Newspaper Romeo

When I asked why old woman collect Newspapers in Hong Kong I was given two distinct answers. I was told that it was for the extra money to help out the family and that it was for the social aspect. Making extra money seemed plausible. What elderly person, watching their son and step daughter go off to work every day wouldn’t feel better about themselves if they could contribute? Considering that many Asian elderly live with their children only reinforces this theory. I still wonder, is this enough evidence to explain the numerous groups of little old ladies who brave the surging, bumping, hurried crowds collecting papers in the early hours at almost every train station.

After looking up how much recycling pays I discovered that collecting papers yields only 15 cents per kilogram. How much can an old woman carry, maybe ten kilograms? This adds up to a scant 1.50 HK per day. In a five-day week she would have enough to buy a can of beans, and not the fancy ones either. After thinking it over, it just didn’t seem worth it. I’ve seen cheap scarves sell for 30 dollars. Other options are much more practical. Knitting or any other sedentary occupation has to be a better choice for an old woman whom gravity has doubled over so much she has to look up to see in front of her. Still, every morning they are there, when it’s humid enough to swim in the air, and hot enough to make waterfalls spurt from your pours. Even without the extremes in climate it’s not an easy job.

Often there are three ladies in one spot competing with each other, raising their hand to every papered passerby, imploring a donation and only receiving one paper for every 50 work bound commuter. When they finish collecting, their work has only just begun. The little old ladies must haul them home, dragging their cache behind them in a box tied to a string, store them, and eventually drag them to a truck for collection. On top of the labor, climate and the hours there are also the paper thieves to contend with. I witnessed an old man who missed picking up his paper on the way on to the train attempt to steal a paper from an old ladies stash on his way out. He quickly leaned over as he passed and snatched it like a hawk plucking a fish from a stream but she was quicker and like a stealthy viper stalking a mouse she crept up behind him and with unimaginable speed and accuracy struck, snatching the paper from his hand.

In many ways this hardly seems worth the money, which led me to believe maybe there is something to the social aspect. Of course there are the regulars and both parties flash big smiles when they approach each other, or stop to exchange pleasantries. Despite these it still does not seem worth it. Hong Kong offers elderly unlimited transportation and places to gather and chat at such as, shaded seating areas, temples, teahouses, dim sum, noodle, and congee restaurants and group tai chi practice in the mornings. One day I witnessed an exchange and I knew why it was worth it.

I knew something special was going to happen when I saw all three ladies with their eyes all fixed on the same target. Following their gaze I spotted him. He strolled through with confidence for a man in his eighties or a man in his twenties. With his cocked pork pie hat, neat white collared shirt, loose tie and sport jacket slung over his crooked arm, he looked like he walked out of photograph from the 1900’s when men dressed the same for working on docks as they did for a day at the office. More important than the clothes was his bearing. Some may describe it as regal others might describe it as charismatic.  His clean-shaven face was creased around the eyes by years of smiling. His upturned mouth gave the air that he was privy to some private joke that made you want to get to know him because maybe he might tell you and you too could share in that relaxed, confident countenance.

Floating through the train station in Lok Fu he moved through the current and it parted around him. I saw all three ladies their heads popping up like gophers, with smiles so big their cheeks almost closed their eyes. Under his arm, opposite his sport coat he carried a paper. Who would he give it to? None of the ladies put their hands to beg, but only waited. Streams of paper carrying passengers swept passed them and they didn’t notice them at all. Some regulars had to drop off their own papers on top of the collection piles because each old lady seemed to be making sure their hands would be free when the gentleman passed.  He reached under his arm with a fluid sweep and clasped his paper and he approached the nearest old lady. I checked the others to see if they were sad but they continued to smile. Then I saw why. With a flick of his wrist his one paper revealed itself like a Chinese fan in three sections and to each lady he glided by he gave one. As he passed his paper he paused, the two of them holding the paper together and he whispered something soft and secret to each. So if you ever see a young American man collecting papers you’ll know it’s just for the social aspect so maybe he can learn the art and the secret of the newspaper Romeo.