Street Wonder

Survival stories of Asian street children in Hong Kong

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How much do you know about street children in Hong Kong?

You might think it’s absurd to see a ‘Street Child’ at a developed city like Hong Kong.

But every night, hidden between the skyscrapers at the districts in Kowloon peninsula,
hundreds of underprivileged children are wandering on almost every street corners.

On Universal Children’s Day in November 20, a team of journalists, photographers
and filmmakers began venturing into the streets of Kowloon to discover their stories.

In the following pages, voices from children, families, government officials, child right
experts and social workers reveal the reality confronting Hong Kong’s forgotten children.
These accounts, gathered in film, podcasts, illustrations and photos, as well as statistical
analysis, are casting new light on our abandoned generation, here at the heart of Asia.

Child Safety Consultant:  Viva Child Protection

*Photos published with consent from parents or legal guardians

Where are the street children in Hong Kong
& Why they exist?

Zoom & Pan to navigate around the neighbourhood.

Most children here come from underprivileged families. Their parents or foster parents aren’t present most of the time. With no guidance, we see them pouring onto the streets in Yau Tsim Mong districts every night.

Martin Radford
Martin RadfordFounder, Inner City Children

Sources: Viva Child Protection, Inner City Children, Mission Bridge

Background Photo: Portland Street, Hong Kong – Wikipedia

Favourite Story Feather of Hope.

What if you have nothing left? And your only goal is to survive. From the ghettos of Hong Kong, we bring you the story of a mother and daughter rediscovering hope to live beyond survival.

Bobby C. Chan
Bobby C. ChanChief Storyteller, Storyholic.org

I never listened to my mother when I was a kid. But now ..
my only wish is that my daughter won’t go the wrong way.

Anna Sari
Anna Sari47 years old, Mixed Asian Immigrant, Yau Ma Tei

Background Photo: Stanley Ng

Sources: Feedinghk.org, World Bank, Bloomberg, Hong Kong SAR Government

Background Photos: Tse Hon Ning, SCMP

Investigation
– The Underlying issues confronting Hong Kong’s deprived children.

For us boys, if all things fail, we will just join a local gang or become a drug dealer.

YAU TSIM MONG, Hong Kong – The dimmed yellow street lights shone softly as two children chased and held onto each other worn out t-shirts. Their laughter resonated across the air, so loud and clear that one can barely notice a hint of sadness. But behind the smiles, each child we met in the neighbourhood has an unimaginable story to tell.

Nobody knows exactly how many street children there are in Hong Kong. The numbers varies from hundreds to thousands.

The most fundamental reason is the lack of a definition for the term ‘street children’. As a matter of fact, nobody really knows what a street child is. Is a child who hangs out on the street until midnight a street child? A child who work as a cleaner during the day and who sleeps in a home at night? Does a street child have to be homeless? Penniless and dirty? 

Beyond the definition, is the harsh reality confronting underprivileged children who find their way onto the streets in Hong Kong.

The Minority Skin Colours

Across the Yau Tsim Mong district, ethnic minorities (EMs) take up a significant proportion of the dense population. With every ten children you meet in Hong Kong, one would belong to ethnic groups from South-East Asia, South Asia or Africa. Shown in the 2011 Census Report, children from Nepal accounts for the largest ethnic minority group in the district. 

With poor access to the jobs and educational resources, children from ethnic minority families in Hong Kong have become poorer over the past decade.

Poorest In a Decade

The study conducted by Hong Kong Institute of Education in 2015 showed the poverty rates of all four ethnic minority categories in the city – including Pakistani, Nepalese, mixed Chinese and Asian families as well as families from other racial backgrounds – had skyrocketed in the past ten years.

Dr. Kelvin Cheung Chi-kin, assistant professor of Hong Kong Institute of Education and the lead investigator of the report, said that child poverty among ethnic minorities had not changed “despite economic development”.

1in10 Children

in Hong Kong belong to Ethnic Minority groups from across Asia.

Shown in a detailed report by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, the EMs’ poverty rate had risen at an alarming rate, from 17.3 precent in 2001 to 23.9 percent in 2011. Among Nepalese community, only 9.1 percent of the families were in poverty in 2001, but that figure had jumped to 23.2 percent in 2011. Asian and Chinese mixed families also saw their poverty rate increase – from 22.6 percent to 33.6 percent during the same period.

Among all the ethnic minorities, Pakistani families had the highest poverty rate and their situation had worsened. Their poverty rate increased 10.5 percent to 59.6 percent in the past decade.

The problem is even worse amongst the EM child group. A report done by the City University of Hong Kong reveals that one in three ethnic minority children is living in poor families.

Furthermore, according to the 2011 Census Report, the  household income of EM families is 12-50 percent lower than the overall median household income of $HKD23,500. With that, most EM families find it extremely hard to provide sufficient resources for their children to grow and develop.

12-50% Lower

Ethnic minority famiies’ earnings in comparison with local families.

In the midst of Hong Kong’s competitive mindset where parents are told not to have their children ‘lose out at the starting line’, EM families in the Yau Tsim Mong District can only choose to care less. With the majority of EM Parent being barely able to afford the basic cost of living, extra-curricular activities to develop children’s skills are often out of consideration.

Racial Barrier and Discrimination 

A recent example of this was a recent story published by the South China Morning Post, highlighting the ordeal of a Pakistani woman looking to rent a tiny flat in Kowloon, as landlords would turn her away because of her skin colour.

It’s not only housing. From finding job, to getting their children to a local school interview, to hailing a cab, to getting medical treatment in a public hospital, ethnic minorities are facing all kinds of discrimination on a daily basis.

Since the Race Discrimination Ordinance came into effect in 2009, nearly three-quarters of the complaints handled by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) under this new law have been related access to employment, education, good and facilities.

The Fight

”As an ethnic minority child, I grew up facing systemic barriers to education and later in employment. Many of us feel that we could only be ever be construction workers or security guards. For us boys, if all things fail, we will just join a local gang or become a drug dealer. ” said Jeffery Andrews, Hong Kong first ethnic minority social worker.

”In 2011, the EOC released the report, which describes how the mainstream education system has failed the majority of ethnic minority students,” says Andrews, ”particularly in supporting them to master Chinese when the language is not spoken at home.”

Andrews further pointed out that the situation was even worse for children with special education needs (SEN) – like autism and dyslexia. – with a 57 percent drop out rate (before age 18) among ethnic minorities against 5 per cent for the whole SEN population.

Growing up in Boxes

In Yau Tsim Mong district, a huge portion of children under the age of 16 are living in the box-like space known as ”subdivided flat” with their families, says Andrews.

”It is created when landlords divided a normal size apartment using wood boards to gain tenants and profit.” A practice that is deem illegal in Hong Kong for safety and legal concerns.

50 - 150 sq ft

is the average size of one sub-divided flat in Yau Tsim Mong.

Background Photo: HKFP

Moments & Impressions
that will never fade.

Journeying into the Neighbourhood.

Child Safety Consultant:  Viva Child Protection

*Photos published with consent from parents or legal guardians

Background Photo: ANDY YEUNG

Faith.

I write secret notes & put them there, says Manish, flashing her trademark toothless smile.

YAU MA TEI, Hong Kong — A deep amber-yellow light lent Manish’s brown skin a slight orange glow. She sat cross-legged on the pavilion’s concrete, her large dark brown eyes fixated on the storyteller.

“So what does this story teach us?” The loud guffaw of answers rushed into her eardrums like the roar of a cargo truck.

“Forgiveness!” She shouted at the top of her lungs.

She fidgeted and stole a glance towards her best friends, Kei Kei and Parshana.

Gurgling laughter and playful shouts pierced through the air of Saigon Street playground and Manish was eager to get moving.

Then, it was her favorite: game time.

“One…two…three…” The numbers became a mumble as she panted and sprinted as fast as she could. She peeked through the bushes. This was her secret hiding spot—behind a concrete bench that was shrouded by shrubs was her height.

A few kids ran past, their footsteps pattering like raindrops. Manish broke into a gap-toothed smile. They couldn’t find her; rather, they never did. She always win at hide and seek. Always.

“Manish!” A high-pitched shout broke through the sounds of play. Her heart sunk. Her mother had come. The time for Friday night games was over, and it was time to return to the box-like space that was her home.

Manish, a 7 years old girl of Nepalese origin, is one of the many ethnic minorities in Hong Kong that live in apartments no larger than a 100 square feet. For them, housing is difficult to come by and the language gap is also a challenge.

Manish lives on the 10th floor and the endless flights of stairs are the only way up.

IMG_0210

Clambering up the stairs two at a time had long become her daily routine. She had to be careful of the chipped corners where tiles had broken off. She would wheeze a little sometimes.

“I used to get tired easily when I was small, but not anymore,” she said, smiling as she settled in her small single bed.

The 6 year old attends Canton Road Government Primary School. She goes there during the day from Monday to Friday and has dance class on Saturday and Sunday. In the night, she would spend her time doing the endless heaps of homework and if she had time left, she would draw on the small makeshift table beside her bed. Her mother would cook in the kitchen two steps away.

When it was time to sleep, her parents would fold the table and place a small single mattress, 1-inch thick on the floor. It was there her parents would sleep, squished together, whilst Manish took the bed.

“It costs $3500 a month,” said Manish’s father who works as a security guard in Hong Kong.

They waited for a wide span of years, hopping from district to district before they found their current home. “They don’t want to give you the place, especially if you’re not Chinese,” he said as he leaned against the doorway.

Within the crammed space, Manish favorite place is her bed. She sleeps on the lower part of the bunk bed while the top is used as an open storage for belongings such as clothes, nylon bags, old textbooks and an old telephone.

Her favorite toy is Princess, a pink stuffed toy that resembled a pig. It had deep pink ears while the rest of its bodywas colored like cotton candy. It held a heart-shaped container in its hands.

“I like to write secret notes and put them there,” she said, flashing her trademark gap-toothed smile as she gestured to the heart.

“It’s so Princess isn’t lonely.”

According to a research study done by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, ethnic minorities in Hong Kong face several issues such as poverty and housing problems. The Yau Tsim Mong district that Manish is living in is also highly populated by secret hotels and bars that have become a haven for drug users.

Vijay Partap Sharma, founder of Mission Bridge, a non-profit organization that aims to help ‘street kids’, agreed. “Many children become drug addicts when they become older, and even join gangs or become prostitutes,” he said.

“Our mission is to give them love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness through our weekend gatherings.”

These weekend gatherings have become Manish’s favorite days of the week. It is a day when she can play with her best friends, Kei Kei, a four-year-old Hong Kong local, and Parshana, who also belongs to the ethnic minority.

Another challenge that ethnic minorities in Hong Kong struggle to overcome is the difference in language, according to Alex Lo, a senior writer at the South China Morning Post. He argues that teaching Chinese language properly is the simplest way to help ethnic minorities to lessen the discrimination they face in society.

It allows them to compete on a more level playing field, and encourages them to complete education instead of dropping out.

The high school dropout rate among local ethnic minorities highlights the increasing exclusion of the city’s non-Chinese in the general community, which leads to a downward cycle of higher crime and poverty rates, the first comprehensive analysis on the status of Asian ethnic minorities in Hong Kong revealed.

In a city with a dwindling general birthrate and fast ageing population, the answer could lie in Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities becoming a source of manpower to replenish the workforce.

Untitled design (11)

Learning the Chinese language however seems to be the least of Manish’s troubles. She can communicate well in Cantonese and English, and is a frequent top scorer in her class.

Her favorite class is Art class where she likes to draw princesses. She also likes dancing, and has won several competitions with her moves. She is knowledgeable in a wide variety of dances, ranging from Nepalese to Indian.

“She likes K-pop,” her mother said, smiling as she dug through a nylon bag for Manish’s homework. “Her favorite is Big Bang and sometimes she just dances away.”

Untitled design (18)

Despite the busy working hours, Manish’s parents try their best to spend time with her whenever they can. For 7 year-old Manish, it is all she can ask for.

“I will be a doctor when I grow up. Because when Mom and Dad are old.. I can make them stay here longer with me.” Manish said, her cheery smile fading into a moment of seriousness.

Masterpiece.
Redeemed by a Second Chance.

Bobby C. Chan
Bobby C. ChanChief Storyteller, Storyholic.org

” I don’t like kids when I was back in India. Because when they cry I have no idea what to do. If the kid is under 1 year old is okay right? But when I met the street kids.. I tell you what, they NEVER look for my face, or the way I dress. All the time, their love is the same. They hug me, they kiss me, they receive me, no matter what. ”

Vijay Sharma
Vijay SharmaFounder, Mission Bridge

” I’ve met countless single parents and broken families. I once met a boy who was adopted into a new family, turned out his foster mother’s boyfriend is a drug dealer. Another family we know, the mother is an illegal immigrant .. never went out like a normal human for 10 years, and neither did her own child. ”

Kitling Kung Sharma
Kitling Kung SharmaFounder, Mission Bridge

Background Photo: Mission Bridge

We let them know they are masterpieces. Vijay said with a smirk. With that, no matter how the world tramples over them, their worth will never change.

When Vijay Sharma, a designer who was born in India visited Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong, he had one thing in mind: to bring hope to the underprivileged children on the streets of Kowloon peninsula.

Vijay Sharma, who worked for Bollywood’s prime time media industry, is one of the few who chose to walk away from glamour and fame into helping the poor. With his Hong Kong wife – Kitling Kung, they began visiting street children in 2012. Ever since their lives have never been the same. And this, marked the beginning of the husband and wife’s mission to spend time with underprivileged children on the streets of Yau Tsim Mong district.

‘’Mission Bridge’’ was founded in 2012 by the husband and wife Vijay and Kitling Sharma, endearingly known as Ultimate United. But it’s much more than just a name. It is a safe-haven for street children in the Hong Kong who were once destined to lives of crime, sex trafficking, and navigating street gangs.

Due to the pervasive poverty that has woven itself into Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Jordan districts, children in the area are influenced to become robbers, prostitutes, drug dealers, and worse. Without help from the government or guidance from family, teenage street children start up their own gangs that provide an alternative security –  an affirmation to own’s masculinity.

“By the time young children have grown up, the once apparently angelic youngsters can act like old devils,” says Jimmy Lee, one of the volunteers who regularly help Vijay’s and his team.

But thanks to the efforts of Vijay and Kitling, hundreds of street children have received new lives. This year alone, Mission Bridge have served more than 400 children. The majority of the families are receiving care and time from Mission Bridge, but beyond that, tangible help and support are also given – such as street football club for the ”bad boys”.

Spending time with Vijay and Kitling, it is clear that they are providing much more than seeming sympathy to these disadvantaged children. They are also opening to them outlets of artistic expression in dance and music, teaching them compassion and forgiveness through their signature on-site storytelling every Friday night. When it comes to games and gifts time, the couple is never tired of seeing the faces of these children light up.

Children arriving at the couple’s embrace are given a chance for a total transformation; a transformation that provides them with not only a more stable life in the future but a rewarding life as well.

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As these children are encouraged to pursue what makes them joyful, a future once muddled with uncertainty and temptation suddenly appears warm, reassured and bright.

After spending three years with Mission Bridge, many of the children who have given up on studies or even given into crime have since found a new home of unconditional love, encouraging them to re-build their identity and future.

Kitling says she constantly challenges herself to develop new teaching methods, especially for children who have low self-esteem, not because of lagging intelligence, but because of influencing factors such as abandonment, the absence of parental care, and language barriers.

“We let them know they are masterpieces,” Vijay said with a smirk. “With that, no matter how the world tramples over them, their worth will never change.”

As Mission Bridge continues to grow, the team in Yau Ma Tei is constantly looking for new ways to pave more paths for the children they encountered. This year, they have started football coaching and soon Ukelele weekend. ‘’When the children attend, their sense of loneliness is cast out immediately by the love that surrounds them.’’ Vijay exclaims.

The idea that children should be encouraged to follow their dreams and pursue individual purpose and happiness is not new. It’s often parroted by teachers, parents, and mentors around the world. However, in light of Vijay and Kitling Sharma, sacrificial compassion is what drives them to never fail to be with the children every weekend.

The street children in Hong Kong, once confined to chronic poverty and crime, have been given the greatest freedom of all – the freedom to be themselves.

Freedom to ..

‘’ You see this face? This is a face of a comedian! ’’
– Gurung, 10 years old

'' You see this face? I am going to be a comedian! ''

‘’ My first dancing award this is. And it won’t be the last ’’
– Erica, 9 years old

‘’ I want to explore every forests! For now.. I am a worm. ’’
– Ling Ling, 7 years old

I am a worm1

‘’ I always style his hair. And everyone love it. ’’
– Manesh, 7 years old

‘’ Mmm, me? I want to be happy! ’’
– Abhimoda, 6 years old

‘’ I made the flower on my head using stuff I found..Do you like it?’’
- Nadia, 9 years old

Nadia

Background Photo: Tommy Wong

Join the conversation on Streetwonder.org
We will be bringing to you more stories.

Curator & Reporters

Bobby C. Chan
Bobby C. ChanChief Storyteller, Storyholic.org
Xinyi Liew
Xinyi LiewBlogger & Writer
Stephanie Chan
Stephanie ChanArtist, OnceUpon2stars
Sarah Wong
Sarah WongReporter, TVB Pearl
Wong ShuTing
Wong ShuTingBlogger

Reporting

Bobby C. Chan

Stephanie Chan

Xinyi Liew

ShuTing Wong

______

Editing

Bobby C. Chan

______

______

Child Safety Consultation 

1

Cherry Yuk Man Ho

Justine Demmer

______

Rights & Legal Advise

Cherry Yuk Man Ho

Martin Radford

______

Coding & Design

Bobby C. Chan

______

Photography 

Xinyi Liew

Bobby C. Chan

Kwong Chi Kit

Vijay Sharma

Andy Yeung

Tse Hon Ning

Tommy Wong

Stanley Ng

______

Infographics

Bobby C. Chan

Stephanie Chan

______

Video Production

Bobby C. Chan

Xinyi Liew

Sarah Wong

______

Audio & Podcast Production

Bobby C. Chan

______

Arts & Sketches 

Stephanie Chan

Bobby C. Chan

______

Supplementary Photographs

Mission Bridge

South China Morning Post

Social Work Department Hong Kong

Time Out HK

Wikipedia.com

Coconuts Hong Kong

Bloomberg Hong Kong

Hong Kong Free Press

Daily Mail UK

UNICEF

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