City Life: Hong Kong - Island with cold heart feels the Big Chill

THE GRIM news came quickly last week, just as it had every year when the temperature slipped below 10C (50F). Reports started to flow in of old people dying.

At least eight died on the first day of the cold snap, by the second day the numbers were comfortably in double figures. Some suffered from hypothermia while others died from conditions such as weak hearts, which are exacerbated by the cold.

Temperatures of this kind may not seem very severe to people in Britain but in semi-tropical Hong Kong they are nothing short of The Big Chill.

Just after dawn last Friday I visited a frail old lady who gave her name as Mrs Yip. She was selling a motley collection of old clothes on the streets of the Causeway Bay district. Wrapped in layers of clothing, she hopped up and down, trying to keep warm.

Why was she out on the streets so early? She explained that she had no hawker's licence and so would be stopped by the police if she tried selling goods later in the day. Besides, her customers would be embarrassed to buy her wares when there were a lot of people around.

She needed to make some extra money because she had no relatives to look after her and simply could not manage on the government handout of about pounds 40 per week.

Did she have any heating at home? "No point,"she answered. "I don't have enough money for that." She said the winter period was short and it was not worth buying a heater. "So, how cold's your flat?"

"Colder than out here," she said shivering.

Like many poor old people in Hong Kong, Mrs Yip lives in a tiny flat with paper-thin walls. Her flat contains no toilet, she shares a communal one. It is somewhat better than the infamous "caged housing", now being eradicated, but notorious as little more than bed spaces surrounded by cages to prevent theft. Most of those living in these dormitories filled with cages were old people.

Mrs Yip pointed out that in winter the caged housing had its advantages because the number of people in single rooms made it warmer. These same circumstances made conditions pretty intolerable during Hong Kong's intensely humid summers.

According to a recent report, produced by Oxfam, Mrs Yip is not alone. Something like one million people, or a sixth of the population, are living in poverty.

The cold weather suddenly brings public attention to the generally discreet plight of the poor.

Being old and poor is no joke in Hong Kong. Suicide rates among the elderly are three times higher than those of the West, with an alarming 30 to 40 elderly people out of every 100,000 taking their own lives.

On paper Hong Kong people appear to be more wealthy than those in Britain but in practice wealth is highly concentrated and the poverty gap is widening.

The economic crisis is making things worse but the government's response is to think up ways of cutting social assistance payments because demand is rising. Tung Chee-hwa, the millionaire shipping tycoon, who now runs the government, has been told by his advisers that he needs to show more concern for the poor. So last week he trudged out to the bleak Wong Chuk Hang housing estate and presented two elderly single women with some warm clothing and food.

"This is the time we should express our concern for the elderly and the needy and manifest the spirit of helping each other," said Mr Tung. A day earlier his officials and their allies among the businessmen in the legislature had successfully fought off a motion criticising the lowering of payments to the needy.

The idea of a welfare society is an anathema in Hong Kong. Even very poor people are reluctant to turn to the government for assistance but times are hard and sometimes they have no choice.

While temperatures remain low the government opens temporary shelters. The spirit of the workhouse is alive and well in these establishments. Those using the shelters sleep on the floor, usually covered by a single blanket.

Mr Gradgrind would find much to his liking in modern- day Hong Kong.

Stephen Vines

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world