Until recently, a group of local students turned a blind eye to scavengers rummaging through litter bins for recyclables. Then earlier this month they lived the life of underdogs for a day and came to understand the hardships scavengers face.
'Some people work in the office, some wait tables, some gather waste,' says Cherry Cheung Choi-sinn, 15. 'People make a living through different means. Why should people look at scavengers with prejudice?'
A total of 17 students from United Christian College (Kowloon East) joined a four-part experience programme organised by non-profit group, Mission to New Arrivals.
Their day-long assignment on April 21 required them to travel from Choi Hung to Tsim Sha Tsui for a job interview.
Starting off penniless, the students had to collect and sell scrap cardboard and waste cans as they walked from Choi Hung to Mong Kok through Kowloon City. With gloved hands, they scoured bins and asked supermarkets, pharmacies and wet markets for recyclable items.
After two hours, Cherry's five-member group had gathered a big bag, a bundle of scrap paper and two old shoes. Yet all their efforts translated to just HK$19. or less than HK$4 per person. The organiser had to give them an extra HK$40 so they could buy lunch and take the train to their finishing point.
Their meagre earnings astonished Cherry.
'I wonder how much and how long the elderly have to scavenge to keep themselves afloat financially,' Cherry says. 'I am impressed by their willpower and perseverance, yet upset by their hardships.'
The students then spent half an hour living like homeless people, lying on old newspapers on a bridge in Mong Kok. Cherry said at first she was so ashamed by the curious looks of passersby that she covered her face.
Several people looked at her and made nasty comments, she says.
'I remember one father told his child not to follow in our footsteps because we have no future,' Cherry says. 'I dislike such remarks as the homeless sleep under bridges simply because they have no home.'
Schoolmate Obed Cheung King-him, 16, said he tried to relax on the pavement to see what it was like. 'Sleep should be relaxing,' Obed says. 'But the homeless do not have that benefit because they sleep on the street.'
To better understand poor people's difficulties, the two students approached a middle-aged man who was passing time in a spectator area of a football stadium.
The man said he was divorced and lived on his savings and money earned from odd jobs.
He said he would not apply for subsidies from the government because he wanted to support himself without depending on other people.
'Low-income people have dignity. They are strong,' Cherry says.
She also noted that government handouts are not a solution to the problems of the poor, because they are not helpful in the long term. 'It seems to me that the needy like that man are not in despair,' Cherry says. 'They seem to have accepted the situation.'
The two students said the project helped them relate better to the poor and understand their plight. They also shared their experiences with other students.
Interested schools can find out more about the programme at www.newarrivals.org.hk