'McRefugee' reunites with son in Singapore through media report on Hong Kong's McDonald's sleepers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 5:48pm

A Singaporean woman who went missing nearly five years ago has been reunited with her son after her plight was reported in an Associated Press story about people who sleep at 24-hour McDonald’s outlets in Hong Kong.

Mary Seow disappeared after selling off the family home in Singapore.

Family members reported her missing, but her whereabouts were a mystery until she was quoted in the AP story on Nov. 12 about people known as “McRefugees.”

Seow was just one of an untold number of homeless and working poor spending their nights at the 120 McDonald’s restaurants open round the clock in Hong Kong.

But her tale caught the attention of family members, the Singaporean government and concerned citizens, who worked swiftly to reunite the widow with her only son.

“I don’t expect that I’ll go back so fast. Until now I’m still, like, dreaming,” she said Saturday at Hong Kong’s airport as she was preparing to board a flight back to Singapore with her 28-year-old son, Edward Goh.

Seow had a surprise reunion the day before with her son, who had flown to Hong Kong to find her and bring her back home.

READ MORE: Woman’s lonely unnoticed death in Hong Kong McDonald’s highlights need to help McRefugees

She said her ordeal began when she was swindled by people from China whom she met at a church in Singapore. They had persuaded her to sell her house and go with them to mainland China to invest the money in their transport business, but when she arrived she realized it was all a scam.

She decided to stay in China and try to earn back some money, including by working as a street sweeper. She eventually ended up in Hong Kong, where she has spent the past three months living on the streets and finding some work doing what is known as “parallel trading,” carrying diapers, baby formula, chocolate and other branded goods across the border to resellers in mainland China.

Seow said she hadn’t wanted to return to Singapore because she was mortified that she had lost the family home and didn’t want to face her son.

That’s why she had “mixed feelings” even after reuniting with her son.

“I feel happy and I feel a bit of guilty conscience,” she said.

Goh said ahead of his departure that he had “very strong and mixed” emotions, but added that there would be “no drama” and that they would “definitely not talk about the past.”

“I just want to bring her home,” he said. 

READ MORE: The lonely life of the McSleepers, the poor who call McDonald's home

The lonely death of a homeless woman, who was undiscovered for 24 hours at a McDonald's branch, put the spotlight on Hong Kong's McSleepers or McRefugees.

The phenomenon is a manifestation of growing social isolation caused by deprivation and poverty in the context of soaring private rents and bad living conditions, experts say.

With the government failing to take responsibility for the situation and as relatively cheap housing becomes more unliveable and expensive, the poor are susceptible to adopting such a lifestyle - which can result in longer-term problems such as mental health issues, they say.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Ngo