She developed her drive early, as a primary school pupil, when her mother was a salesperson earning just $3,000 to $4,000 a month. Although she was unable to afford books and tutorials, she used public libraries and online learning resources. “I do stand at a disadvantaged starting point. But it is only a starting point. That is why I have to work harder than everyone else, or else I would really lose,” she says. As a result of her positive attitude, she was chosen as one of the 2010 Top Ten Model Youth by the We Love Hong Kong organisation.
While poverty has never been a constraint on Ng’s study, it still influences her lifelong decisions. She once aspired to be an architect but she has abandoned the dream as she would have to train for eight years before becoming fully qualified. That is eight years she cannot
afford. Also, the course requires students to make models which would be too costly for her.
Although she is disappointed, Ng is willing to accept reality. “If it can’t be, it can’t be. Many rich people were once poor. Like Li Ka-shing, he became rich out of his own efforts. I don’t believe in unfairness,” she says.
Joan Ng’s determination and academic achievements may make her an exception. Others, such as Jay and Lun, are driven into work, despite the hardship, because of their sense of responsibility towards their families. But there are some young people who neither study nor work.
The Hong Kong Council of Social Services estimates there are 49,000 “non-engaged” young people, who can be divided into five broad categories. Ken Chan Kam-ming, the chief officer of HKCSS lists the five as those with mental problems, the “hidden” or socially withdrawn, the low-motivated, those with specific learning difficulties and Southeast Asian ethnic minorities.
Chan believes one of the most important factors in tackling youth poverty is to motivate them to work. Those currently receiving CSSA payments face a deduction of $200 for every $500 earned. “When wages are so low, it does not make a big difference in their income whether they work or live on aid,” Chan says, “so many choose to rely on the CSSA instead of facing long work hours.”
Chan believes the government should not only change policies that dissuade young people from working but also adopt policies directly targeting youth poverty. As the Confederation of Trade Unions’ Scott Tam says, young people are not poor because they lack a work ethic.
“People say teenagers are unemployed because they are lazy, but those I’ve come in contact with are very proactive in finding jobs. But either they cannot find jobs or the ones they do
find are unstable.”