Confessions of a part-time homeless
Rachel Chak & Gabriele de Seta, 18–08–2015, Interview Story
他摸著頭子的說： 「我曾經想過回家鄉，但回到去，家鄉又不同了，那裏的地價又越來越貴，自己的親人又走掉，返回去又不知幹什麼！在這裏，可以呆過去，但又不是自己的地方，我不想再去想！」 他現在雖然有屋住了，但常常也會回來天穚下坐坐，又回去公共厠所洗澡。「這裡的同鄉和我很多東西傾，我和他們很熟稔，但我現在不是坐在他們的地盤，這個地方是我大哥的，我要幫他看舖，因為他只相信我，他是這裏的人！」不感意外的是，他們會將這個地方看成是一間舖，我猜這是因為他們是在售買東西吧。
“I have been in jail in Hong Kong for around 16 years already. I’ve done drug selling, robbery, burglary, fighting, all of it”, Ah Hoi says. Under the Tung Chau Street flyover in Sham Shui Po there is a large concentration of homeless people, and Ah Hoi comes out of one of their shacks to greet us politely. He is wearing a short-sleeve shirt with a chequered pattern, and his blue jeans have a yellowish hue of dirt. Ah Hoi is very welcoming, arranges two chairs for us to seat, excuses himself for not having drinks to offer us, and he doesn’t mind sharing his story.
Life in Vietnam
Ah Hoi’s family included six people, and had a tough life somewhere in Vietnam — “one day you have food, the other you don’t”, he explains. When he was four years old, his father decided he had to spare his family a life of poverty and uncertainty, and went to rob a large boat owned by wealthy people, but he was caught by the police and died. Ah Hoi’s mother had to make a living for the entire family by working in a fish market, and when his nine year old brother died because of the hardships, she decided that they had to try to leave again. While searching for a way to reach Hong Kong, she found a boat willing to sail them there in exchange for a piece of gold.
The big fish experience
It’s 1986, Ah Hoi is eleven years old and sits in a tiny and crowded boat with his sister, her husband and son, and other twenty people. They face death twice: the first time is when a Vietnamese sea patrol intercepts their boat leaving national waters and asks them to turn back; the boat captain doesn’t answer them and keeps going, and the patrol opens fire. Ah Hoi smells gun powder around him and thinks he’s going to die, but fortunately the boat manages to distance the Vietnamese patrol and continue its journey. The second time they face death is when they run into a large storm: the waves sweep all over the boat, the twenty people inside it roll all over the place, and everybody in Ah Hoi’s family thinks they are not going to make it, so they tie their hands together so that they could die together if they were swept out of the boat. The waves have almost entirely flooded the boat, and Ah Hoi can see a big fish swimming around them: everybody is crying and rolling around, and he falls asleep. He wakes up in Beihai, Guanxi province, China.
The Hong Kong welfare
The pilot of the next boat they embark on tells them that they have to strip off their clothes and burn them to avoid the spread of “Vietnam Rose” (gonorrhea). Fortunately Ah Hoi brought other clothes with him, and when he finally gets to Hong Kong the United Nations is there to help refugees with daily rations of canned food, and the government assigns them interim housing: he has space for himself and the toilets are public, he likes the environment. Unfortunately, he has to leave the interim housing after the 1997 Hong Kong handover, and he ends up moving under the Tung Chau Street flyover as a homeless. “Actually I could have applied to public housing, I already had got my Hong Kong ID at the time, but I didn’t have much motivation to apply, because… because I keep… getting in jail and…” Ah Hoi is quite embarrassed, and leaves the sentence hanging in mid-air. He sold drugs, he committed robberies, he hurt people, and is still a drug addict, even though he now has a local wife and lives in a public housing estate nearby.
Not belonging anywhere
As he reflects on is condition, Ah Hoi seems quite annoyed by something, and he keeps touching his head while thinking about it: “I once tried to go back to Vietnam, but I found it to be completely different, the land is expensive there now, and all my family members are gone away or dead, I don’t really know what I could do there. If I stay in Hong Kong, I can hang around like this, but it’s not where I belong… I don’t want to think about this anymore.” Even though he lives in the public housing, Ah Hoi comes back to the shacks under the Tung Chau Street flyover and even takes showers in the public toilet here. “Here I have some Vietnamese compatriots to talk to about a lot of things, I am familiar with them. Here where we are sitting now is not their territory though, this is the place of my dailo (brother in crime), I need to look after his ‘shop’ here, because he only trusts me, and he belongs to here”. I am not really surprised to hear that Ah Hoi calls this improvised shack a “shop”, it’s easy to guess that they are selling something inside it.
Throughout our lengthy conversation with Ah Hoi, a lot of people have been circling around us, asking questions and calling out at each other, getting in the “shop” and coming out of it with various things in their hands — mobile phones, food, a bag of pills, and other objects. I ask Ah Hoi about drug users in the area, and he replies that 99% of the people here are doyau, literally ‘friends of the way’, drug users. He used to inject heroin himself, he says, but now he prefers to smoke it mixed with tobacco.