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

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