Home Street Home
There are enclosures and more of them.
Hong Kong government has yet to stop its enclosures of where the homeless sleep. Once a refuge for the homeless, footbridges, the space underneath and subways are now enclosed with layers of steel fences and cold hoarding. Not only is the shelter of the homeless being blocked, even more so are the government’s care and compassion for them.
Whereas in Taiwan, it is common for homeless people to face the ostracism from local citizens and being told to leave the street by the police. Yet Taipei City Government view homelessness in a more caring manner. Homeless people are allowed to place their belongings into large canvas bags provided by the Department of Social Welfare, all these bags will then be gathered in designated areas and safeguard by their staffs. They do not have to worry that their belongings may get stolen while leaving for work, and at the same time the tidiness of public spaces can be maintained.
“Home” under the flyover
Written by Chan Yau Nga Alpha / Translation by Ng Hon Wah / Photo by LEI Jih-sheng
Around the corner under the flyover, there is a wooden hut, in the shape of a cube, made of many randomly placed planks. Inside, there is nothing but a simple bed with thin bedding and sundry articles lying against the walls. When the door is closed, it will be the same day or night. As he enters the hut , 60-year old Uncle Ping points up and says, “There are some gaps between the planks up there. The only light is what slips through the gaps when there are lamps on in the street at night.”
For the last five years, this has been Uncle Ping’s “home” under the Tung Chau Street flyover in Sham Shui Po.
Uncle Ping is of small build. Owing to old and new injuries to his back and waist, he always hunches his back. His body renders more prominent the tattoos of Nezha, a unicorn, sea horse and scorpio on his arms. They were tattooed when he was 24 years old. “Some people do it to remember something. For me, the only reason for doing it is that I thought it was fun when I was young.” Uncle Ping looks back, with deep regret, at his frivolous youthful days.
Uncle Ping was born in a big family. After completing primary 6, when he was still immature, he battled alone in society and worked as an apprentice to a dim-sum chef in an old-style tea house. Society has all sorts of people. When Uncle Ping was nearly an adult, someone handed him a “cigarette” stick. After taking a puff out of curiosity, he felt as if he was “fluttering”. After that, he could not kick addiction. All his wages were spent on heroin and “blue gremlin”. He was also arrested as a result of his drug addiction and became a frequent inmate in rehabilitation centres for drug addicts.
In 2012, Uncle Ping was knocked down by a bus in Tai Kok Tsui while on the way to appear in court. Since then his legs have been uneven in length. He was once admitted into a sanatorium. With uneven legs, Uncle Ping could only do this in his own way and put plastic sandals picked up in the street under his right foot, so as to make both legs barely even.
After his drug addiction, Uncle Ping seldom went back to his old home. Also, owing to his frequent imprisonment, he often lost contact with his family members. It was at least one year after his mother’s death that his elder sister told him about it. “My elder sister, too, thought I had died.” His mother loved him. Yet, he could not fulfil his filial duty and accompany her during her last journey.
There are many choices in life which cannot be revisited. Uncle Ping talks without emotion. “The life is mine. I don’t regret. Actually, it is all predetermined. My life was all set when I was born.” Uncle Ping no longer takes drugs. However, he knows very well his lack of self control. “Some people say you can kick the habit when you encounter difficulty to the point that you cannot stand up. However, I haven’t.”
While we are talking and talking, a wisp of purple cloud appears in the sky. In the distance is a public housing estate, completely beyond reach as far as Uncle Ping is concerned. Floating around for half of his life, he eventually longs for stability. All he hopes for is a home with water and electricity, where he can watch television and no long have to fear about his belongings being cleared away by the government. “But I am already 60 years old. I don’t know whether I shall still be alive next year. I just live each day I can.” Finishing his words, he accepts the meal box given by the volunteer and rushes to the methadone clinic.
Four months after we said good bye, Uncle Ping’s wish to move into a public housing flat was eventually realized. He no longer has to live in the dark every night.
The painter of Ferry Pier
Written by Chan Yau Nga Alpha / Translation by Ng Hon Wah / Photo by LEI Jih-sheng
It was the small hours of the morning at the Ferry Pier, Uncle Hing was suddenly woken up by noises coming from the sea. When he peered into the water, he saw a woman’s body. Picking up a fishing net and other equipment nearby, he dragged the woman ashore. Her face had gone dark but regained its normal colour once she was in hospital. Since he first slept at the pier two years ago, Uncle Hing, has saved four people who were on the verge of suicide.
The incident made him believe that to care for marginalized people was “a mission given to me by God”. This mission was in stark contrast to his previous life as a drug pusher.
Uncle Hing was born into a wealthy family. His father was away a lot on overseas business trips and was constantly unfaithful. His wife, Uncle Hing’s mother, could no longer stand it and decided to leave with the children. So Uncle Hing went from growing up in a wealthy family to having to work at the age of 12 to help support the family. At the age of 14, he secretly became a father. He and his girlfriend had been together since they were young children. They got married two years later.
Uncle Hing was able to do a variety of jobs, so he didn’t have to worry about getting jobs. But he got to know some Triad members, gradually became addicted to drugs and was imprisoned on numerous occasions. Later, in order to make quick money, he peddled drugs while working as a tower crane operator. Back then he was very successful, had the means to buy his own property and bring up his three sons.
But 2000 turned into a tragic year. One morning, Uncle Hing had to appear in court to answer charges against him for drug possession, and the judge sentenced him to six months’ detention in a drug rehabilitation centre. While observing the court from the public gallery, his wife received a call from a policeman saying that their 29-year-old eldest son had collapsed and died while taking drugs on a roof.
With her older son dead, and her husband in prison, Uncle Hing’s wife was in a state of despair. The relationship with her husband broke down, and he says she now hates him.
Uncle Hing will regret for the rest of his life that he could not attend his eldest son’s funeral and accompany him on his final journey. Throughout his life, he had made huge profits by selling drugs to other people’s children. Yet his son died young due to taking drugs. “You reap what you sow,” says Uncle Hing, his eyes welling with tears. “I had tried kicking the drug habit before, but in vain, and this time, I was really overwhelmed.”
After Uncle Hing’s release from prison, his wife decided to divorce him. That was when he began to wander the streets. One day, when he arrived at the Ferry Pier, he couldn’t see anybody and decided to make it his home.
He converted to Christianity the same year, started to go to church and repented for his previous mistakes. He picked up his previous interests again and painted
several oil paintings reminiscent of Picasso’s style. He hopes to auction his paintings so that the money can help him get away from his present life.
It is not hard for a delinquent to turn a new leaf but it is not easy to repair broken relationships. Uncle Hing is keen not to disrupt the lives of his wife and younger son, who now has his own family. “Being dirty myself, I do not want to pollute their homes,” he says. But when he saved the drowning woman his life-saving heroics were reported in a newspaper. His son took the initiative to visit him and reopen conversations. “I believe God will help,” says Uncle Hing. “He will help me to rebuild my relationship with family members.” Uncle Hing remains hopeful.