Angel of Temple Street
At 13, Elsa Tse had her first taste of heroin. By 16 she was homeless and living under a flyover. Now, she tries to show addicts life can change
Elsa Tse Ngar-yee was a teenage heroin addict and dealer on Yau Ma Tei's Temple Street.
Now, a couple of decades later, she is back. Only, this time it is to try to rescue the girls who have taken her place.
The 39-year-old mother of two left behind a life of heroin, marijuana and cough syrup abuse, and now has a full-time job as a florist - and a vocation to show others that it is possible to leave the world of addiction behind.
Eight years ago she joined a group of about a dozen former drug addicts at Fuk Lam Church on Temple Street, and through the church she works for the Barnabas Charitable Service Association, a Christian charity founded in 1981 to help female drug abusers.
She joined a church fellowship group called Lazarus, named after the man that Jesus is said to have raised from the dead. The mission that underpins the fellowship is to "resurrect" drug addicts.
"It's heartbreaking to see some drug addicts as young as nine years old, and many are aged 12 or 13," said Tse, who began using drugs at the age of 13.
It was another eight years before she managed to stop.
"I believe life changes life. I want to show them through what I have gone through, and show that there is still hope and value in life, no matter how shattered their lives are."
Tse, the oldest of four children, has her own heartbreaking story to tell.
She says her mother seemed to blame her for the early death of her father, and she fell victim to sex abusers. She dropped out of school at the age of 13.
"A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to try a cigarette that would help me forget everything that made me unhappy," Tse said. "So I did, and the feeling was great."
She didn't know it at the time, but it was her first taste of heroin. That moment's escape from reality quickly spiralled into an addiction and she became a heroin dealer on Temple Street.
She spent everything she earned on heroin.
By the age of 16, she was homeless and living under a flyover in Yau Ma Tei.
"All I possessed at that time was a mattress," she said. "I was totally helpless and hopeless. All my friends deserted me. I was like a beggar."
Finally she rang her mother - the first time she had contacted her in years. The call led to her returning home.
There, Tse tried repeatedly to beat her addiction, and repeatedly failed.
"I stole my mother's money and spent it on heroin," she said. "My mother locked me up in the apartment, then I called for delivery [of the drug]."
Tse was losing hope, but her mother refused to give up on her. She made a deal with her mother: one last hit then she would go to the Barnabas Charitable Service Association's rehabilitation centre on Lamma Island, a voluntary addiction centre.
"I demanded to take the last dose of heroin at the doorstep of the rehabilitation centre before going through the treatment, and my mother let me," she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"She told me that if I was found out by the police, I should say the drug belonged to her. I never realised my mother loved me so much until then."
In her six months at the rehabilitation centre, Tse conquered her addiction by clinging to religion. She spent another nine months in a halfway house, preparing to re-enter society.
Over the next 10 years, Tse became a wife and a stepmother and appeared to be living a normal life.
But the legacy of her drug addiction together with a loss of direction in life left her with depression. One morning in 2005, she began unscrewing a window in her tower block flat so she could jump out.
"I was yelling at the sky, asking why Jesus gave me a rough life, and I no longer wanted to live," she said. "At that very moment, I felt Jesus' arms embrace me and I heard three times, 'Ngar-yee, you have a way-out'."
A few hours later, she received a phone call from a friend who invited her to join Fuk Lam Church and the Lazarus Fellowship.
"I came across a group of former drug addicts at church who have walked with me in restoring and rebuilding myself for the past eight years," said Tse, who now has a five-year-old daughter as well as her 14-year-old stepson.
"I am blessed, and want to walk with those who are struggling to return to society."
The Lazarus Fellowship aims to help recovering addicts reconcile with their families, rebuild their self-image, look for meaning in life and foster Christianity. "We want to encourage them," Tse said. "If we can make it, they can make it, too. I have even told my children that I made mistakes in the past, and they accept it."
Ultimately, she is one of the lucky ones. "Some four in 10 people out of rehab whom we serve fall back into their bad habits," Tse said. "Some of them even pass away suddenly after taking drugs again or overdosing."