Benson Tsang Chi-ho

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Friend of the homeless

When Benson Tsang Chi-ho first came up with the idea of spending $500 each month buying food for the homeless, he saw it as a personal protest against the government’s $6,000 handout. He was angry at the ‘political decision’ to make people happy by doling out a one-off ‘sweetener’. “A responsible government should have put taxpayers’ money to better use like using it for social welfare, education and public health,” says the 41-year-old interior designer. “The money should have been given to those who are really in need.”

Tsang found nine other like-minded people online and they started their first ‘action’ in March 2011. At that time, the designer’s plan was to use up his handout over a one-year period. But now, after almost two years, this monthly ‘action’ is still going on, and getting better, as more people have joined over time. He likes to call their ethos ‘the opposite of all mainstream values’. “Anyone can join,” he says, “with or without putting in money. It’s a sharing of experience.”

They visit the homeless in Sham Shui Po every month and distribute the food and other goods they have bought. It’s a simple operation, and Tsang doesn’t see those in the team as do-gooders. Words such as ‘charity’, ‘help’ and ‘volunteer’ are taboos for him. “Many people who have joined us for the first time have thought they have come along to help,” he tells Time Out. “I’ve always corrected them. What we do is visit old friends.”

The point of these visits, according to Tsang, is to change stereotypical views about the underprivileged classes. For instance, it’s required that everyone chats with the homeless during these operations. “When you talk with them in person, up-close, you find they’re nothing like your traditional homeless,” he says. “You find that although the society has assigned different groups different labels, every individual has his own story.”

Tsang doesn’t allow the teams to buy all the donations in one big supermarket either. Instead, he requires different categories of materials to be bought in different mom-and-pop stores – and bargaining with the moms and the pops is strictly forbidden. Chatting with them, however, is a must. “Shopping is not just a grab-and-go business,” says Tsang. “It’s about chatting with your local folks and developing a human community. That’s the value of mom-and-pop stores. Only in them can you find this touch of humanity.”

Tsang says he’s upset over ‘property developers’ monopolisation’ which, he says, is forcing the local stores – and thus the values of community – out of Hong Kong society and culture. “Our society is ill,” he says. “Half of the values that we were brought up with are wrong. But many people think it’s nothing. When an ill society becomes normal in people’s minds, it’s a very scary thing.”

Tsang recalls the group arriving at Sham Shui Po one day at around 5pm, as usual. He says that more than 100 people were already lined up in anticipation – many of them being elderly people who had been waiting there since midday. “I was shocked,” he says. “We all were. If there’s no problem in our society, if all is fine, then why were there so many elderly people waiting for hours for just a meal?”

Growing up on a public housing estate, Tsang says he worked hard for years to ‘live a middle-class life’. He used to be a workaholic who didn’t care about anything else, he claims. But that changed on January 8, 2010, a date he clearly remembers, not only because it was his birthday but it was also the day his life was transformed. On that day thousands of people gathered outside the old LegCo building in Central and protested against the government’s controversial project to build the Hong Kong section of an Express Rail link to Guangzhou that would cost at least HK$65 billion.

Tsang and his wife went to watch Avatar during the protests. But, as the theatre was near the demonstration, the couple decided to check it out following the film. There, Tsang saw a group of youngsters performing a ‘prostrating walk’ around the building, kneeling down and touching the ground with their heads every 26 steps (to symbolise the 26km-long rail link).

“I had never seen such a form of struggle before,” he admits. “Any sensible person, seeing young people fighting so hard, would stop and think. But the government just turned a blind eye to it. Those youths woke me up.”

Since that day, Tsang has participated in almost every protest, recording every moment with his camera. Now he is exhibiting his photo collection at an indie cultural festival, Cultian Fest. “In the city, almost all protests share one theme,” he says, “which is against developers’ monopolies. My generation could still earn enough to buy a flat through working hard but now it’s already impossible for youths to do the same. They lack opportunities and the property prices are insane. What do you think has happened?”

“I know people like me are in the minority now,” confesses Tsang, melancholically. “But I’ve been enjoying doing what I’m doing. Life has been great.” Shirley Zhao 

Between Proactivity & Passivity, Cultian Fest Until Jan 20, Room 502, Wah Wai Industrial Ctr, 38-40 Au Pui Wan St, Fo Tan, 3563 8512; reservation required on weekdays.
 

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