Come rain or shine, hardy breeds of scavenger-labourers can be found scouring the rubbish bound for the 'smoky mountain' landfill of Tseung Kwan O, looking for anything that may bring a buck. Whatever their motives, they consider themselves green crusaders neglected by an ungrateful government. Every 17 seconds from 8am to 11pm, seven days a week, 365 days a year, a truck passes over the weighbridges at the end of the snaking Wan Po Road. Journey's end for this relentless flow is a huge, stinking hole wedged between a string of man-made hills and the reclaimed land housing the gleaming industrial estates of Tseung Kwan O. It is the Southeast New Territories landfill (called SENT), the biggest of Hong Kong's three landfills. Every day, 8,000 tonnes of waste - household rubbish, commercial and industrial detritus and construction rubble - is dumped here, squashed, and buried by yet more garbage. From a distance, the scene looks like a surrealist ballet: a chain of lorries tips its grubby contents into the hole, then in sweeps a fleet of monstrous trucks with two-metre, steel-spiked wheels which crush and push the rubbish to make way for more on top. Depending on the wind, the stench can drift for miles. It smells worst in the morning, when human waste is added to the already potent mixture. If there's anything of value buried in the rotten, relentless loads, the truck driver will first pull up in a truck park that sits before the landfill, a couple of kilometres down Wan Po Road. Behind this oil-stained car park is a collection of butchered shipping containers surrounded by what at first sight seems to be piles of junk. In fact, it's a small village, and the working home of a gaggle of about 60 men who make their living by sifting through this mountain of junk before it is thrown into the pit, pulling out anything that might turn a dollar. Be it copper stripped from inside clapped-out vending machines, aluminium from window frames, steel pipes, old fridges, air conditioners or computers that might have something inside that's salvageable, a truck's contents will be spilled out, and labourers from one of 11 companies will begin rummaging. The men working here call the junk they collect and sell 'curry'. Why? It's what it has always been called, they say. One suggests it is because the stuff they take off the trucks is such a mixture. Another says it originates from when they used to call the cash they gave the drivers 'tea money'. As trade picked up it became enough money for a curry. Some have elaborate, sexually crude and implausible explanations. The work is hard, and of course dirty. Labourers earn an average of $400 for a 12-hour day. They toil outside, dripping in the sun or teeming rain, pulling apart, sorting, breaking and stacking, as their bosses sit, dripping in their thick, gaudy gold chains, in the converted containers drinking tea, playing cards and complaining about the state of business. All come across as chancers but all are proud of what they do. They are the true recyclers in Hong Kong, they claim. They do most to save the environment and, they say, if they didn't do their job the landfill would get bigger and bigger. But now, they say, there is no market for their recycled pearls and if things continue like this they will have to shut up shop. Traditionally, most of the 'curry' is metal, smelted down nearby and shunted over the border to help fuel the Guangdong boom. The SENT landfill has been open since 1994; before that, there were other, smaller landfills in the area. The best times were in the Hong Kong construction boom of the mid-90s. Then the junk the companies recovered had been thrown out in haste and there were fortunes to be made. Not now: the recession has hit the curry men, and if they do shut up shop it will be more than just a shame. Their containers are a recycled example to all of us living in our throw-away society. Everything they use - chairs, tables, fridges, air cons - has been recycled. It may be free, but it's stuff that otherwise would be rubbish buried deep inside the stinking hillside. But they say that today, thanks to a richer, more open mainland, they are barely breaking even. Ironically, these recyclers used to be merely squatters. In the last two decades they have pitched up where they could get away with it. In 1996, a government slowly turning green recognised the good they were doing and offered them cheap land on which to operate, and short-term leases. They became legitimate. Was it just before they become extinct? Ting Yao-chung, truck driver I pull in here nearly everyday but it hardly makes me a fortune - about $1,000 a month from selling curry. These days, it's often less. I work with an old friend, Ah Sum. We've been in partnership for five years and own four trucks. Mostly we clear construction sites - sand and cement - and take it up to the landfill. It's competitive: we've got to drive a long way to find jobs, we use cheap diesel and have to hustle to get work. Business isn't good. Most days I work from eight in the morning to six at night, but I'm on call 24 hours a day. If there is a landslide at 2am we might get a call to clear it. In the night or in an emergency, we can charge up to $800. It's not a lot of money. People buy whatever will make them money - mainly copper, steel, aluminium and iron. At the moment, I can get $200 for every tonne of steel. If I can, I put the stuff that will make me money to one side when I'm at the building site, but that's usually impossible because we're in a hurry. Most of the time it all gets mixed up in the truck, so when I get here I empty the whole lot and wait until the labourers pull whatever it is out of the pile. Then I load the truck again with the rest and take it up the road to the tip; the process may add an hour or more to my day. It's not only that the demand for the material has dropped - it's a lot more difficult to get hold of good stuff in the first place. If you get work for fancy interior refurbishment firms, you get better rubbish: lamps, couches and all sorts of electrical appliances. But the work just isn't there; 1997 was the time for us. Property speculation was so hot then, and there was so much construction work people were throwing out all sorts of stuff. I made good money ... now I'm lucky if I take home $20,000 a month. In the old days, I wouldn't have been able to sit around talking like this. This thing [he points to his mobile phone] would have been ringing constantly. I'd have been long gone. Chung Hung-fat, boss I've got this plan - well, it's like a dream - to set up a series of rubbish reclamation yards across Hong Kong and Kowloon. They would be the last stop for truck drivers, who then wouldn't have to drive all the way to the landfills. They would simply dump all their rubbish with us and we would handle the rest - and have more time to pick off the curry. By doing that we would also ease the pressure on all the landfills. One day this landfill is going to get so full it will explode. More and more goes on there, and we get to take less and less. The Government always talks about environmental protection but they as good as ignore us. Instead they waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on things like that plastic bottle campaign, which was nothing more than a gimmick. Why don't they sponsor us instead? I used to make a lot of money from wood by sending planks to the mainland. Not now. As mainlanders get richer the less interested they become in recycled stuff. A lorry load of wood used to get me something like $5,000. Now I get about $2,000. What's the point? And if I don't collect it? It gets buried. Steel as well. I used to get $55 for 100 catties [60 kilograms] of steel. Now I get $21. It's crazy. As a kid I collected old plastic slippers, Coke cans and planks from the street and sold them for change to buy snacks and drinks. Now it's my living and I like it. I've been running this business for 13 years, but for the last few I've been running it at a loss. I used to employ 40 people, now it's a handful. But I don't know what else I'd do, and I'm proud of what we do here. We are the real protectors of the environment. The Government, if it means what it says, should help us more. It's simple. Chung Hung-fai (Chung Hung-fat's partner and brother) I got into this 13 years ago to help my brother. Before that I was a waiter. Of course, it's much harder work - the first week I almost collapsed. I could hardly walk when I got up in the mornings, and I had cuts and scratches all over my body. I definitely don't want my sons to do this - I hope they get more stable work. I do whatever needs doing, and the scope is very broad, from taking rubbish from the trucks, to pulling stuff apart, to fixing tyres and reselling them. We also send tyres to China, where they may become shoe soles if they are not reused. The Government gives us cheap rents - $1,200 for 450 square feet - but if they supported us more we could expand. I have never thought of finding another job. I like it here. My attitude is to live for today, because nobody knows about the future. I earn only about $10,000 a month but I'm working, right? I'm earning. I might drop dead tomorrow. There's no point in planning life too much, right? Au Tak-chiu ('Uncle Tsuen)' We were the first recyclers here, 20 years ago. When I first came, that hill behind us was sea. Now it's a pile of rubbish. When I opened my first yard we were squatters, and were until the Government gave us a licence in 1996. When I started I had four people working for me, now it's about 14. There are never fights among companies. Each sets its price and the truck drivers sell to the highest bidders. When we arrived on this site some triads came and asked for protection money. Not much, a few hundred dollars a month, and sometimes we paid them. So then they asked for more. We said no and they tried to scare us, they tried to smash up the place but we laughed. It's a rubbish dump. How can you make it worse? We collect anything drivers bring: wood, electrical appliances, iron, copper, steel. But business has dwindled; a few years ago I could earn up to $50,000 a month, now it's about $20,000, but I don't really care so much. I'm old and a lot more relaxed. I've got helpers and I don't have to take care of everything. Most afternoons I sit in my lock-up playing cards with friends. Chong Kwong-yau (boss) People round here say I'm rich but that's not true. I started doing this work 10 years ago, making $10,000 a month. Now I make $30,000. I saved money over the years, bought a flat nearby and now own three trucks. Nothing special - I make enough money to feed my family. I'm from Chiu Chow and always employ my own kind. I prefer part-timers to full-timers - they save me money. I concentrate on copper, but take other stuff too. I can buy it for $7 a catty and sell it for $9. In an average month I sell 3,000 to 4,000 catties. I take computers too, but now they go for as little as $8 each. We send them to the mainland where they are ripped apart. I sell other electrical stuff - fridges, TVs, fans - for $80 a catty. Yeah, times are tough but I'll survive. Cheung Sum-ming, worker Uncle Tsuen is an old friend, and I've worked on and off for him for years. I can weld, drive, do whatever he needs. He pays me $500 a day - that's for working from eight in the morning until seven at night. It's not much compared to the effort I put in but it's money. It's tough, but that's life. It's the same for all of us here - we need to eat, we don't have a very high level of education, so what options do we have ...? My future? I haven't thought about it much. I can do anything. If the landfill closed tomorrow I'd just go on to another job. Retire? No way. Not for 10 years. I'm still strong. I'm still full of energy! Kwong Shan, worker I was born in Guangzhou, but because my family had been in Hong Kong for years I managed to get an ID card. Until a few years ago I was working in a factory up there, sticking soles on shoes all day. I got less than $100 a day and it was very boring. This is different. It's kind of fun. I pull stuff apart - window frames, air cons - and another guy takes out what can be sold. It's good exercise. I won't stay in Hong Kong forever though - I'll go home one day. I want to get married but not to a Hong Kong girl. They are way too arrogant. Wong Fuk, worker I'm a welder by trade, but I can't find work so I've been here full-time for eight months. I used to come here to help the boss out - he's an old friend. I spend my days breaking up the rubbish - we pull out the good stuff and load the rest back onto the truck. It's mainly wood, copper and aluminium. It's a hard job. We stand here all day, in the sun or the pouring rain, work hard for 12 hours a day and still only get $400. But that's life, isn't it? We still manage to smile.