Trolleys and the elderly: The driving force of Hong Kong

Olivia Tseu-Tjoa
7 min readFeb 5, 2016

What do trolleys reveal about the role and position of elderly people and the ageing population of Hong Kong?

The use of trolleys is ubiquitous in Hong Kong. They occupy footpaths, roads, yards and alleyways. They can act as both forms of storage and as a method of transporting items. The types of users differ, from young men to elderly women. What I find most interesting is that the use of trolleys is a strenuous activity but many of the users I came across were middle aged to elderly people in Hong Kong. I will investigate the participation of elderly users of trolleys and explore their active role in the informal economy of collecting and reselling waste materials in Hong Kong.

Sketches of the types of elderly users interacting with trolleys across Hong Kong

Observing the users — the elderly

Sketching from life and photographs, I focused only on the elderly user and how they interacted with trolleys. Noticing similar postural habits, I observed that the users — both men and women — often had hunched backs and shoulders. Pushing trolleys and the movement of materials appears to labor intensive work for the elderly. And yet, they are actively navigating handcarts and trolleys around the streets of Hong Kong.

A woman collecting cardboard waste in Cheung Chau

The informal economy of trolleys in Hong Kong

What exactly is this informal economy? Many elderly users scavenge for recyclable materials, such as cardboard and aluminium scrap. They collect these materials from the street and resell it to recycling companies. It is a form of self employment which is not regulated by the Hong Kong government. In 2006, according to a study by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, 38% of the elderly respondents said they would use the money for living expenses, while 62% said it aided family expenses. As Hong Kong faces a waste crisis, the elderly play a vital role in this informal economy by recycling and reselling waste as a commodity.

An anatomy of trolleys

By examining the way in which elderly users stacked cardboard and other waste materials on trolleys, I found that these users were extremely resourceful and practical. They implemented practical methods, such as tying down string over the materials to contain it. Loaded with bulky items and materials, the trolleys appear unstable and yet they are completely functional. It was fascinating to see how they fitted each material, form and shape together — almost like cardboard Tetris. To manoeuvre the trolleys while transporting the loaded materials is an impressive feat itself. Why are these trolleys so heavily packed and layered with waste materials? In a 2014 South China Morning Post article about Dai Mui, a 79 year old woman who collects waste materials, it was reported that she earns 70 cents for every 1 kg of waste, earning up to HK$40 to HK$60 a day. The elderly need to obtain high quantities of recyclable materials to make a living in this informal economy.

A woman collecting discarded cardboard materials and plastic in Tai O
A man gathering electrical cables and containers on an empty lot in Tai O

Through these sketches, I documented the various materials found in trolleys from Tai O. There were several items made out of cardboard, such as the beer carton containers, as well as plastic materials, such as the laundry detergent bottle. It is interesting to note that electrical cables were also used as resources.

Rain or shine

Even in severe weather conditions, such as heavy rain, elderly women were collecting cardboard materials in Sheung Wan. I observed two examples; occurring in the morning and at night. The cardboard materials they collected were soaked with the rain but they kept sorting out and collecting. At night, the woman is wearing a plastic poncho, gumboots while holding an umbrella. She protects the cardboard materials from the rain with blue plastic. Whether it be rain or shine, older people continue to collect these materials from the street with determination because it provides for living expenses.

A woman pushing a trolley with cardboard materials in Sheung Wan, amidst rainy conditions in the morning
Occupying the whole footpath — A woman collecting cardboard materials in Sheung Wan at night, during heavy rain
Folding up cardboard material while holding an umbrella
A man pushing a trolley filled with polysterene and plastic containers along the main road in Des Voeux Rd Central, Sheung Wan
Physical effort and strain of working with trolleys is evident

In addition, these users face challenging environmental conditions, pushing trolleys through uphill streets and steep inclines. For example, a man was pushing a trolley up a side street in Central. Detrimental postural habits and the physical impact on the user over time can be seen. Older people who work with trolleys often face laborious conditions in order to make a living in Hong Kong.

Uphill climb along a side street in Central

Trolleys — a necessity?

Why are older people still working laborious jobs with trolleys in Hong Kong? This pattern could be linked to the inefficient pension system which cannot financially support the elderly demographic due to the high cost of living in Hong Kong. As rent and healthcare are considered to be major expenses, approximately HK$2,200 a month is provided as a supplementary income for the elderly. Provisions such as the Old Age Living Allowance, have aided ‘40 percent of the elderly population but to claim the allowance, the person must be between the ages of 65 and 69, and must earn less than HK$7,090 as a single person’s wage’. These users may have to rely on themselves with no substantial government support in society. In a 2006 study of 82 elderly respondents, they earned a median monthly income of HK$350. With about one-third of the elderly population living in poverty in a government report in 2012, for the low-income elderly, retirement is just not a viable option to survive in Hong Kong and they may have to work with trolleys to supplement their income. Furthermore, the city is confronted with the fast-approaching issue of an ageing population as according to the World Health Organization, Hong Kong is predicted to have 42% of the population aged 65 years and over by 2050. How will Hong Kong support its ageing population without effective pension systems when many elderly people must work in order to survive?

A man transporting food ingredients, such as meat, near a restaurant in Aberdeen

Evidently, from my observations of the elderly users and trolleys in Hong Kong, middle aged and elderly people have an active role in the informal economy of collecting and reselling recyclable materials, using trolleys as a method of transport. Cardboard, plastic rubbish and other scrap are frequently collected items found in these trolleys, which are sold to recycling businesses. Because of the insufficient pension system and the high cost of living in Hong Kong, the elderly must work longer at older ages to support themselves and/or their families, enduring both difficult weather and environmental conditions.

A trolley stacked with cardboard materials along Bonham Strand West, Sheung Wan

According to Dr Vivian Wei Qun Lou, from the University of Hong Kong:

Though this group of older people play a role in the chain of waste recycling in Hong Kong, their contribution has not been constructively recognised by society. They lack a voice in the system, as well as a means of collective protection. They live in poverty and cope with a difficult ‘working environment’. Among them, women were identified as the most vulnerable and deserve special attention from both social service and policy aspects. (Lou 2007, p.138).

Whether it be in metropolitan areas or fishing villages, the elderly users I encountered unapologetically barrelled through narrow footpaths and pedestrians with their loaded trolleys. They shared the main road with large buses and relentlessly occupied these spaces. They demonstrated a sense of autonomy and practicality as they must collect high quantities of materials to earn a living.

However, the existing infrastructure and lack of social security is failing to support the elderly population in Hong Kong. Is this informal economy sustainable as Hong Kong faces the issue of an ageing population in the near future?


Chan, G. 2014, Cardboard dreams: a day with an elderly Hong Kong woman who must scavenge to survive, South China Morning Post, viewed February 2 2016, <>.

Collecting for rent in pricey Hong Kong, one cardboard box at a time, 2014, South China Morning Post, Vimeo, viewed 1 February 2016, <>.

Lou, V. 2007, ‘A study of older people who collect recycling materials for financial returns’, Asian Journal of Gerontology & Geriatrics, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 133–138.

Price, C. 2015, The age-old fight for elderly rights in Hong Kong, Coconuts Hong Kong, viewed January, 25 2016, <>.

Sinclair, J. 2013, Hong Kong’s handcarts keep the territory on a roll, AFP, Taipei Times, viewed 29 January 2016, <>.

Sinclair, J. 2013, Hong Kong’s handcart heroes keep the city rolling, AFP News Agency, YouTube, viewed January 28 2015, <>.



Olivia Tseu-Tjoa

Olivia is currently a third year Visual Communication student at the University of Technology Sydney. She is interested in visual narratives and research.