As if every passer-by were an Emperor, she kneels and rocks before us, paying her obeisance. But the school children do not see her, walking by with their noses in their smartphones, and headphones in their ears. The lines on her face are ingrained with years, but they look gentle still. Her skin, weathered and tanned, could be as hard as leather or as thin as paper. It is hard to see, for she keeps the backs of her hands to her face and her forehead low to the ground. Only the meagre glint from the few tarnished coins in her cap makes a grab for my attention.
Sitting under a deserted shop-front, an old man angled a square biscuit tin in vague protection of his modesty as he peed into it. His legs looked as thin as chopsticks: the sort of emaciation found only in an Oxfam appeal. The bus stopped in front of him, but his eyes looked at nothing, and no eyes looked on him. It was as if his withered, frail frame wasn’t there; as if his few possessions were invisible to all.
On the footbridge by the railway line the cardboard boxes that stand for houses. The other footbridge is always busy, the relentless crowds on the street found just as relentlessly up there. But this bridge never takes someone across the road. It seems a bridge to squat on, not to walk across. The crowds sense that it is not theirs to use, that it isn’t just a crossing or a walkway: that to stand on its concrete is to stand on someone’s hearth.
Hong Kong may be full of glitz and razzmatazz, it may be full of lights and sounds, and even full of energy and bustle, but it isn’t kind to all. Despite, or perhaps because of its wealth, it is an unequal city. Over a million live in poverty, priced out of their own city, their own country, their own lives.
Government tables show that the largest group of people earn somewhere between HK$10,000 – 14,999 a month, not much in a place that is as expensive as London; over half earn under HK$24,999 a month. That isn’t so different from the UK’s median salary, yet a long way short of London’s, which might be a rather more appropriate comparator. In the space of time that incomes have risen by 42%, house prices in Hong Kong rose by 154%. While the average house price in London was 12 times average earnings in 2015, it was 19 times for Hong Kong.
A 2015 poll showed that under 30% of “young adults” were satisfied with life in Hong Kong: a bad figure for the future. But it isn’t the future that is the problem for the old men and women who eke out a living selling bits of cardboard collected early in the mornings from the public bins in the streets. It is the present.