How old men living in cages in Hong Kong opened my mind

I’ve been giving a lot of talks in the last few weeks about my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. And almost every time someone asks me about the personal experiences that led to my own interest in empathy. So here I’d like to share one of these experiences – a kind of epiphany – from my time growing up as a teenager in Hong Kong.

In 1985, a few years after my mother’s death, my father obtained an overseas posting with the company he had worked for since the late fifties. Suddenly I was catapulted out of the sleepy slow time of the Sydney suburbs into the frenzy and extremes of Hong Kong, with its glassy skyscrapers and street markets selling snakes and grasshoppers in plastic bags, its obsessive gambling culture and decaying temples wafting with incense, its sumptuous seafood restaurants and old women spitting in the gutters. This was in the years when it was still a British colony (officially a ‘dependent territory’), before the handover to China in 1997.

My father and I, together with my newly acquired step-mother, moved into a twentieth-floor luxury apartment overlooking the harbour, courtesy of IBM. I easily slipped into my new life of privilege, so different from having grown up in the middle of the Australian middle class. I went to an international school and spent afternoons playing tennis at the exclusive Aberdeen Marina Club, membership of which was one of my father’s employment perks. Chauffer-driven Mercedes would arrive at the entrance where designer-dressed expats and rich Chinese would escape from the pressing humidity into a cool cocoon of opulence. Opposite the club was a hillside of shanty shacks that I barely noticed; another world, to which I did not belong. I was what the six million local Chinese called a ‘gweilo’ – a mildly insulting Cantonese term for Caucasians that literally means ‘ghost man’.

Hong Kong is known for its wealth and worship of money. There are more millionaires per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. But behind the façade of capitalist success is a city marked by extremes of poverty. My friends and I insulated ourselves from this poverty or ignored it. We took taxis everywhere like all the other foreigners. We went to each other’s country clubs. We visited one another’s elegant homes, often in gated compounds, and went on holidays to fancy Asian beach resorts. My school friends were of many nationalities – Indian, British, Korean, Dutch and some locals – but we knew almost nobody who was poor except the doorman or the maids who cleaned our bedrooms. Most of us passed by one-armed beggars and destitute old men squatting alone outside five-star hotels without a thought for them. We never entered the vast government housing estates in which most of the city’s inhabitants were squeezed into tiny flats full of washing, rice cookers, crying children and clacking mahjong tiles. It never occurred to me to learn Cantonese, except enough words to direct a taxi driver or bargain down a street hawker. As part of an elite colonial minority, I implicitly believed that the locals should be speaking my language, not vice-versa, and that the city was there to furnish my desires.

But when I was seventeen, something changed. I read a newspaper article in the South China Morning Post about a hidden world of hundreds of elderly men living in cages in a warehouse near the airport. Each of them had a tiny space, around six feet by two, and only a few feet high, which contained all their belongings and which was their only home. The cages were directly stacked up one upon the other, as if the men were battery hens. Some had been living in the cages for thirty years, unable to afford anything better with their meagre wages as roadside ditch diggers, factory workers or restaurant kitchen cleaners.

I do not know why, but I gradually became haunted by these caged men. A vision of them started accompanying me as I indulged in the colonial pleasures of a wealthy gweilo teenager. I felt them staring at me as I played snooker at the Aberdeen Marina Club or spent a day on the pleasure boat of family friends. I imagined their lives, the cramped conditions, the cigarette smoke, the summer heat, unscrupulous landlords pushing up the rent, coming home after a day working on a construction site to find that your only spare shoes had been stolen.

This empathic opening was the beginning of the end of my love affair with Hong Kong. The pleasures began to sour. I could not help noticing the sullen eyes of beggars. I found the displays of wealth at the marina club increasingly repellent. I wanted to visit vegetable markets and walk through back streets to see ‘the real Hong Kong’, not stay enveloped in my protected and air-conditioned world. At the time I was studying economics, and it soon became clear to me that not only was Hong Kong a place of terrible wealth inequalities, but that the poverty was necessary to sustain the lifestyles of the rich, who included myself. A businessman could not become wealthy unless, somewhere along the line, others were being exploited. My teenage mind saw these – perhaps too simplistically – as two sides of the same capitalist coin. It was a zero-sum game. For every winner in the ‘free market’ there was a loser, or many losers. The men in cages, I now understood, were the very people who made my excessive lifestyle possible.

I could not wait to leave Hong Kong and start university, to walk away from the darkness of a system in which I had been such a willing accomplice. I was now possessed by a feeling of bitterness and guilt through collusion with colonialism that, in the end, would need to be purged with an empathic cure.

There is a short story by Ursula Le Guin called ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ concerning an imaginary city where everyone is blissfully happy. There is plenty of food and work and laughter and pageantry. Everybody lives comfortably and well. A perfect utopia. Except for one thing. There is a basement under one of the buildings in the city of Omelas with a single dark and dirty room only two paces long and three wide. And there is a child locked in it:

In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded…It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually…They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there…they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Most people who see the child soon push the memory of it to the back of their minds, or tell themselves that it is not worth sacrificing the happiness of a whole city for that single child. There are a few, however, who visit the basement and cannot bear what they have seen. They are the ones who know they must leave. They are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Le Guin based this parable on an idea she had found in the writings of the early-twentieth century philosopher William James (whose younger brother Henry was the famed novelist). James imagined a world of ‘millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment’. He wrote ‘how hideous a thing’ it would be to accept such a bargain and enjoy the happiness. This echoes another of his thoughts, that ‘the blindness in human beings…is the blindness with which we are all afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves’.

It is obvious what I am trying to say. The men in those cages in Hong Kong were like the child in the basement or the lost soul leading a life of lonely torment. They were necessary to my happiness. In the end, I had to walk away.

© copyright Roman Krznaric 2014

Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. His new book is Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.

7 thoughts on “How old men living in cages in Hong Kong opened my mind

  1. This was great. Though I never grew up in such stratified conditions, never being exactly rich and never seeing incredibly poor people, I still felt a sense of empathy that I knew escaped some friends of mine.

    Is it only experiences like you write about or simply the way you’re born that cause at some point a person to feel themselves as clearly more and more empathetic?

    What I’m curious about is can empathy be learned? even after one’s brain ceases to have the plasticity of youth?

    Sure, a shocking experience like yours, the cognitive dissonance of it, could teach empathy almost in the way that a traumatic experience could.

    But what about those who grew up like I did -with no real reason to express or feel extreme empathy?

    I don’t mean to doubt the possibility nor cast skepticism on it, but I want to believe it’s possible… Despite my facility for sensing the feelings and experiences of others (and growing up feeling out of place because of it), what about those who have little facility / experience of it?

  2. Interesting thoughts Josh. I don’t think we need shocking experiences to expand our empathy. And I am convinced that empathy can be learned throughout our lives, just like we can learn to ride a bike or drive a car. It’s easier when you’re younger, before habits of mind get us stuck in a rut.

    So how do we actually do it? This article on 5 Ways to Grow Your Empathy might be a start:

    Otherwise have a look at my new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution – this is what it’s all about!


  3. I sit in my office today, thinking about those who are caged, as domestic slaves, unwilling sex workers, and others that must be within a mile of where I sit in comfort and with freedom to move and think in whatever direction I wish to go. thanks for sharing.

  4. So well written and so important. It is so easy not to think of the suffering of others, especially when one enjoys such a life.

    Ursula LeGuin’s passage, and your comment about those who could not unsee the child versus those who could return to a life of denial, reminded me of Stanley Cohen’s work on denial, and how it is possible to see yet not see the suffering of others.

    Empathy compels us to keep that vision at the forefront of our minds. Have ordered your book and am very interested in learning more.

  5. Glad you liked the article Anne. I’m a huge fan of Stan Cohen’s book States of Denial – a ground breaking work.

  6. Roman, I have booked to attend the Forgiveness Project event at St Ethelburga’s Church on Monday 13 October – 6.30 to 8.30 pm. I attended the first of the “ten conversations” on 17 March – it will be great to get to another one.

    This morning I have ordered a copy of: A Handbook for Revolution.

    Looking forward to the event and to hopefully meeting you. I have been in contact with Jo Berry. You might find this of interest:

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