Hong Kongers' indomitable work ethic: city's work addicted brush off old age, injury, bitter cold

Hong Kongers' indomitable work ethic: city's work addicted brush off old age, injury, bitter cold

Hong Kongers like "Old Mei" are so industrious they can't stop working, even when they're freezing and 82 years old with a nosebleed
Soho street stallers
Even in the bitter cold with blood streaming down her nose, Mei, 82, is up at 5 a.m. to set up her sidewalk business in Soho.

Although Hong Kong is such a wealthy city, the thing that has always struck me is the fact that everyone -- no matter who they are, how rich or how poor -- works hard.

Unlike many other cosmopolitan cities like New York or London, Hong Kong does not have many beggars. If you want to find beggars in Central, you have to make a huge effort to find them -- all three of them.

Instead, what you have is a city in which it is ingrained into the culture that everyone should have something to do.

Together, these busy, productive people make up our city. They also make up the faces of inspiring underdogs in Hong Kong.

A typical case would be the elderly men and women who sell used items on the side of the streets in SoHo.

Some of them are almost 90 years old. Every day, they wake up at the crack of dawn to "go to work."

Some of them have stalls, others simply spread a sheet on the sidewalk and set up shop.

The "poh poh" (old women) and "baak baak" (old men) sell anything from used trousers to DVDs to light bulbs.

Almost all have been doing this for years.

They are there on cold days. They are there on typhoon days.

Soho street stallersMei's goods.

Enterprising elderly

I walk past them every day on my way to work.

At first, when I first saw these street merchants, they made me walk a bit faster. They made me feel uncomfortable because here they are looking poor and desperate, smack in the middle of Central.

But as the days went by, I started noticing things.

On any given Sunday, the corner of Peel Street and Hollywood Road is packed with helpers who flock to 82-year-old Ms. Mei's sidewalk thrift store.

Mei has been selling used clothes on the Peel Street sidewalk for more than 20 years, ever since she retired from her job as a cleaning lady in a hospital.

Most of the items she sells are between HK$5-10. On a good day, Mei makes $40.

"I don't do it for the money. It's very little money," Mei says. "I do it to have something to do."

Mei purchases the items she sells from various apartment buildings' cleaning ladies who dig through trash to find used clothes and other sellable things.

Mei's main customers are domestic helpers who buy the clothes to send back to the Philippines. It's fascinating to think that a tank top I threw away last week might now be on a stranger in Manila.

Soho street stallersFrom Mei to Manila: Filipina domestic workers check out grandma's goods.

Not afraid of life

On the day that I talked to Mei, it was bitter cold and there was blood streaming down her nose. She said she had taken a bad fall the day before on Peel street.

But the next day she was up at 5 a.m. setting up on the sidewalk.

Although Mei's kids support her financially, she said she did not like the loneliness of retirement. When she tried to find another job at the age of 62, she quickly realized employers did not want to hire her because of her age.

That's when she decided to start her small business.

"This job is hard," she says. "It's cold. Some days, nobody buys anything. But at least I have something to do."

People like Mei inspire me because to me they're what Hong Kong is all about. They exemplify the Hong Kong people's amazing work ethic.

They make me work harder. They make me not afraid of ageing; not afraid of what life will throw me. They make me grateful for all that I have.

They also remind me that there's so much life has to offer -- hidden opportunities you can only find if you bother to look around you.

When I look at Mei's kind face, I do not see her wrinkles. I do not see the blood stains on her nose. I do not see her cracked lips and dry skin.

I only see someone who makes me proud of our city.

About the author: Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an award-winning after school writing program for students in Hong Kong ages 2-17. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School. She entered university at the age of 13 and has written two books on creative writing for children. For more information, please visit www.kellyyang.com.

Kelly submitted this piece as part of CNNGo's CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.