DR Sophie Ma Bik-yung has lived with some of Hong Kong's poorest for 28 years. A wheelchair-bound academic, she is a resident of Tung Tau Estate's infamous Block 23, which many say should have been demolished long ago. Built in the 1960s, it was already in poor shape by the 80s, with residents complaining constantly of leaking ceilings and the unreliable supply of electricity. Despite the recurring problems - as well as the inconvenience of elevators that did not service every floor - the Government simply resorted to short-term solutions. Many of Dr Ma's neighbours are former residents of Kowloon Walled City, which was torn down in 1991. At the time, those who could afford it moved to more salubrious districts while the poorest simply shifted to the building next door. Interacting with her neighbours on a daily basis, Dr Ma used her first-hand experience of how Hong Kong's underprivileged live for her doctoral thesis on poverty. She conducted her study by examining the plight of individuals. 'I took on the role as an ethnographer,' Dr Ma said. 'I had casual conversations with the residents and observed their daily life in detail to take into account cultural and psychological factors.' There are many factors contributing to poverty, among them shame and ignorance. Dr Ma studied how the elderly, the disabled and those in single-parent families were affected. One of her subjects was Ah Six (she was the sixth-born child in her family), 80, who was recently killed in a hit-and-run road accident. Born in Guangdong province, she was sold to her husband's family as a child bride at 10. In 1945, she fled to Hong Kong to escape from her husband, who gambled and beat her. The wages she earned as a servant allowed her to send some money to her son, whom she visited occasionally, despite his refusal to acknowledge her. They last saw each other in 1994. Ah Six had no friends in Hong Kong. She stopped working at 55 because of a bad back but she did not know how to apply for comprehensive social security allowance (CSSA). It was not until she turned 60 that a social worker helped her to apply for government assistance. When she died, her CSSA was around $2,000 a month. Before settling in Block 23 in 1991 (despite applying for a flat serviced by a lift in Block 23, her request was rejected), the Housing Department had twice allocated her to a different flat in a Lok Fu public-housing estate. 'Ah Six's case shows how little the Government understands about the elderly,' said Dr Ma. For a start, the woman was not even aware she qualified for CSSA when she could no longer work. 'Lack of knowledge [of government resources] is a serious problem among the poor,' said Dr Ma. And when she was in the final years of her life, the Housing Department moved her three times. 'She rarely left her home and had no relatives. I asked her why she didn't go out and she said she could not afford to travel,' said Dr Ma. 'If the Government claims CSSA provides a basic standard of living for the poor, then why was it Ah Six could not even pay for transport?' Dr Ma also looked at the lives of three sisters, one of them mentally handicapped, another physically disabled. Lily, 49, had lived behind a closet for 28 years and shunned outside attention. Ah Wai, 46, contracted polio at age two. Mary, 40, is a senior secretary. They have one brother and three other sisters, who moved away from home when they married. When their father died in 1990, their mother moved away with their brother. She left her three daughters in Block 23. Ah Wai, on crutches, took care of Lily using the $1,000 she earned by working at a workshop for the mentally or physically disabled. And every month, Mary contributed $1,700 of her salary to support the family. 'When Ah Wai lost her job, she could not support Lily and asked me to help them to apply for CSSA,' said Dr Ma. 'But Mary was very much against accepting government assistance because it was too humiliating.' Then Ah Wai invited Dr Ma to her home in 1994. They lived on the ninth floor which had no lift. 'When I saw Lily, I was shocked,' Dr Ma said. 'She was fat. Her hair was long and oily, her nose swollen and I couldn't see her eyes.' When Lily was 18, she underwent plastic surgery to give her a slimmer nose. But the operation failed, making her look even worse. She then had a mental breakdown. She would not talk to her sisters after that. Only when they left the flat after dinner would she come out to eat. Sometimes, she would scream in the middle of the night. 'In 1995, I got together with all the sisters and warned them if Lily died in the flat, they would be held legally responsible,' Dr Ma said. 'They got worried and took action.' Until then, Lily had not received any medical treatment because she did not have an ID card. 'To get Lily an ID card, we had to have her picture taken but she wouldn't allow us to do so because she was too sensitive about her nose,' said Dr Ma. A community psychiatric nurse took her team to Lily's home to photograph her, but Lily resisted. It was only when they took her to hospital that her picture was successfully taken. 'I've just visited Lily in the hospital and she has completely changed,' Dr Ma said. 'She is slim, her hair short, her nose is no longer swollen. She was willing to talk to other people and even asked me for my telephone number and address. She told me she wanted to be a dishwasher, showing that she has motivation, which is a great improvement.' In her thesis, Dr Ma wanted to portray the lives of ordinary people and to tell their stories as fully as possible. 'Statistics can't tell long stories. They don't explain the underlying causes and elements of poverty. They only reveal superficial details such as the number of the poor.' Dr Ma's research was helped by her neighbours' trust in her. 'From my long-term relationship with my neighbours, I believe the Government and the public have a very narrow understanding of the meaning of poverty and what constitutes poverty,' Dr Ma said, pointing out that most studies on poverty are quantitative in nature. The Government should set up a research unit to explore the social world of the poor, she added, because 'we know very little of their living standards and how they are ostracised by society'. She believes a long-term strategy aimed at understanding the poor is necessary to shape an effective anti-poverty policy for Hong Kong, one of the richest places in the world.