Hong Kong's Underclass Struggles to Be Heard

Social worker Ho Hei-wah champions the plight of the immigrant, elderly, and poor

There are 800,000 of us in Hong Kong.

We are not lazy,

Retired life is very hard,

Many of us are sick and hungry,

The government does not care.

But we solve these problems by joining to fight,

Heart-to-heart, for elderly rights.

- 'Elderly Rights Rap'

LEADING dozens of elderly in a self-penned rap song for decent housing and care, Ho Hei-wah was staging one of his many rallies for Hong Kong poor.

In this affluent British colony, Mr. Ho's appeals to help thousands of unemployed, aged, and immigrants living at the margin of Hong Kong's prosperity stir little sympathy and even provoke irritation.

Among a populace of free-wheeling entrepreneurs and capitalists, increasing numbers are being left behind in the chase to make money, says the social worker. For many of those who emigrated from China, helped build the colony with their labor, and still struggle for better lives, this is unfair, he says.

''Many of these people came alone to Hong Kong in the 1950s and, '60s, worked hard, and provided a cheap labor force for industry,'' says Ho, director of the grass-roots Society for Community Organization. ''For 30 years, there was no labor law and the government rejected them for pension schemes. Finally, when they are old and can no longer work, they end up living in poverty in [slums].''

Amid the glitter and bustle of one of the world's wealthiest enclaves, a poverty-stricken underclass struggles to be heard in Hong Kong. With an unparalleled number of millionaires, the British colony boasted a per capita gross domestic product of $21,700 in 1994, the 13th highest in the world - exceeding those of Japan, Singapore, or Great Britain.

But Hong Kong, which reverts to Chinese rule in 1997, has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor. According to a government report, the poorest 20 percent of Hong Kong's households earn less than 5 percent of the colony's income; the top 20 percent account for more than half of all income.

Although poverty in Hong Kong doesn't begin to match that of China, India, and other Asian countries, official figures from 1991 show a median monthly income of $3,460 for the bottom 20 percent of Hong Kong households compared to $27,965 for the richest 20 percent.

Economists say the gap is widening as Hong Kong's economy shifts from manufacturing to services, factory jobs are lost to lower-cost China, and inflation runs at more than 9 percent. Almost three-quarters of the economy is now in the service sector.

''Income inequality is worsening,'' says Tsang Shu-ki, an economist at Hong Kong Baptist University. ''A major factor is that remuneration in the service sectors is more unequal than in the manufacturing industries.''

Hong Kong's budding democracy, spurred by controversial political reforms pushed through by British Governor Chris Patten, has given a voice to financially strapped residents worried about unemployment, rundown public housing, and inadequate welfare assistance.

During the last two years, Hong Kong's welfare rolls have jumped by one-third, to more than 110,000. The government's scramble to build new public housing is failing to keep pace with demand. And authorities are pledging to overhaul the welfare system under which an elderly resident only gets $240 per month to live on, more than half of which must go to pay public-housing costs.

In the last two decades, dozens of new grass-roots organizations have emerged to amplify the concerns of the poor. Ho, the social worker, is among the most vocal in demanding the government do more for the downtrodden.

His crusades have earned him a prominent public profile as well as the distrust of many in Hong Kong, including government leaders, businessmen, and even fellow democracy activists with whom he has disagreed over style and political issues. Enjoying the colony's laissez-faire climate, many residents resent contributing to an old-age pension scheme for Hong Kong's elderly.

''To stand up for the underdog here takes real guts,'' says a Hong Kong business leader who asked not to be identified. ''In a capitalist community like Hong Kong, people are successful because of their own abilities. If you are a loser in the game, it's your fault.''

Ho's advocacy of illegal immigrants from China has set him at odds with the authorities and labor unions worried about unemployment. Ten years ago, he helped the wives of immigrant fishermen whose boats were being blocked by police as they tried to enter Hong Kong. Of late, he assisted a six-year-old boy expelled from Hong Kong when his parents couldn't prove he was born in the territory.

''In recent years, I have started working with illegal immigrants because they suffer from low [immigration] quotas and corruption,'' says the affable social worker who has an easy laugh and a passion for powerful motorcycles. ''The Hong Kong people support most of my work except that for the illegal immigrants. Sometimes, on the street, people stop me and say they support me. But they say I should stop helping the immigrants.''

Regularly, he embarrasses the government by leading marches of elderly people forced to live in what are known as ''cages'' - dormitories with six-foot-tall metal cage beds stacked in rows. He helped persuade United Nations human rights officials to visit Hong Kong to investigate the plight of the 4,000 people estimated to live in such conditions.

Indeed, housing is an increasingly explosive issue among the colony's underclass. About 150,000 families live in makeshift huts or squalid tenements as they endure up to a seven-year wait for public housing. The authorities are trying to force out legions of residents who stay in highly subsidized public apartments but own property elsewhere.

In September, Mr. Patten, the British governor, was shoved by an angry mob of 1,000 residents during a tour of a flooded temporary slum.

Ho maintains there are thousands of poor struggling to make ends meet among the 1.4 million Hong Kong residents living in substandard housing.

''I organize these people and bring their problems to the desk of the government. Otherwise, the officials don't want to see the problem,'' says Ho who is unmarried and lives in public housing himself with his grandmother.

Ho says his family worries that his advocacy for the destitute and jobless and activism in human rights puts him on a collision course with China, which will take over Hong Kong in two years. As chairman of the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission, he traveled to the United States last summer as a guest of the government to meet American activists and leaders.

''When you talk to poor people about 1997, the feeling is very mixed. They don't like the British government because they have suffered under this system. They know the British government is making a profit but doesn't want to share,'' he says. ''But they also know the Chinese government won't help them either. So they never think about next week.''

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