Blowing Water

It’s shocking that children in one of the world’s most affluent cities are starving

Luisa Tam says attempting to eat HK$15 meals for three days left her agitated, angry and deprived – imagine doing that all the time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 9:52pm

Shame, shame, shame! How can this city, with its highest numbers of Rolls-Royce and Mercedes cars per capita, the priciest property market in the world per square foot and the highest concentration of individual wealth in Asia, allow a substantial number of children and adults to starve on a daily basis?

In such an affluent city like Hong Kong, it was shocking to read a recent report that about 71,000 families are surviving on HK$15 per meal per person. With a gross domestic product per capita at HK$286,455 (almost three times the world’s average) it is unconscionable to be having so many people, especially children, living at subsistence levels or below.

Last week I put myself on an experiment for three consecutive days to see what it would be like to live a hand-to-mouth existence, allowing myself HK$45 for food per day.

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The first day went relatively smoothly and I spent less than HK$10 on a sandwich, mostly because I was given some food by a colleague when he saw me counting spare change and thought I must have forgotten my wallet. I accepted his generosity gleefully.

On the second day, I picked at some leftover sandwiches from the day before and had a chocolate bar and some small snacks for dinner because I was planning to save some money for a better meal the following day.

On the last day, I had a total of HK$92.50, more than half of which was money saved from the earlier two days. I decided to cheer myself up and splurged on some takeaway dim sum; but that was my only meal all day.

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For the three days that I was “penniless”, besides feeling hungry, I felt deprived, hapless, agitated, antisocial and angry, before a gradual sense of shame set in. Now, if you multiply that feeling by 120 times, you would probably get a rough idea what it is like for those families that have so little to eat for every day of the year.

I decided to cheer myself up and splurged on some takeaway dim sum; but that was my only meal all day

Being hungry all the time can affect not only one’s physical but also mental health. And needless to say, it is cruel to put children at serious risk of malnutrition. When we starve our children, we are also starving their potential and disrupting their normal development, both physically and intellectually. 

A survey by the non-profit Alliance for Children Development Rights this year found that more than one in three local children from low-income families couldn’t have two meals a day with meat or fish, which are protein-rich sources, on a regular basis.

The problem isn’t about having too little food around; it’s about wealth distribution. We are basically seeing our wealth gap problem being served on our plates. The poor children in our midst have become part of the collateral damage because of the government’s inability to tackle economic inequality. 

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Here is some food for thought. When local legislators claim their expenses, there is no set limit for the cost of a meal if they entertain in their official capacity. Of course, they are trusted to exercise common sense and hence budget control. For the middle and senior government officials, the claimable limit for lunch is HK$450.

We know the food gap is widening and perhaps many of our well-fed government officials have forgotten what hunger pangs feel like. Before we can see the introduction of any government-sponsored food subsidy programme for children, we can also help alleviate hunger by supporting community-based food charities. One meaningful project is sponsored by Pei Ho Barbecue Restaurant in Sham Shui Po. Its owner Chan Cheuk-ming, affectionately known as “Ming Gor”, has been feeding the underprivileged for years.

Affordable and liveable accommodation is already inaccessible to low-income families, and now they are hit with food poverty. Fundamentally speaking, it’s not only about basic and essential food needs; it also concerns human rights and dignity. This is certainly a humiliating way to live and that the situation doesn’t seem to be improving any time soon should worry – and shame – us all.

A common Cantonese greeting in Hong Kong that is equivalent to saying hello is “sik jor fan mei?” which means, “Have you eaten yet?”.

But in the spirit of today’s food for thought, it is more appropriate to greet people with, “sik bao mei?”, which translates as, “Have you had enough to eat yet?”.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post