Unexpected 'Readers' of Free Newspapers in Hong Kong

(The Sun)  April 24, 2008.

The price for paper has been sharply rapidly.  Not only have the cost for publications grown, but the price for recycled paper has also grown.  In Hong Kong, as many as 1.4 million copies are published every day by the four free newspapers that rely solely on advertising income.  Some of those copies became the tools by which senior citizens cope with the rising inflation.  In the past, senior citizens had to queue up for the free rice handed by charitable organizations.  Nowadays, they show up at the distribution points for the free newspapers.

Each morning, the grandpas and the grandmas showed up at dawn to queue up for copies of the free newspapers.  Sometimes, they beg passer-by's to procure copies for them.  On the day before yesterday, our reporter went to several distribution points to check.  Out of ten copies, three would fall into the hands of this army of newspaper collectors.  Many of these were taken down to the recycling centers without ever being opened.  This means that the number of true readers to the free newspaper must be discounted heavily.

Our reporter visited many distribution points for the free newspaper between 630am and 830am.  At the Olympic MTR train station near the old district of Tai Kok Tsui, our reporter saw more than 100 grandpas and grandmas holding ropes, bags and carts during their mad chase for newspapers.

"Hey sister, can I get a few more copies of the free newspapers?" More than 100 grandpas and grandmas were present at 7am waiting at the free newspaper distribution point in the Olympic City Mall.  The queue went from inside the mall all the way down to the end of the pedestrian bridge.  It was an astonishing sight.

According to one grandma, "Some free newspapers can be had without entering the MTR system.  Sometimes, there are no workers watching the newspapers and I can take as many as I want." Many of these grandpas and grandmas took a copy, and then went to the end of the queue to line up again for another copy.  They did so repeatedly until all the newspapers have been distributed.

Meanwhile, at the Olympic MTR station, another group of grandpas and grandmas were imploring passengers to bring the free newspapers to them.  "Brother, can you help by bringing me some free newspapers from over there?" Whenever a passenger was about to come out, the grandpas and grandmas would beseech him.  Most passengers are sympathetic to these old folks, and they turn around and fetch copies of the free newspapers on the stand inside the station.

When station workers asked them to stop bothering the passengers, the grandpas and grandmas would proceed to another exit and repeat the same trick.  The grandpas and grandmas will also check the public housing estates and private malls to look for undistributed free newspapers.  They even take the free English-language newspapers there.  Anyway, they are not going to pass on any opportunity to seize free newspapers.

This army of newspaper collectors are not interested in reading the newspapers.  They do so because each newspaper fetches HKD 0.13 at the recycling center.  At a time when prices are rising for everything, the grandpas and grandmas have to do their best to obtain extra income.

In recent months, the prices for recycled paper is rising due to increased demand in mainland China.  The weekday free newspapers are now a major source of income for this army of newspaper collector.  According to a worker at a recycling center: "Many grandpas and grandmas take stacks of free newspapers to sell.  The price for recycled paper has gone up by 30%.  A stack of 10 free newspapers weighs about one kilogram and fetches HKD 1.30." Another recycle center manger said that some competitors have raised the price to HKD 1.50 per kilogram.  "They make enough money and the grandpas and grandmas are happy too."

The grandpas and grandmas work very hard and obtain dozens of copies per day, even more than 100 copies for some.  Out of every 10 copies distributed, 3 are taken by the grandpas and grandmas.  Many of these newspaper copies are never opened.  They are taken straight to the recycling centers and shipped back to mainland China for recycling.

(The Sun)

Over two days of observation at Olympic Station, the reporter saw that the grandma named Ah Mui was the hardest working among all the grandpas and grandmas present.  She stood in line to wait for the free newspapers, she begged passengers to bring her copies and she even checked the garbage bins for free newspapers.  Since she does not have the physical strength to carry the load, she uses a pushcart.  By working non-stop, she gets the biggest number of free newspapers.

At 830am, most of the free newspapers have been distributed.  The reporter estimates that Ah Mui has more than one hundred copies in her cart, together with several flattened cardboard boxes.  At the recycling center, the worker weighed her load and found that it weighted more than 20 kilograms.  At HKD 0.13 per kilogram, Ah Mui earned more than HKD 20 on this day (at an hourly wage of HKD 10).  She smiled and said: "I don't make a lot of money.  I worked hard and I only got twenty something dollars.  It is enough for a breakfast meal.  I'll treat this like a birthday present."