The Hong Kong Council for Social Service releases a shocking report: poor people don’t have much. Nearly one in five people in the Big Lychee, the organization says, lack four or more of 35 ‘necessities’, thus qualifying as deprived.
I may be one of them. The full list is in Chinese at the back here. Some of the 35 items are without doubt essential or at least highly desirable: a new school uniform a year for kids, air conditioning for summer, a home refrigerator, hot bathing water in winter, eyeglasses if needed, breakfast daily, fresh fruit weekly, warm clothing in winter, and convenient public transport. Some may not be matters of life or death, but it would probably be inconvenient or even depressing to lack them: ability to afford wedding gifts, ability to afford a visit to a teahouse, assistance at home during sickness, ability to borrow HK$3,000 in an emergency, access to advice on important decisions, and basic English. Others are arguably dispensable; for example, do you need a family camera if you already have a mobile phone? Others are a bit hard to define, like respect, self-esteem, and access to leisure activities.
Without finishing the list, I can claim to tick three of the boxes. I don’t have a home TV (my amah ‘borrowed’ it years ago on finding I never switched it on). I don’t have neighbourhood recreation/sports facilities (unless you count the strip of gruesome bars on Wyndham Street). I don’t have the ability to visit family at Chinese New Year (or at least I don’t have the desire or energy to blow so much time traipsing around two continents every February). I am technically three-quarters in poverty. But I’m still happy!
One of the most telling phrases I ever read about this city (in an old Lonely Planet guide) is that you can never quite work out whether you are rich or poor here. Most of us fall somewhere between astounding and quite visible extremes. The serious poverty people most worry about is that affecting kids: typically single-parent families from the Mainland probably wishing they still had residency rights back on the other side of the border. The government tries to help out with travel allowances, computer/Internet vouchers and other handouts. Perhaps the real scandal is among the elderly. Bureaucrats who ensure their own health needs are generously met and are sitting on over a trillion dollars in reserves take apparent pride in denying penniless 80-somethings basic dental care.
This mentality dates from colonial times, when public services were viewed as a waste that would simply encourage surplus mouths to settle in Hong Kong. It is the sort of thing the next Chief Executive, CY Leung, probably intends to fix, should the pro-democrats in the Legislative Council deign not to put too many obstacles in his path.
As a sign that times are changing, I return to my desk after a couple of weeks away to find two souvenirs of Donald Tsang’s outgoing administration: an Audit Commission report on the CE’s overseas hotel arrangements and some Independent Review Committee blather about senior officials accepting luxury yacht and jet travel from tycoons…
We declare the weekend prematurely open by returning to the fun map quiz for all the family – chosen for its absurdly obscure subject matter. So I thought. As a surprising number of alert folk knew, the map shows concealed-carry laws: blue states must issue permits to anyone who qualifies, yellow/orange states retain discretionary powers, and mean old Illinois doesn’t let you wander around with a pistol.