The Life Of A Hong Kong Grassroots Worker

In this previous brief story, a man tried to perform a sex-change operation on himself with a pair of scissors in a Wanchai public women's restroom.  The story had also covered the reaction of the cleaning woman who had to deal with the mess afterwards.  This week, Next Weekly interviewed the cleaning woman about her job experiences at this facility and her life in general.  This is interesting because it explains the notoriety of the location as well as portrays the dignity of grassroots worker.

The public restroom at Canal Road in Wanchai is perhaps the restroom that has received the most frequent media exposure of all restrooms.  It is noted as a "gay restroom" as well as a "black spot for head-banging robberies."  Each year, there is at least one big case.  In November 2003, a taxi driver went to use the toilet but two men came in and hit him over the head with an iron hammer.  In February 2004, a robber used a wooden stick to bash the head of a businessman to rob him of his briefcase containing HK$800,000 worth of jewelry.  In July this year, a frustrated middle-aged man went into the Canal Road women's restroom.  Screaming "I want to be a woman!", he attempted to castrate himself with a pair of scissors.  But the pain was so intense that he called the police who took him to the hospital for treatment.  The toilet seat was full of blood, which spilled over on the floors of several partitions.  The cleaning lady named Lau had to restrain her disgust and hose the floor down.

"Self-castration?  What was he trying to do?  Training with the Sunflower Sacred Text? (葵花宝典)?" asked a man using the public restroom.  The Sunflower Sacred Text is a martial arts scroll in a novel by Jin Yong that requires the trainee to castrate himself as the first step to invincibility.  The cleaning lady Lau has not read much in her life and did not understand that reference.  She only said, "The idiot cut himself."  Did he cut it off?  "No!  That would be the end!"  The reporter thought that she was being considerate for the man because of the long-term consequences for him.  But actually she was worried for herself, because she was responsible for cleaning the restroom and must deal with anything left behind by the man.

Her name is Lau Tai-nu and she is commonly called Auntie Lau.  She is almost 70 years old.  She is a worker working for the Food & Environmental Health Department under an outsourcing contract.  Her daily shift is from 7am to 3pm.  Someone else works the 3pm to 11pm shift.  No one is there after 11pm.  Auntie Lau must therefore take care of everything that happened after 11pm when she comes in.  Therefore, when the man attempted to castrate himself, Auntie Lau had to clean up the blood in the morning.

Why did a man come into a woman's bathroom to castrate himself?  She said, "I don't know about him!  Lots of people are like that."  In her time, she has seen men peeking at women using the restroom.  When she yelled at them, they run away through the back exit.  Some men wear women's clothing to use the women's restroom, ranging from young men to old men.  A tough looking man with dragon-and-tiger tattoos once waltzed in and began urinating while standing without closing the door.  "He was deliberating showing me.  Bastard!  But I didn't know who he was.  I didn't want to be beaten up, so I said nothing."

And then there were these homeless couple who come into the women's restroom early in the morning, lay newspapers down on the floor, take their clothes off and then embrace each other.  The reporter asked deliberately, "What were they doing?"  But Auntie Lau did not fall for the trap and only said, "How should I know!?"

There are other miscellaneous things: many people steal toilet papers.  On a single morning, about 60 rolls are replaced; and 100 rolls are used per day.  Sometimes, when triad gangsters get into fights and chase each other into the restroom, they would take a glass bottle, break it and use it as a weapon.  Afterwards, Auntie Lau has to clean up the glass shards and the blood on the floor.

The men's restroom is no better.  Some gay men stay by the urinals to peek at others urinating; two men may go inside a partition, close the door and come out after a long while; youngsters drink cough medicine, throw the bottles into the toilet and jam the works; some couples split up to use the separate bathrooms and the woman would come in to look for the husband who would turn around quickly before finishing and therefore splashing the walls.

"Let me tell you, there are all sorts of strange people in Wanchai and Causeway Bay.  There are many public restrooms in Hong Kong, but this is the worst.  I was mopping the floor this morning and I asked a woman to excuse me.  She immediately said that she will file a complaint against me.  Go ahead and complain, bastard!  Over here, no worker stays for long.  They are all gone within a few months.  Who needs this kind of aggravation for just over HK$4,000 a month?  I have resigned already, but my boss said that she can't find a replacement yet.  So I am staying here for another month as a favor.  But if someone cuts himself off, I am not going to fish it out!"

The reporter wanted to take her out for dinner, but she has no time.  She did not even have time to stand still for a photograph.  Auntie Lau gets off work at the Canal Road public restroom at 3pm, and then she works a half shift sweeping the grounds at a Hong Kong park for more than HK$2,000 per month.  So she takes in a total of HK$6,000 per month.  When advised to work less, she said, "Then my family won't have anything to eat."

She has a son and a daughter.  The daughter is an elementary school teacher with a steady income, but Auntie Lau preferred that she save more and pay less of the family expenses.  The son works on decoration and is more often out of work than working; his wife is a part-time retail salesperson with limited income; he has a son.  The family of five counts on Auntie Lau to help out.

At 7pm, Auntie Lau finally gets off work after working 12 hours.  She hurried to do food shopping in the market to cook dinner.  This is her daily routine.  Why doesn't the daughter-in-law cook?  "She doesn't know how to cook."  Can't they hire a family assistant?  "Someone else should hire me as a family assistant!"  On this night, she bought six dollars worth of green vegetables, 20 dollars worth of roast pork and eight dollars worth of bean curds to cook with the leftover fish from the previous night.  "That's more than 30 dollars in total."

During each week, she does not cook on Sunday night.  On that night, she works a full shift at the park and does not return home until 11pm.  She works 16 hours on Sunday just to earn a few dozen more dollars.  Is it too hard?  "No."  Is she going to get sick from overworking?  "I can't get sick.  I have no idea what will happen to the family if I get sick."

The next morning, the reporter bought breakfast and waited for her outside her Wanchai residence.  The reporter thought that she might come downstairs to go to work.  Instead, she came back in from the outside with breakfast for her grandson.  Then came the realization that there was no point in counting up her working hours.  In fact, there was no point in being sympathetic about her two jobs, because her personal record was six jobs per day.

Auntie Lau got married at 18 in China.  Her husband came to Hong Kong first, and then she came in her 30's.  She looked for work everywhere, and she has done all the lower-level jobs.  At first, she was an all-round service worker at an office -- cleaning the restroom, vacuuming the floor and filling the tea -- for 100 dollars a month.  Then she sold dim sum at a restaurant for 300 dollars and then 600 dollars.  Afterwards, she worked in an office building and she cleaned all the more than 20 restrooms in the building for 1,000 dollars a month.  Then she also worked on a luxury cruise ship ("I was seasick but I still had to work").  For a few years, she started work at 3am with cleaning several commercial buildings on Harcourt Road, she went back home for lunch, she got on the cruise ship and worked until 3pm.  After that, she cleaned another three or four buildings for a total of six jobs per day, from 3am to 11pm or midnight with 3 hours of sleep per night.

Then she worked at a tall insurance building.  Originally, the stairs of the forty plus floors were cleaned by two people.  But Auntie Lau was very fast, and so the boss told her to do it all by herself for such are the rewards for diligence.  Then she worked at a furniture store for her lifetime highest salary of HK$7,000 but she had to resign because she did not have the physical strength to move furniture any more.  Later, she worked on emptying the garbage receptacles at Time Square Plaza, but "the bastard of a boss fired her because she was too old and that was the first and only time that she had ever been fired after three decades of work in Hong Kong."

Her husband worked in a jewelry store, but he was a compulsive mahjong player.  Whenever he had money, he would play mahjong and he never took care of any family expenses.  In fact, Auntie Lau even had to use her HK$20,000 personal savings to pay for his gambling debts.  When she gave birth at the hospital, paid rent or arranged for her son's wedding, she paid the whole bill.  She did not get a divorce, because people of that generation do not rue their marriages.  Before her husband passed away two years ago, he told her: "I was a bad person.  I caused you grief."  Auntie Lau saved about HK$40,000 for his funeral expenses.  His son gave HK$20,000 to her, but she gave it back to him.  After all, she picked her husband and nobody else should bear the burden.

She has never owed anyone anything.  She has never gone on welfare.  When we took the tram, the reporter pretended not to have a two-dollar coin and put five dollars in the receptable for both of them.  She did not say anything, but just put two dollars in the reporter's hand.  When the reporter bought breakfast for her that morning, she refused to accept and would rather have it thrown away.

The reporter asked her, "Have you ever been to Ocean Park?"  No.  "The Tsing-Ma bridge?"  No.  "Mongkok?"  No.  Upon detailed probing, it turned out that she has never gone to Kowloon or the New Territories.  She has always stayed in Wanchai and Causeway Bay.  She has been to Central, but only because she was cleaning office buildings.  "I have never been anywhere just for fun.  I have no hobbies.  I have only worked non-stop for several decades."  She sighed, "I have no idea what the pleasures of life are."

At 7pm in the evening, she finally put down the broom and lit a cigarette.  She told her colleague: "Time's up!  Bastard!"  This was the happiest moment of her day.