Hong Kong’s homeless react to ‘I’m Living It,’ a film about HK’s homeless

Society & Culture

Last month, the charity MercyHK invited Hong Kong's homeless to a screening of the award-winning movie "I'm Living It," which dramatizes the plight of the Hong Kong's down and out. For many of the attendees, the film was a long-overdue respite from the outside world, albeit a tragic and melodramatic one.

Photo by William Langley

Sam Wong felt hopeful for the first time in weeks after setting foot in the tumbledown Cantonese BBQ restaurant in To Kwa Wan, a working-class district of Hong Kong. Wong, in his late teens, had lived destitute on the streets for weeks. While sleeping in a flea-infested underpass, another homeless man stumbled upon him and agreed to show him the ropes, bringing him to the eatery to possibly find work as a delivery boy.

That hope was dashed when the manager, facing cutbacks, sent him away. Wong found himself adrift all over again.

For Wu Meiyu, who has lived on the streets since she was fired from her job washing pots in January, Wong’s story struck a chord. “I can identify, because of how tough life can be,” Wu said. “Always having to go from place to place, and the constant feeling of rejection.”

Sam Wong is not real. He is a supporting character in Wong Hing Fan’s September release I’m Living It, an award-winning film that tells the story of Hong Kong’s McRefugees — homeless people who spend their nights in the city’s fast food joints. But his story nonetheless resonates with many in Hong Kong’s invisible underclass.

In October, the charity MercyHK invited the rough sleepers of Yau Ma Tei — not far from where the film is set — to a free screening of I’m Living It. Among those who attended was Wu Meiyu, who is 75 years old. She is a typical Chinese auntie, clad in floral leggings, a (non-matching) floral blouse, and an oversized red visor to shield her from the heat. She has been homeless since COVID-19’s outbreak.

As Wu noted, rejection and transience are key themes. The film highlights the struggles and stigma of being homeless in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. But as the ongoing pandemic has pushed more people onto the streets, even the film’s relentless melodrama fails to fully capture their reality.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Hong Kong is one of the costliest cities in the world. Nearly 100,000 people live in the city’s now-infamous “cage homes.” According to the Department for Social Welfare, before the COVID-19 outbreak, the official number of homeless people in Hong Kong was 1,423. NGOs and charities, however, believe the real number is much higher. All agree the number has increased significantly since the pandemic.

“The film is very authentic,” said Chung Chi Man, a rough sleeper from Yau Ma Tei. “Very, very real.”

Chung said he identified with the role of Bowen, played by Aaron Kwok, the film’s hero and the glue that holds the group of McRefugees together.

In one subplot, Bowen helps Leung Wai-Yin, a single mother paying off her unscrupulous mother-in-law’s gambling debts, and her seven-year-old, ID-less daughter. Wai-Yin and her daughter, Hiu-Wah, have an indefatigable will to survive, eking out a living where they can by washing cars and saving leftover food scraps in a portable thermos. Hiu-Wah’s childish optimism makes her a kind of mascot for her destitute companions.

“I knew a mother and daughter just like those two,” said Chung. “I helped them apply for public housing, which was approved just the other day.”

According to Chung, the mother and daughter duo he knew had no permanent residency, so they received little help from the government; they had to rely on support from Hong Kong’s Catholic Church.

As per Hong Kong law, those who cannot support themselves financially can apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance. However, they have to have been a Hong Kong resident for at least a year to qualify.

According to the Hong Kong Housing Authority, the average wait time for those who do qualify for public housing is 5.6 years.

“When I first met them, the baby was not yet one year old and had been a week without food,” Chung said. The story of Wai-Yin and the fate of her daughter made him emotional.

“[The film] reflected my life almost exactly,” Chung said. “I found myself in the protagonist’s shoes.”

But Chung, who spoke perched on the sidewalk outside the cinema with one leg neatly folded over the other, was being humble. While Bowen’s relentless heroics and empathy during suffering were admirable, his backstory isn’t nearly as tragic.

Bowen, for instance, is a disgraced former financier who at least tasted the rich life. Chung, meanwhile, was an orphan. On leaving his orphanage at 18, he spent two weeks in a 10-man dormitory in Chai Wan before the crowding became too much for him. Apart from a four-year stint in Queen Mary Hospital with a brain tumor — for two of which he was in a coma — he has been continually homeless.

“I just hope the government can understand our stories,” Chung said.

For others, it was Bowen’s fall from grace that resonated most. “A long time ago, I was educated,” said a rough sleeper in his 60s who gave his name only as William.

William, who spoke in English, was dressed neatly in a purple t-shirt, sturdy walking shoes, and cargo shorts. Previously, he worked in Hong Kong’s thriving import-export business, but said that Hong Kong’s increasing reliance on financial services over the last 40 years had squeezed out people working in other industries. Nowadays, he lives on 16 to 25 HKD (less than $3.50) a day.

One of the recurring motifs in I’m Living It is of the McRefugees’ daily struggles to keep clean. Repeatedly, we see Bowen and his companions rotating between Kowloon’s public toilet blocks, where they furiously scrub themselves, their clothes, and even their shoes over the public hand basins in an ongoing battle against the grime of the streets.

It is a struggle William knows well. “It’s important to keep clean and disciplined,” he said. “Every day I go to the public toilets to shower. Then I have one meal a day, or sometimes one meal every two days.”

“My philosophy is [to be] always going forward, otherwise you will lose yourself,” he added.

Like Wu, William’s struggles deepened as a result of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, which he said caused him to lose much of his savings.

William said one of the issues with the Hong Kong government’s approach to homeless people lay in the fact that elderly people aren’t eligible for Social Security Allowance until the age of 65. Coupled with the city’s exorbitant cost of living, many older people get caught out.

“That’s why so many people, no matter what their age, they cannot retire,” he said.

According to Jeff Rotmeyer, founder of ImpactHK, one of Hong Kong’s biggest NGOs helping the homeless, there are many problems with the government’s approach. “The government strategy is basically the opposite of what they should be doing,” Rotmeyer said, citing the adoption of hostile architecture across Hong Kong as an example of the government’s attitude toward homeless people, which basically is “telling them to go away.”

“The reality on the streets is much harsher, [but] I hope that the film helps to show the diversity of people living there,” Rotmeyer said of I’m Living it.

According to Katherine Ho, a government social worker, the Social Welfare Department allocated more resources to its street-sleeping teams after noticing an increase in street sleeping during the pandemic. She said this included giving out hand sanitizer and face masks, and sometimes referring them to hostels. The agency also helps the homeless apply for benefits and short-term food assistance. She said the SWD works with NGOs to deliver these services.

But John Wotherspoon, founder of MercyHK, said more could be done. He said he hoped the film screening would draw attention to the homelessness problem in Hong Kong ahead of the Chief Executive’s annual policy address (which was since postponed).

According to Wotherspoon, organizations like his and ImpactHK, which provides 700 meals a week to rough sleepers in Yau Ma Tei, receive no money from the government.

For many of the homeless guests who watched I’m Living It last month, the film was a long-overdue respite from the outside world, albeit a tragic and melodramatic one.

The 75-year-old Wu said she had not seen a film for more than 10 years. Chung had not seen one for more than 20.

But despite the constant adversity they face in their own daily lives, many of the guests wished I’m Living It could have had a more upbeat ending.

“I’d give it a 9 out of 10,” said a 29-year-old Filipino rough sleeper who did not give his name. “It’s almost all true, everyone has their own story.”

“But did it need to be so dramatic?” he added, laughing.