Moving to Hong Kong for a better life left her poor, while those who remain in China got rich

An elderly woman pushes a trolley load of cardboard for recycling through a market in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong.
An elderly woman pushes a trolley load of cardboard for recycling through a market in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - They start sometimes at dawn and work frequently into the night, an army of old workers manoeuvring carts around the streets of Hong Kong.

Their spines bent with back trouble or simply the burdens of life-long toil, they are collecting cardboard boxes to sell to recyclers for the equivalent of US$2.60 (S$3.60) a day.

In Hong Kong, they are known as "cardboard grannies". They are estimated by non-government organisations to number 5,000 - a figure almost 40 per cent higher than the total number of registered Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces seen frequently on the streets of the bustling Asian financial centre.

Hong Kong has amassed enormous wealth since its handover to China in 1997, yet it is also home to an expanding wealth gap, according to the standard measure of income inequality. It has risen to a record in 2017, is the highest in Asia, and exceeds that of the United States and Britain.

"I do this work so I can afford to eat," said Madam Fok Mei Sung, 67, a former farmer who came from China's Guangdong province almost 20 years ago.

She migrated just as factory jobs were moving to the mainland, and a building boom was about to transform thousands of acres of farmland into residential estates for the growing middle class - and make the neighbours she left behind comparatively rich.

Madam Fok represents Hong Kong's growing divide in economic opportunity, one that is starting to receive far more public awareness.

In late June, a public protest broke out after a 75-year-old cardboard collector was arrested for unlicensed hawking, which comes with a HK$5,000 (S$880) fine, for selling a piece of cardboard for HK$1, the South China Morning Post reported.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, whose officers made the arrest, said it later dropped the charges after consulting with prosecutors and taking the woman's background into account.

"These old ladies and old men worked their whole lives to support building up this beautiful city," said Dr Terry Lum, a University of Hong Kong professor and a director at the Sau Po Centre on Ageing.

"What you see now are a group of forgotten workers. They can only use their residual capacity to collect cardboard to sell at a low price in order to supplement their living."

Many of these workers, particularly women with little education, migrated from China to Hong Kong in the late 1990s seeking to improve their families' livelihoods, and took up any low-wage work they could find.

They have been cited by the Hong Kong government's Centre for Public Policy as being particularly economically vulnerable and in need of support.

Some 44 per cent of city-employed sanitation workers noted in the report, for example, had migrated to Hong Kong between 1995 and 2002; 78 per cent of the sanitation workers were women.

Madam Fok used to be one of them before she retired, earning low wages that were not nearly enough to buy a home, just as the city was beginning a property boom that has seen prices soar 400 per cent since the end of the last slump in 2003.

She thinks frequently of her former neighbours back on the mainland, who she said received hundreds of thousands of yuan for their farmland from developers.

Because she gave up her household registration when she moved to Hong Kong, she could not benefit from the payouts.

"Now they are so rich, they can't even spend it all," Madam Fok said. "Even after eating big feasts, they use money to travel around - imagine! They're people my age, strolling around at their leisure, sipping tea, playing mahjong. What a life they now lead."

The government's provision of public housing and a living allowance for the elderly poor is insufficient to cover the needs of those who spent decades in poorly paid jobs, have no savings, suffer from ill health and cannot depend on their children for help, said Dr Lum.

Waiting times for public housing are long, on average almost five years, despite government pledges to build more supply.

For most of her working life, Madam Fok spent about two-thirds of her monthly HK$3,000 salary to pay rent on an apartment subdivided with wooden planks, costing her HK$2,000.

Even as her salary rose to HK$6,000 a month at the peak, rent doubled to HK$4,000. After she retired from her government sanitation job, the fund of HK$50,000 she had saved over two decades ran out within two years.

After a five-year wait, she received a government-subsidised apartment in September last year (2016).

"I am so much happier now and feel so much less pressure, but I know many older people who aren't as lucky as me," Madam Fok said. "We get the basics covered in Hong Kong - HK$2,490 a month allowance - but we still need to struggle for our livelihood at our age. It's just not enough, even if we buy vegetables that are a few days old."

More than 14 years of crouching and bending over garbage caused a back injury that left her unable to work full time, she said.

Madam Fok separated from her husband long ago and cannot ask for financial help from her two sons who both work in construction and do odd jobs. They barely make enough to support their own families, and she does not want to be a burden, she said.

When she can work, she said, she gets up at 4am in order to get a head start on the other elderly residents competing fiercely for scrap in her neighbourhood, Sham Shui Po, the poorest in Hong Kong.

"There are days it hurts so much I need to hang onto railings to even take one step," said Madam Fok. "There's no time for pleasure, or for any normalcy in my life. I hope that my life here has given my children and grandchildren a better future."