Hong Kong’s ‘Spice Girls and Guys’: elderly volunteers who serve with a passion
- It would be incredibly short-sighted of Hong Kong not to utilise the neglected talent of the elderly
- Older citizens have a great deal to offer, if we can only commit to providing suitable opportunities
Since coming to Hong Kong as a student in 2015, I have found much to admire about “Asia’s world city”: the efficiency, the seamless blend of different cultures and ideas, and the core belief that, through hard work and self-sufficiency, anyone can achieve a better life.
Yet, over time you also notice many dark sides to life here: the standard 60-hour work week from graduation to retirement seems to be the only conceivable option for employment for many, and one in three elderly people live in poverty. Through my own experience at Soap Cycling, I can confidently say Hong Kong’s elderly are capable, hardworking, and passionate individuals who have much to offer society.
Our organisation recruits over 3,000 volunteers a year in Hong Kong to help with our missions of reprocessing lightly used hospitality amenities, and distributing them to those in need both here and in developing countries throughout Asia. While volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation, the downside is that they lack long-term commitment.
Late last year, we took a gamble and started a new initiative to tap the neglected talent and energy of members of Hong Kong’s greatest generation in our neighbourhood, Kwai Hing. Our MEY (美) Program offers work opportunities at our warehouse to three groups who often suffer discrimination, isolation and lack of suitable work opportunities: Minority, Elderly, Youth. The Chinese character 美 represents the goal of this programme, which is to make Hong Kong a more beautiful place to live.
As a foreigner living and working in Hong Kong for the past three years, I am often struck by the poverty of the elderly I encounter in my daily routine. But, beyond that, I have learned while working alongside these amazing people that they have a great deal to offer, if we can only commit to providing suitable opportunities.
One of these amazing people is Mr Leung, sprightly at 78, who doesn’t let me help him lift and tote objects to and fro at the warehouse, telling me 大雞唔食細米 (dai gai m'sik sai mai: big chickens don’t forage for small grain). Mr Leung, his wife, and four of their friends have been coming to the Soap Cycling warehouse in Kwai Hing once or twice a week for the past six months. We compensate them for their time with money and post-session meals at a local cha chaan teng. They were recruited from elderly centres in Kwai Chung by our student interns from the University of Hong Kong, who founded our organisation over six years ago to give back to their city while also gaining valuable experience in running a live charity.
Remembering Kowloon Walled City
Mr Leung served as a police officer and fire truck driver in his younger years. Over a post-session lunch, he regales us with tales of chasing criminals through the infamous Kowloon Walled City or daring acts of rescue after the landslides that were once common in hillside areas crowded with squatter settlements. How much of his yarns are true and how much have been embellished over time, I’ll leave for another day. What I have definitely found to be true is that Mr Leung and his grey-haired coworkers from Light & Love Kwai Fong Neighbourhood Elderly Centre are a very capable, hardworking manpower boost for Soap Cycling.
As our city faces the challenge of accommodating a more diverse workforce with myriad needs in a changing world, it would be incredibly short-sighted not to utilise the neglected talent of the elderly. As the Cantonese saying goes, 薑愈老愈辣 (geung yuet lou yuet lat : the older the ginger, the spicier).
Patrick Davis, general manager, Soap Cycling