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Spirit of Hong Kong

He’s helped drug addicts and taught refugees, but Hong Kong welfare worker says being a stage director was ‘terrifying’

Hard working Hongkonger Lam Kam-sing has been a welfare worker for more than four decades, quitting a successful job to do what he loves most

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2017, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 2:25pm

Lam Kam-sing has been doing welfare work at Caritas Community Centre in Kowloon for 44 years, and the 72-year-old has no intention of stopping.

It all started in the early 1970s when he was recruited as what was then called a welfare worker. As a young man, that meant joining a large group of like-minded individuals who wanted to help society.

“I’m not religious, even though Caritas is a Catholic organisation. I just feel that I’ve learned a lot from society, so I am simply giving back,” he explained.

“I’ve had a lot of chances to talk to people from different sectors of society because of welfare work. I could talk to them about my experiences, and I could learn from their experiences too.”

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Back in that time, there was no such thing as a degree in social work, nor were there any requirements for Lam to join. All he had to do was show up after working at his day job to contribute in any way he could. That is why his experiences are very diverse, he said. Lam has worked with drug addicts in rehabilitation, organising social events for them and building a support network. He has also taught English to Vietnamese refugees, so they could lead better lives. Many of them eventually immigrated to the US or UK.

One of Lam’s most nerve-wracking jobs was to be a stage director for a piece of theatre that community centre members were performing. He says he was “so terrified his face went pale” and that “not even leading members on a camp out in the wild was that scary”. He remembers feeling relieved when it was over.

Lam says because he has spent so much time doing so many different jobs, even social workers trained for the industry cannot match his level of work.

“Even though they are more educated than I am, they don’t really know what society is like because the moment they graduate, they become social workers. Their life experience isn’t varied enough to support their work, especially when it comes to building and maintaining human relationships.”

He loved welfare work so much that he continued with it two or three times a week, even when office politics took over his day job as a high level executive in a Japanese forestry and wood supplies company.

Eventually, Lam decided on an early retirement from the company in 2007, his first and last since graduating from school, to do welfare work full time. He had “15 months pay and five day work weeks at the Japanese company”, compared to just food and travel allowances at the community centre. Chuckling at the contrast, Lam said it did not matter and that his family supported him.

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Having devoted his life to welfare work, Lam believes Hong Kong’s most challenging community problem is the integration of Southeast Asians into local society.

“They speak Chinese fluently, but they can’t read and write as well, so it’s very difficult for them to get jobs. Imagine you were born and raised here, but society doesn’t accept you and you can’t get work. That’s why they talk to each other in their own languages and have their own communities. We shouldn’t discriminate against Southeast Asians.”

Lam sees problems in the social work industry as well. He says there are “very few jobs around, but many social work graduates each year, which pushes incomes down and makes the industry difficult for young people to enter”.

His contribution to society through the years is now being honoured by the Caritas Community Centre – Kowloon. The organisation has nominated him for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Compassion Ambassador category.