Sze LaiShan helps the poor trapped in tiny ‘coffin’ and ‘cage’ tenements


The cloying odor of damp clothes and sweat from the five men crammed into the small room in a tenement block in Tai Kok Tsui, a rough-and-tumble Hong Kong neighborhood, makes the sticky summer night almost unbearable.

Squatting at the entrance to the 16-square-foot steel mesh cage that demarcates his world, Jeung Yingbin, says he pays nearly $150 a month to live in a space no larger than the inside of a small car.

The men share a grubby toilet and shower. There’s no air conditioning, and a weak strip light shines onto peeling walls streaked with rust from the pipes overhead.

“I would like to live somewhere else, but it’s too late. I am too old to live by myself, so I will stay here,” Mr. Jeung says, his thin arms slung over his knees.

He relies on an energetic community organizer, Sze LaiShan, for help with his basics: food, clothes, and filling out welfare payment forms. But he also turns to her for friendship and support.

“Everything he owns is inside that cage,” Ms. Sze says, gesturing toward a small heap of shirts and trousers and the scuffed plaid nylon bag he uses as a pillow.

“It makes me angry,” she says. “The world looks at Hong Kong and sees the big office towers and rich people eating at expensive restaurants. They do not see that this city is also extremely poor, and many people are struggling to survive.”

Since 1995, Sze (pronounced “see”) has worked for the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), a nonprofit group that provides food, clothing, education, and advocacy for 10,000 of Hong Kong’s poorest and most vulnerable: the elderly, migrants, people with physical or mental disabilities, and children in poverty.

SoCO also runs outreach programs for unfashionable causes, including those of ex-offenders and drug addicts. Volunteers brought in by Sze give free classes in everything from English and painting to computer skills.

Sze, who displays a disarming directness and a ready laugh, clearly enjoys spending time with her clients – so much so, says Jack Yan, a SoCO volunteer who has known her for a decade, that she remembers all of their contact numbers.

“She keeps them in her head, just like you do with your close friends,” he says. “That’s how she views the people she sees. Sze loves her work. She never stops…. It’s incredible. She cares about people in need, and they are part of her life.”

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