Reporters: Katherine Chan and Melanie Leung
With a cap pulled over his head and a pair of black-rimmed glasses, 22-year-old Jay looks like a typical Hong Kong youngster. His eyes are glazed over with fatigue – not because of endless hours spent playing computer games but from long hours of work, day in, day out.
Jay’s father died when he was young and he came to Hong Kong with his mother and younger sister seven years ago in the hope of a better life. But things did not turn out so well. His mother got cancer two years after their arrival and Jay dropped out of school after form five.
The family survived on Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) and Jay’s part-time job at a laundry. But several months ago, when his sister turned 18, the government cut off their payments. His sister also no longer qualifies for assistance on the vocational course she is taking.
All this means Jay is now the family’s sole breadwinner. “Suddenly, it was all down to me. It is a heavy burden on my shoulders,” he says. He now works 13 hours a day, six days a week at the laundry store for $7,000 a month. “I am a coolie,” he says.
Not only does he have to endure long hours, but also insecurity. Jay’s work schedule is not fixed, he is never certain if he is still needed the next day. His weary, blood-shot eyes begin to well up as he quietly describes the pressure of responsibility. “Every day I wake up and all I know is I must work. If I don’t, then we will have no money. Often I feel too tired to go on, and I cry in my room.”
More than half of Jay’s earnings – $4,000 a month – is spent on rent. In order to help make ends meet, he relies on food handouts from the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals which are funded by the Social Welfare Department. The service provides rice, noodles and vegetables on a temporary basis. “I eat instant noodles for my dinner almost every night,” he says.
While many young people are full of hopes and ambitions at his age, Jay cannot foresee any future. He can only focus on making as much money as possible. Recently, he burnt his right hand on a stove when he was cooking at night but he dared not take a day off work or trouble his sick mother. Instead, he put on a glove and continued working.
To Jay, life offers no alternatives. “It won’t help if I think about the situation negatively. I would only be unhappy at work, and I would make mistakes,” he says. “Why should I even think about it? Making mistakes would cost me my job.” He laughs bitterly at the notion of pursuing further studies. “It’s just a waste of time. The new month is coming up, and I have to pay the rent.”
What keeps Jay going is his family.
Once I realise that I am not working for myself only, but also for my mother and sister, I get over it,” he says. Now he hopes things will improve if they can get a public housing flat. He counts down to the day his sister finishes studying and can share the financial burden.