Hit show turns Hong Kong's richest into poorest

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The Independent Culture

Top jewellery executive Erwin Huang is a respected power broker in Hong Kong's business community, but he scored a failing grade when it came to rubbish collection.

The 46-year-old got a hard lesson in low-paid work as part of a hit television show that turns some of the financial hub's wealthiest business titans into its poorest labourers for a few days - sparking a ratings bonanza.

Donning a mask, apron and rubber gloves, Huang nearly passed out from the rotting stench of rubbish he was tasked with dumping, and threatened to quit his temporary job after just a few hours.

"It's very stinky... I need some fresh air. I can't take it anymore," Huang, who received about $6 dollars a day, complained to his unimpressed supervisor.

"Look at my hands, they are swollen. It's because of the dirty water. This is very hard. I'm dizzy, I need some time to rest," he groaned, taking repeated rest breaks.

Huang's hapless performance aired on The Battle of the Poor Rich, which has soared in popularity since its 2009 debut.

Some of Hong Kong's mega-rich have appeared on the show as janitors and sweepers, scrambling for their next meal while sleeping in the city's infamous cage homes - tiny cubicles that rent for about $200 a month.

The wealthy volunteers are taking part in the reality show - which highlights the plight of the city's poor - to experience another side of life while hoping to boost their flagging public image.

Huang, then chief executive of Tse Sui Luen Jewellery, found his small quarters too much to bear in Hong Kong's stifling heat, so he opted to sleep on the street instead.

Adding insult to injury, Huang's female superior gave him a failing grade, noting that his slack effort caused them to miss the rubbish truck.

"I know some people think it's funny seeing these millionaires sweep the floor," said Doris Wong, the show's executive producer, adding that the gimmicky style "draws audiences".

The show's weekly ratings have soared from about 64,000 during the first season to 1.2 million viewers in the second season, or about 17 percent of Hong Kong's seven million residents.

The city is usually associated with laissez-faire economic policies and super-rich tycoons, including its wealthiest man Li Ka-shing, a household name who has been dubbed "Superman" for his business prowess.

But a rising tide of anger has emerged in recent years as poor and middle class residents struggle to afford homes amid soaring property prices.

Now, the once-admired tycoons are more often vilified, including Li and his vast property holdings. Hong Kong's wage gap is one of the developed world's largest while the city's millionaire ranks grew about 33 percent last year.

For Hong Kong financier Johnny Chan, collecting cardboard was an "eye opening and humbling experience", far from his lucrative job in Hong Kong's glitzy financial district.

"When I was on the show, I felt so empty and scared- it was hard living as a cardboard collector," the 39-year-old father of three told AFP.

"I hope I was able to shine some light on this problem. Society needs to help the poor collectively - the government, media, citizens," he added.

Although dozens of the city's wealthy have forsaken their luxurious lifestyles and Brooks Brothers suits to live in poverty, the show's producer said it's tough to find new takers.

"Some of them feared that they will be seen as hypocrites - of doing this show instead of really wanting to help," Wong said, adding that one person deliberated for two years before agreeing to appear on the show.

"Many rich people have turned us down, saying they don't know how the public will react," she added.

Michael Tien, a local politician and owner of popular clothing chain G2000, said his time sweeping the city's streets "wasn't tough at all". But Tien admitted getting lost taking public transport - he usually has a chauffeur.

"As a prominent figure in Hong Kong, I think it is important to be seen out and about, seeing the world rather than sitting behind a desk," he told AFP.

"As a politician, you can't afford to be out of touch with your people," he added.

Tien started his streetsweeping duties at the crack of dawn and earned just enough to buy pre-packaged meals at convenience stores.

"Society's view of me has changed," he said.

"People on the street have come up to me and thanked me for caring about them...I'm a much happier person after the show," Tien added.

Critics cast doubt on whether anyone can understand living in poverty after just a few days, while participants are quick to defend the city's elite.

"A lot of wealthier sectors of society actually do a lot for the poor," said Chan, the financier-turned-cardboard collector, citing a new charitable fund started by Li Ka-shing.

"It's just that a lot of them don't publicise it and have a film crew following them around."

Accusing the city's rich of exploiting the poor is "very unfortunate", he added.

"It is not necessary to demonise us. We keep the economy going and we employ people...The burden of helping the poor does not fall on the rich."

Still, the show's executive producer points to signs that the city's wealthy are reaching out to the poor more than ever before.

Chan said he has been making more donations and visiting the elderly since his appearance, while Tien said he has called on the city's railway system to offer discounts to low-income passengers.

Local reports earlier this year chronicled a masked - and still unidentified - woman handing out money in Hong Kong's poorest districts.

"We are laying seeds for change," said Wong, the show's producer.

"Hopefully we are changing the mindsets of one rich person at a time."