Hong Kong’s poor forced to eat food only fit ‘for pigs and dogs’ as city’s money-hungry companies exploit need for basic items

Wayne Chau joins poverty commission hoping he can be agent for change that city’s poorest need by helping community groups provide life’s necessities at affordable prices

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 9:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 6:21pm

Some of Hong Kong’s poorest residents are being forced to eat food only fit “for pigs and dogs” because money-hungry companies are exploiting their need for basic items such as rice, cooking oil, and toothpaste, according to one elderly member of the community.

Prices of everyday necessities in Tin Shui Wai, one of the city’s poorest districts, were found to be 20 per cent higher than in the cosmopolitan downtown district of Wan Chai – a move a social enterprise said sapped residents of their dignity, as well as their quality of life.

And, with one in five Hongkongers now living below the poverty line, some of the most impoverished are knowingly buying inferior items that may contain carcinogens because they have “no choice”.

One elderly woman struggling to make ends meet said she would continue to buy cheap rice, even if it came from an unknown source.

“I have no choice but to eat it anyway,” she said. “How could it taste good? It is for pigs and dogs.”

Real-life stories such as this prompted Wayne Chau Pui-por to co-found the social enterprise Agent for Change in 2014, and are driving his desire to continue to make a difference as a newly appointed member of the government’s Commission on Poverty.

As part of his innovative approach, Chau teamed up with food producers and other manufacturers to sell necessities to residents of public housing estates at affordable prices. He hopes the commission’s Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund will give a hand to more social enterprises in the city.

Wayne Chau and his social enterprise Agent of Change delivers quality food to poor

For Chau, these community groups on the ground are more aware of the needs of the people they serve, and he believes they can play a big part in combating poverty in these areas – if the commission can help them to do so.

“Tin Shui Wai is the poorest district of all, but the price level of the products sold in its markets is 20 per cent more expensive than Wan Chai on average. Some wet markets in Tin Shui Wai are even overhauled to look like [high-end] markets,” he said, pointing to the monopoly of Link Reit, the largest real estate investment trust in Asia, as a reason for this.

Chau lamented the fact that basic necessities cost a significant portion of the low-income residents’ monthly income.

Residents in Tin Shui Wai might save money by paying lower rent, he said, but the higher cost of basic items made them feel as if there is no hope.

“Consuming inferior necessities will not kill you immediately, but it can wear down your will and dignity day by day,” he said.

“Quality products, on the other hand, could back you up in sustaining your fight to [fulfil] your dreams and goals.”

Chau also said the business model of his social enterprise had proved to be viable.

“The suppliers who sold us the products at a lower price do not have to lose money – and now more people are using their products and we are helping them build a future customer base,” he said.

Agent for Change has been a shining example of how social innovation can work in Hong Kong. Since 2014 the enterprise has partnered with more than 300 district councillors and non-governmental organisations in selling affordable necessities to residents of public estates.

What can you eat for HK$15? Data shows more than 70,000 Hong Kong households fall below baseline

It is an approach that Chau believes gives those below the poverty line dignity, hope, and a chance to pull themselves out of that predicament.

Going forward, he wants the commission to talk to the city’s poor to find out what they need to improve their lives, for that he thinks more evidence-based research and focus groups is essential.

“Instead of imagining the difficulties faced by the low-income residents, we should ask them directly,” Chau said. “I hope there would not be only free flow of opinions in the commission but also discussion based on evidence-based research.”