At Home Within Iron Bars

AT mid-morning, tall stacks of iron cages block most of the daylight from a room in the dingy Mongkok tenement where Chan Kan and 15 other women live. Grayish-green paint peels from grimy walls. A hodgepodge of clashing plastic tile scraps are taped to the floor like a rag rug.

The cages are draped with pieces of cloth for privacy. Inside, all that is visible are the dark shadows of musty clothes, blankets, cardboard boxes, and other cluttered belongings.

Yet Chan Kan welcomes a visitor to the closet-sized sitting area between rows of cages as if to a spacious Chinese courtyard home.

``Happy Lunar New Year!'' she calls cheerily, gesticulating with clasped hands and offering a dish of dried melon seeds and coconut candy.

In the corner behind Chan Kan, a red light glows from a Buddhist shrine. Choi Sahn, the god of wealth, peers down on the gathering from a wall poster. The scent of incense from new-year offerings lingers amid the stuffiness of the close quarters.

``I came to Hong Kong in 1940 from Guangdong Province,'' begins Chan Kan, her wizened face framed by a brown, knitted cap. For years, she toiled in garment factories, restaurants, and later as a maid.

Still working today, the 82-year-old woman cooks and cleans for her grown son and his family. She says he is jobless and lacks room to house her, but he spares her money for rent and food.

``My son is too proud to let me apply for welfare, so I live off his pocket money,'' she says.

An orange cat nibbles some leftover rice from a bowl under Chan Kan's folding chair. Soups for lunch boil in a dozen individual pots stacked on kerosene stoves in an adjacent ``kitchen.''

``It has been a hard life,'' she says, to the nods of other lodgers. ``But for me it's enough to have a place to sleep, food to eat, and good health.''

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