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Prosecuted for selling cardboard for HK$1: The story of Hong Kong’s working elderly

Last Sunday, 75-year-old Grandma Chu began her usual routine – collecting cardboard to sell. Little did she know she was about to be arrested.

At around 4pm, she found herself surrounded by six public hygiene officers after she gave a piece of cardboard to a foreign domestic worker in Central. Chu did not ask for money, but the worker gave her HK$1 as a token of thanks.

The exchange marked the beginning of a days-long nightmare for the elderly woman. Despite Chu begging to be released, the officers took her to the Sheung Wan office of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. She stayed there for around two hours while her case was being processed.

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Ms. Chu. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

She was then sent to a police station nearby, where she was given a prosecution notice and asked to put down HK$30 of bail money. She had only HK$34 on her at the time.

“They said I could keep HK$4 for transport,” Chu said Friday in the Chai Wan office of Civic Party district councillor Lai Chi-keong, who drew public attention to the case after publicising his mitigation letter to the court for Chu.

“That is so cold-hearted of them to say that. HK$2 for going home and HK$2 for going to Central [to see a lawyer],” Lai replied. Hong Kong’s senior citizens enjoy concession fares on public transport at HK$2 per trip.

Chu is facing a charge of unlicensed hawking and another of obstructing public space. The maximum sentence of the former charge is a HK$5,000 fine and one month in prison, while the latter carries a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine or three months behind bars.

“I never thought they would be so heartless,” she said. “The worker wanted cardboard to sit on. I gave it to her. She offered HK$1, so I took it.”

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Lai Chi-keong met with Ms. Chu. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Chu’s hand-pulled cart – borrowed from a friend – is also being held by the authorities. It remains to be decided whether the cart will be returned.

‘I don’t want help’

A hearing is scheduled for next week, though a lawyer who offered to represent Chu pro bono upon finding out her situation is hoping to convince the authorities to drop the charges.

At least 40 people have approached Lai to offer a range of help, including a hand-pulled cart and a crowdfunding campaign. A charity has offered donations to Chu.

But Chu said she would not accept any of the offers.

“I don’t want help,” she said. Lai, who has known Chu for at least five years, said Chu is an adamant character who does not want to rely on others. Lai said it is a characteristic typical of her generation.

This determination was demonstrated once again on Friday evening when Chu refused free hot food from Lai and insisted on paying him.

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Ms. Chu. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

For all of her life, Chu has never thought of getting outside help.

She became widowed at 23 – just seven days after her daughter was born – and moved to Hong Kong from mainland China in 1982. She said she had not once sought help from her well-to-do in-laws while raising her only child as a single mother.

Chu has worked as a cleaner for most of her life. After passing the retirement age, she works as a temporary street sweeper and collects cardboard. Even a variety of diseases – such as deformed fingers owing to arthritis – did not stop her. She refuses to receive social welfare benefits.

Her daughter recently moved back to live with her after being diagnosed with stage-three cancer. Chu shouldered the responsibility of caring for her daughter.

Chu said she did not want publicity, as her daughter did not know about the prosecution she did not want to upset her.

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Lai Chi-keong met with Chu. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Though she seemed to worry about wasting Lai’s time, the district councillor convinced Chu that he was helping her out of a sense of justice.

Lai said he hopes the authorities will give her a second chance. “I think law enforcement agents should be more flexible in carrying out their work,” he told HKFP.

Asked if he has any plans to help Chu, Lai said: “I will try to persuade her to apply for social welfare.”

“I will also try to find social workers to help with her family situation. But of course, we will first need Chu’s permission – you see how stubborn she is about not accepting any help.”

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Prosecuted for selling cardboard for HK$1: The story of Hong Kong's working elderly