Hit show turns Hong Kong's richest into poorest

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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future