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Hong Kong’s ‘McRefugees’
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The night time 'McRefugees' of Hong Kong

On a major road in the working class neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, a pair of bright yellow arches beckons visitors into a 24-hour McDonald's outlet. Spread out over two floors, it is spacious by Hong Kong standards.

A McDonald's outlet in Hong Kong

As night falls, the fast-food restaurant becomes a temporary hostel, attracting dozens of the city's poorest people, which the city has dubbed “McRefugees”. Here, it is a vibrant community of regulars, many of them elderly, whose cheerful smiles mask desperately sad stories of personal misfortune.

View of Sham Shui Po

Although similar crowds can be found at McDonald's outlets all over Asia - especially in Japan and mainland China - an aging population, unaffordable property prices and stagnant wages all conspire to make the problem particularly acute in Hong Kong.

One such regular at the Sham Shui Po McDonald’s outlet is Ah Chan, 54, a well-spoken former police officer. He rents a tiny room nearby, but spends most of his evenings at McDonald's, where he can while away the hours in comfort chatting with friends.

Homelessness in Sham Shui Po: Two old women having their lunch-box meals in masses of paper scraps. The common scenario in the streets indicates ageing is a burning problem to Sham Shui Po

Said Mr. Chan, a university graduate, in fluent English,

"This is a familiar place, with familiar faces. These people are all wanderers. Some come for a short while, others a long time. Most of them don't have a home. They have nowhere else to go."

Hong Kong is one of the world's most unequal places in terms of wealth distribution. About one in five of the country's seven million people live in poverty, according to government figures. Among the elderly, one in three lives below the poverty line.

Skyline of Hong Kong island

At a recent conference on the subject, officials said the best way to tackle poverty was to expand the economy and create jobs. But this strategy is unlikely to help Mr. Chan out of his own slide into downward mobility.

A shanty town in Hong Kong

Mr. Chan left the police department in 1996 to start a business investing in mainland China. Over the next seven years, he poured most of his savings, and money from his relatives, into the company. But in 2003, his mainland Chinese partners ran away with the money. After three years of legal battles, he returned to Hong Kong in 2006, broke and exhausted.

By midnight, all the paying patrons have left. Only the "McRefugees" are left. One of them is David Ho, 66, who until last year worked as a security guard on a monthly salary of S$1800. But he suffered a stroke, rendering him unable to work.

He survives on a daily cocktail of medicines, which he gets from a public hospital, and a monthly government welfare payment of S$700. Even with welfare, Mr. Ho cannot afford to live in Hong Kong, which has some of the most expensive property in the world.

As the night turns into the wee hours of morning, a steady stream of people continue to arrive. After a while, the lights on the second floor are lowered and nearly everyone has gone to sleep.

A scavenger, or waste picker, in Hong Kong pours water onto the paper she has collected in order to increase her profit by adding to its weight

Said McDonald’s in a statement,

"We welcome all walks of life to visit our restaurants any time. We balance being more accommodating and caring to people staying there overnight with ensuring a good experience for all customers.”

(All images - credit: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence)

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