Monday, 14 May 2012

Bringing Community Back to Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government really doesn't have much of a clue of how to look after its own people, especially the ones who need the most help.

But thankfully there are some residents out there who are actively making a difference.

One of them is Benson Tsang Chi-ho, who was outraged last year when the government handed out HK$6,000 ($773) to permanent residents. Instead of depositing it in his bank account, Tsang used it to buy tins of food and hot meals from small, independent stores and restaurants in Sham Shui Po to feed the local poor.

The interior designer inspired some of his friends to help out and use their HK$6,000 handout "as it should be used -- back into the community".

He encouraged others to join in through a Facebook campaign.

But then on February 15 the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Home Affairs Department conducted a clean-up operation without warning and swooped on street sleepers in Sham Shui Po, confiscating and taking away their belongings including clothing, bedding, identity cards and phones.

Usually the police give notice to the street sleepers so that they can pick up their things and move on, but that day they could hardly keep any of their few possessions.

"I got so mad about it I started ranting on Facebook," Tsang said of his reaction. "That night I brought clothes down to Sham Shui Po for [the street sleepers] but they were nowhere to be seen. It was really cold that night."

After his online rant over a year later, some 150 to 180 people gather once a month to try to make a difference, and most have never met each other before.

"It's completely decentralized and anonymous," Tsang explains. "No one needs to commit and everyone's encouraged to bring the idea back to their own neighbourhoods, or start their own actions."

According to Tsang, it's not about feeding and clothing the poor, but to change the way people see others and realize how powerful one's decisions can be.

"This is not about being sympathetic -- we don't needs that. It's about sharing. We are trying to rebuild community and relationships within a neighbourhood," he said.

Nise Sou Lai-sim, a regular participant says, "We hope this experience will create bridges between people of different backgrounds. Our aim is to bring back the sense of neighbourly friendliness which Hong Kong has lost."

She became involved when Tsang organized a "mooncake event" where the group gave out 800 mooncakes that had been donated.

Sou adds the importance of buying locally to the project.

"If we buy cans of food from ParknShop and Wellcome, then the meaning is lost. This exercise is actually about bringing awareness. I changed the way I see, and so I changed the way I consume."

Others, like Cyrus Hu Kwok-chum have also learned from joining in the group since last December.

"My eyes were opened," he said, as he became more aware of who would benefit from the money he spent. He also now counted street sleepers, local store and restaurant owners as well as people collecting cardboard among his friends.

As Hu works in a food import and export company, his bosses now donate food and drinks that are close to their sell-by date that cannot be sold to supermarkets.

Hopefully Tsang's group will build momentum and inspire others to start their own neighbourhood groups to help others.

It reminds me of a blog post I wrote earlier about a local resident who was grateful for his landlord's help in supporting him through his hard times.

Because if the government's not going to do it, who will?

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