Friday, 6 April 2012

Compassion Disappearing from HK

Tam Kin-wai in his old home; he lives in public housing
There was a story in the local paper today interviewing a man who lived in a communal space.

Tam Kin-wai, 76, has fond memories of communal living for 50 years and his story also reflects the rapid changes in society.

When he rented a space in To Kwa Wan in the 1960s he lived there for nearly 20 years.

"There was a time when for two full years, I couldn't pay rent, because I was out of a job," Tam recalled. "Instead of kicking me out, my landlord invited me to dinner with his family."

He explained the landlord was a tailor and leased the flat from the owner and occupied the largest room with his family, while subletting the rest of the space to people like Tam.

After he lost his factory job and was unable to find another one, Tam struggled for money. But the landlord never pressured him; instead his wife kept giving Tam food to eat.

"He was prepared to pay my share for me because he didn't want to see me on the streets," Tam said. "He could have easily found another tenant, but he kept me. I felt so guilty that when they asked me to dine with them, I'd refuse and say I'd eaten, even though I was starving. I felt bad for taking their food while I couldn't even pay rent."

However, Tam eventually found a job and he tracked down the landlord -- who had moved away -- and presented him his two full years of rent.

"Places are made by people," Tam said. "And it is people who change those places."

During that time, he explained people shared their food, help each other financially and become friends. "There was always room for another pair of chopsticks," he said, adding people were poor and so they did whatever they could to find work but also shared whatever they had.

It was also then that Tam remembers being able to leave his door wide open and his cupboards were unlocked when he went out because he knew no one would steal from him.

However, he noticed things started to change in the 1990s. "People became more complicated, and landlords were not as they were before," Tam said.

One theory is that because landlords moved out of the flats and refitted the rooms to accommodate more people, they were more focused on profits than tenants. This resulted in communal spaces and kitchens disappearing and places became more crowded and dirty, resulting in problems with fleas.

"There's less trust between the landlords and tenants. I don't blame [the landlords], as more people try to cheat them out of paying the rent," he said. "It's just a different world. Harder and meaner."

How did Hong Kong become this way?

I thought after SARS people were more friendly and more caring about the city. It's almost 10 years since those frightening times and people have already forgotten they live in this community together?

This evening I finished working out at the gym and didn't get to near my neighbourhood until 8:45pm. I walked into a cha chaan teng (HK diner) I'd been in before and the waiter seemed to look at me like he recognized me but then brusquely stated the place was closed even though there were customers in there.

Did he have to be so rude about it? He could have said, "Sorry we're closed at 9pm", but made no effort to be polite.

I won't be going there anymore.

With Hong Kong's economy slowing down, he doesn't realize he's lost a potential customer for the long term?

But of course not -- it's not his restaurant. And with seven million people in the city, he's bound to have other customers.

Should we just shrug our shoulders and forget about it?

Or should we stop and wonder how we became this way?

This is not a problem the chief executive should solve; it's really up to each of us to make an effort.


  1. it is heart warming to have read stories like this.

  2. Well it is kind of sad to see how people's attitudes towards each other is changing...