ask yourself why she is not instead at home playing with her grandchildren in this supposedly first world city characterised by sleek skyscrapers and name-brand boutiques? I saw just such a person the other day, a bare-chested old man with gnarled hands and a wrinkled face. Bent with age and bathed in sweat, he pushed his load up D'Aguilar Street in Lan Kwai Fong where a single drink can cost you upwards of $60. His could easily have been one of those anxious faces in the distressing television images of stampeding rice lines we have been seeing lately on the evening news.
What was going through his mind as he laboured uphill past the chattering Lan Kwai Fong bar patrons happily sipping their $60 drinks, the equivalent of nearly two bags of rice?
Cheung's unfortunate fate has not shaken the faith of the charity-givers who say the Hungry Ghost Festival rice brings good fortune to the recipients, and that long lines lend a carnival atmosphere which would be lost if the rice was simply delivered to old folks. Maybe so, but aren't you supposed to have fun at festivals, not fight, faint and die?
In time, the public's memory of how Cheung died will fade. So will the images of old folks being knocked over and trampled. But make no mistake about it, these images are the shame of Hong Kong, in the same way the horrific images of starving survivors, looting and bloated bodies floating in flooded streets after Hurricane Katrina have shamed America.
Michael Chugani is editor-in-chief of ATV English news and current affairs