The hidden heroes

Chris Lau

Three photographers uncover the stories of HK's night workers, who quietly usher the city to each new day

Chris Lau |

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In the dead of night, when the streets are empty and people are at rest, night workers keep Hong Kong moving. Yet the efforts of taxi drivers, security guards, street cleaners and others who toil "behind the scenes" often go unnoticed.

It was this sad fact that pushed a group of 20-year-old photographers to bring to light moments many don't get to see. They call it the 0400 project, a code that indicates the early hour when most of their photo expeditions took place.

For the six-month project, wedding photographer William Tsui Ka-wai, and students Max Mak Chui-shan and Fat Ho Ka-chung would wander down the street once every two weeks, snapping the smiling faces of night workers. "One of our goals is to tell people not to ignore others around them," Tsui says.

Their collection will be displayed on one Saturday every month at Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kok, when the trio also plans to tell anyone who stops for a glimpse the compelling and heart-warming stories behind their pictures.

"We don't want people to just walk out and think night workers are [just] hard-working and tough," Ho says. "It's a platform for people to find out who they are and what they actually do."

Some say that after the clock strikes midnight, Hong Kong becomes a city full of surprises. In their nocturnal visits, the trio has stumbled across a few.

Ho recalls a cold night when they intended to photograph social workers at a temporary shelter. Instead they found a security guard at the shelter who had taken it upon himself to protect and counsel the homeless.

"He told us that he would be manning the shelter as well as looking after the homeless at night," Ho says.

Wondering if the guard was overburdened by this extra duties, Ho asked, "So why don't you quit?" The man told Ho that if he resigned, nobody would look after these people and that he felt responsible for their well-being.

That security guard became one of the 0400 project's heroes.

At times, the young photographers make friends with passers-by who look at their photos and listen to their stories. Bringing these "invisible" workers closer to everyday Hongkongers has had some eye-opening results. Tsui remembers meeting a male pedestrian who had stared intently at the portrait of a newspaper seller on display.

"We approached [the man] as usual, but he frowned more and more tensely as we spoke," Tsui says.

In the end, the photographers learned that the newspaper seller was this man's father, and that the son had looked upon his father's work with shame. But through the exhibit, the son saw his father in a different light and appreciated the quiet dignity of his job.

"[The pedestrian] no longer holds a grudge against his father. Now he will buy his dad gifts and take him to yum cha from time to time," Tsui adds.

The trio behind 0400 describe the process of bringing the project to life as a "roller-coaster ride".

In the beginning, they struggled to find sponsorship and were forced to pay for operating costs out of their own pockets, until they received the HK$6,000 government handout to augment their funds.

Mak, Ho and Tsui hope to prove that not all "Generation Y" are ignorant of social issues. "Most of the time, young people get ignored because they are young and they don't know stuff," Ho says. "Now we can tell people how much we know about midnight in Hong Kong."

Sometimes, they were rebuffed by night workers who did not want their photos taken. But Tsui says they still make a point saying, "Thanks for preparing Hong Kong for a better tomorrow."

"We are not saying we're [doing anything] as great as saving people's lives," Tsui says. "But if we do a little and other people follow [us], that's an entirely different story."

To follow the 0400 project, visit their Facebook page or send an e-mail to [email protected]. Their next show is on April 14, in front of the Izzue store.