Hong Kong’s elderly more ‘spicy ginger’ than ‘old farts’

Hong Kong’s Elderly No ‘Old Farts’

Since coming to Hong Kong as a student in 2015, there is much to admire about Asia’ World City. The efficiency, the seamless blend of different cultures and ideas, and the core belief that through hard work and self-sufficiency anyone can achieve a better life. Yet over time you also notice many dark sides to life here: the standard 60-hour work week from graduation to retirement being almost the only conceivable option for employment, and that one in three elderly live in poverty. Through my own experience as general manager of Soap Cycling, I can confidently say that Hong Kong’s elderly are definitely not a bunch of 老屎忽 (old farts), but are instead capable, hardworking, and passionate individuals who have much to offer society.  

My Elderly Colleagues at Soap Cycling

Our organization recruits over 3,000 volunteers a year in Hong Kong to help with our missions of reprocessing lightly-used hospitality amenities, and distributing them to those in need both here at home and in developing countries throughout Asia. While volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization, the downside is that they lack long-term commitment. Late last year we took a gamble to start a new initiative to engage the neglected talents and energy of Hong Kong’s Greatest Generation in our neighborhood, Kwai Hing. We call it the MEY (美) program, which offers work opportunities at our warehouse to those who often suffer from discrimination, isolation and lack of suitable work opportunities - Minority, Elderly, Youth. The Chinese character 美 represents the goal of this program: to make Hong Kong a more beautiful place to live.

阿群,阿田,阿鴻, three of our lovely elderly MEY 美 workers, take a break from a corporate team building session with RBC to enjoy egg tarts

As a foreigner living and working in Hong Kong for the past three years, I am often struck by the poverty of the elderly I encounter in my daily routine. But belying that initial impression, I have learnt while working alongside these amazing people that they have a great deal to offer, if we can only commit to providing suitable opportunities.  

One of these amazing people is Mr. Leung, who, at a sprightly 78 years of age, often tells me, “大雞唔食細米” (The big chicken doesn’t eat small rice.) when I try to help him with lifting and toting objects to and fro while working at the warehouse. Mr. Leung, his wife Leung Tai, and four of their friends have been coming to the Soap Cycling warehouse in Kwai Hing once or twice a week for the past six months. We compensate them for their time with money (HK$200 each to facilitate a two-hour volunteer session) and post-session meals at a local cha chaan teng. They were recruited from local elderly centres in Kwai Chung by our student interns from HKU, who founded our organization over six years ago to give back to their city while also gaining valuable experience running a live charity.

阿梁, the leader of Soap Cycling's MEY 美 elderly work team, demonstrates how to pack a hygiene kit during a team building session with DBS in Wan Chai. October 12, 2018

Mr. Leung served as a police officer and fire truck driver in his younger years. Over a post-session lunch, he regales us with tales of chasing criminals through the infamous Kowloon Walled City or daring acts of rescue after the landslides that were once common on hillsides crowded with squatter settlements. How much of his yarns are true and how much are embellished by time, I’ll leave for another day. What I have definitely found to be true is that Mr. Leung and his grey-haired coworkers from Kwai Fong Light and Love Elderly Centre are a very capable and hardworking manpower boost to Soap Cycling’s work.

As our city faces the challenge of accommodating a more diverse workforce with myriad needs in a changing world, it would be incredibly short-sighted not to try and utilize the neglected talents of the elderly, because, as the Cantonese saying goes, 薑愈老愈辣 “The older the ginger, the spicier.”.