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Holding up half the sky

By: Irene Karton

Our writer reflects on the women she sees in Hong Kong’s streets in a reader story from our Parting Shot series.

Our latest reader story shares one woman's reflections on life in Hong Kong.
Our latest reader story shares one woman’s reflections on life in Hong Kong. Picture: Suphakaln Wongcompune

In certain parts of Central, you can sometimes see Hakka women working on construction sites of major skyscrapers. These women wear large, round straw hats called “coolies” that have been in their culture for over 1,000 years. Attached to the brim are dangling black tassels, like something that would hang from a retro lampshade. Wearing basic, plastic gumboots, these intrepid women can be seen pushing extraordinarily heavy loads in their wheelbarrows or carrying what looks like twice their body weight in the form of steel pipes or bags of concrete.

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It’s a wonder to watch them work. I was walking behind one of these ladies in Kennedy Town one day as she struggled under her load of reinforced steel, and she was chatting away cheerfully to her workmate. Her apple-red cheeks, perfectly formed white teeth and dark eyes portrayed a picture of good health and vibrancy. Forget the gym to get fit – carry a load of rebar for a city block every day!

The other women that amaze me are the ones our children call the “90-degree women”. The boys had just studied geometry in school, so protractors and measuring angles were their latest fascination, when we spotted these little old ladies in Sham Shui Po or Kennedy Town that were bent over at an angle that was pretty darn close to 90 degrees. This medical condition – either scoliosis or osteoporosis – is sometimes denoted by the old-fashioned term “hunchback”; the boys thought “90-degree women” sounded nicer. They were also distressed to hear that this orthopaedic deformity couldn’t be changed, and they thought it sad that these women had to spend all that time looking at their feet.

Our first home in Hong Kong was in Lan Kwai Fong. Twenty years ago, it was the site of a huge rubbish facility, surrounded by a growing bar scene for yuppies. The rent was cheaper, of course, because of the stench (which was especially strong in the summertime). The first time I spotted a ninety-degree woman was there in Lan Kwai Fong as I was walking home from work. This little old lady with her wiry grey curls tightly pressed to her sweaty head was pushing a huge trolley of rubbish up that Sisyphean hill. And … she passed me. Her calves looked like gnarled old vines, she was huffing and puffing, but she was very determined to get that rubbish into the big tip.

Mao Zedong once said, “Women hold up half the sky.” Recently in Kennedy Town, my teenage son spotted another ninety-degree woman, this time pushing a precariously balanced trolley full of antiquated VCR tapes, CDs and DVDs. Everything went sliding off when she miscalculated the path and hit the curb. In an instant, my son went running over and started helping her put everything back on the trolley. I don’t know who was more surprised by his actions, the older lady or me. I do know I was very proud of this boy and the fact that he was helping this lady – someone who spends so much of her time looking at the ground – to hold up the sky.

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This article first appeared in the Dec/Jan edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.

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