Cardboard dreams: a day with an elderly Hong Kong woman who must scavenge to survive
A vulnerable sector of senior citizens who must collect rubbish to support themselves exposes gaps in the city's pension and poverty policies
Dawn has yet to break as 79-year-old Dai Mui begins her daily routine: collecting cardboard boxes from a 24-hour convenience store near her home.
At 5am, Dai has already filled her metal pushcart with boxes, cans, plastic bottles, and satchels of expired bread.
“The shopkeepers are very kind. They give me food that expired the day before, which cannot be sold anymore,” Dai smiles as she pushes her little four-wheeler up a short slope in Ho Man Tin.
“They tell me not to give the food to others but I always secretly give some away to other old people who live alone like me. I get things due to luck so why not share it with others? I feel happy when I share.”
A streetlamp shines on the drops of sweat on Dai’s wrinkled face, accentuating the lines that mark the passing of almost eight decades.
She unloads her cardboard boxes at a street corner; they will be collected by a recycling truck every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Dai earns 70 cents for every 1kg of waste she collects.
“I work every morning, every day of the week. I can earn HK$40 to HK$60 a day and I save it up to pay for my rent,” she says as she walks around in search of more cardboard.
In a report published by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) in 2006, 70 per cent of elderly interviewed collect waste due to economic reasons. The most common waste collected is cardboard (80.2 per cent), followed by old newspapers (38.5 per cent) and aluminium cans (35.4 per cent).
Dr Vivian Lou Wei-qun, the academic behind the HKCSS report, tells the South China Morning Post that there is so far no estimated number of elderly who collect waste as a living.
“We see them in the streets everyday but there is no specific organisation that cares about these old people,” says Lou.
“They are a group forgotten by society.”
Lou’s 2006 research is the only study done on the subject.
The phenomenon of elderly waste collectors is a reflection of Hong Kong’s inadequate pension policy. That is also part of the wider economic and social ills which have caused protesters to join the “Umbrella Movement”, demanding for universal suffrage and a fairer society.
As the sky turns into a sleepy shade of blue, Dai glances at her watch and hurries to a nearby bus stop. For a woman pushing 80, she walks fast.
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Dai is on her way to her next checkpoint: the Hung Hom cross-harbour bus station where she collects newspapers from commuters.
In Hung Hom, Dai quickly checks each rubbish bin for newspapers. She then hovers to and fro between bus stops where passengers have just gotten off double-deckers.
“Thank you, sir! Thank you, miss!” she calls out as people hand her newspapers and magazines. A few also give her clean plastic bottles and cans for recycling.
As the clock ticks 9.30am, Dai sits on the roadside and bundles up the fruits of her labour with pieces of white nylon string.
“Of course I’m happy – everyone treats me really well,” she says. “They bring me old newspapers and magazines from home, sometimes people also bring me biscuits and fruit.”
Although she is fully eligible for the government’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme, Dai refuses to apply for the money. “I don’t want to ask for anything from the government, I want to support myself as long as I’m still able to.”
Dai Mui is not the only senior citizen in Hong Kong who works hard to keep herself fed and sheltered.
According to Connie Ng Man-yin, senior service manager of the charity St James’ Settlement, elderly poverty is becoming increasingly serious as the city’s population ages. Along with other services, the charity offers free food to people living in poverty.
“There’s no social security for low-income old people and many of them refuse to be financially dependent on the government,” says Ng.
“Many seniors who come to our Sham Shui Po centre for lunch arrive with their pushcarts which they use to collect cardboard afterwards. Their sons and daughters are also struggling on low incomes and are unable to support them.”
“The largest expenses for old people are rent and medicine. I know an old lady reaching 90 [years old] who didn’t have the money to replace her glasses and had to collect cardboard with horribly blurred vision,” says Ng.
Dai, who lives by herself in a small public housing flat, pays more than HK$2,000 in rent each month. She also complains about having to pay HK$60 each time she visits the doctor for the pain in her feet.
Mariana Chan Wai-yung, chief officer of policy research and advocacy at HKCSS, urges the government to set up an all-ages income protection scheme.
“We always say it is our social responsibility to ensure that the elderly are respected for their life-long contributions, so why is this happening in Hong Kong?” she says.
In August this year, Professor Chow Wing-sun released his government commissioned study, recommending a pension of HK$3000 a month for all Hongkongers aged over 65. His proposal has led to much debate as to where the funds would come from. Many also wonder at how determined the government actually is to push the issue further.
“Professor Chow Wing-sun’s proposal on universal pension scheme will definitely improve the quality of life of old people in Hong Kong,” says Chan. “At least everyone will have secure income to meet basic needs such as food and rent and no elderly would need to collect cardboards to survive.”
Legislative Councillor Peter Cheung Kwok-che estimates that there are over a thousand old people in Hong Kong who need to collect newspapers and cardboard as a living and describes the situation as “extremely unacceptable”.
“How could our city, being so developed, still have this phenomenon? How could so many of our seniors be toiling in the streets the whole day only for a few dollars?” he said.
Cheung implores the government to set up a universal pension scheme as soon as possible. “People need to look at the long-term benefits: you pay a bit of money now but this money can help take care of your parents and grandparents in the long run.”
When the Post asked Dai Mui what she thought about every person aged 65 or above receiving HK$3,000 from the government each month, her face lit up.
“That would be happy news! If I have HK$3,000 each month, I wouldn’t need to go so faraway to fetch newspapers. I can just collect some cardboard downstairs and that should be sufficient for me to live on. I can pay my rent and eat cheaply and that would be enough.”