Hong Kong Shifts Exclusive Photo Journalism Series: Street Cleaners Of The City

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In this brand new limited edition series, we are partnering with Hong Kong Shifts to bring you the stories of everyday shift workers across Hong Kong who work tirelessly in the background of our busy lives to keep Asia’s world city ticking, and who are especially vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic, in many cases putting their health at risk to do their job.

Founded by Hongkonger Cynthia Cheng and permanent resident Maxime Vanhollebeke who met whilst working at the same international law firm, Hong Kong Shifts is a visual photojournalism and storytelling project with a mission to shift perspectives and raise awareness about an often neglected social group, without whom Hong Kong would cease to function.

The narratives, which were originally published on an Instagram page, are bilingual in English and Cantonese and feature shift workers of all genders, ages and social, cultural and religious backgrounds from professions such as taxi drivers, security guards, cobblers, nurses, cleaning personnel, street cleaners, egg vendors, and postmen – those working day and night across Hong Kong to provide essential every day services.

The project and its mission have hit a nerve on social media- the Hong Kong Shifts Instagram page has built up a dedicated following, hungry for stunning photography and authentic stories that are being told in many cases for the first time.

The project, which began in 2019, also serves as a platform to promote social inclusion initiatives by other NGOs and social enterprises by featuring some of their shift workers and through events (such as Hong Kong Included) and fundraising initiatives.

Below we share stories of two Hong Kong street cleaners, one an island sweeper on Lamma and the other, a rubbish collector on Hong Kong Island. Stay tuned for the next instalments in this very special series.

Fa (花 – “Blossom”) Street Cleaner (清道夫), Lamma Island (南丫島)

🕐: 13:30 – 20:30 (7 hours) 

“This has been my job for more than ten years. I sweep the streets, clear the walking trails and collect rubbish on the island of Lamma. There is such a wonderful community here; people are friendly, kind and we look after each other. I am originally from Shanwei (汕尾), but have lived in Hong Kong for several decades now. I grew up in a family of farmers. My whole family, including me and my seven siblings, lived together in a tiny house on the farm. Even though we didn’t have much and life was very simple, we were very happy. Being on Lamma gives me that feeling of being home.” 

I don’t find the job itself to be too tough or tiring, and I love to live and work on Lamma.

Fa (花 – “Blossom”) – Street Cleaner (清道夫), Lamma Island (南丫島)

“This is generally quite a clean island, although we have a lot of extra work after a typhoon or big storm. I don’t find the job itself to be too tough or tiring, and I love to live and work on Lamma. Although during the midsummer days it can get so hot and unbearable. Sometimes I go into the public library to take a little breather – they have aircon there. I am illiterate so I cannot read. Before taking on this job, I used to work as a cleaner in a kindergarten. I can’t speak any English, so I couldn’t communicate much verbally with the little kids there. However despite the language barrier, I think we still had a wonderful connection – they seemed to like me a lot.” 

Hong Kong Shifts Street Cleaner Fa

“I moved to Hong Kong to join my husband. I was introduced to him by family friends, and had a great impression of him the first time we met. To me, he is a handsome and kindhearted man. I am very happily married. Do we fight? Of course! It would be abnormal and strange for couples to not bicker and argue sometimes, but then you just forgive and forget. I would say I am a positive person. I think the most important thing in life is to be happy – don’t you think?”

Hong Kong Shifts Street Cleaners Fong

Fong (芳 – “Fragrant”)Street Cleaner (清道夫), Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣)

🕖: 07:00 – 17:00 (10 hours) 

“I start work bright and early and follow our assigned routes to collect rubbish on the streets every day. I empty the bins, sweep up leaves and take everything with my trolley to the refuse centres. It’s always the busiest in the mornings; the bins are always overflowing, garbage strewn everywhere on the streets – cardboard, plastic and now masks, of course. Like many street cleaners, I was so worried during the heights of the pandemic – we are so highly exposed and yet our protective gear is so limited. Not much I could do though given that I needed my job –  there is no option of working from home! I just wear a mask and wash my hands more frequently. It’s tough manual work, especially in the sweltering summers. Although maybe office cleaners have it even harder. We at least can be outdoors and work at our own pace, as long as we get our job done! I do think that Hong Kong is a clean city though because of our work – don’t you think?” 

Hong Kong Shift Series Street Cleaner Fong

“I grew up in Tai Po ( 大埔), in the New Territories. My family were fishermen and not well educated. For people like me, you know, people who are not cultured or well-read, there are limited options as to what we can do. This job allows me to see how wasteful we can all be – we just throw all sorts of things out and create so much waste. But then on the other hand, we also cling on to stuff for years even when we have no real reason to. How much stuff do you really need anyway? Sometimes it’s good to let go when it is time to! I live in Shau Kei Wan, so during my lunch hour I can go home to eat and have a little break. People are generally friendly in this neighbourhood and it’s lovely to hear people say “good morning” to me or smile at me. There are of course others who are rude and look down on us, maybe because they think that this line of work is “dirty” or not respectable. I just ignore them; it’s better to focus on the positives!” 

Like many street cleaners, I was so worried during the heights of the pandemic – we are so highly exposed and yet our protective gear is so limited.

Fong (芳 – “Fragrant”) – Street Cleaner (清道夫), Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣)

“If you take ownership of your work and do your job with dignity, the results will speak for themselves. It’s a nice perk that my friend and I have been partnered up to do the rounds together, as there are often large items that I simply cannot move on my own. Having good company makes it so much more pleasant – we can chit chat a bit whilst we work. I can say all I want about working hard and being busy, but if my boss sees that the streets are still filthy, then it’s just ‘all talk no action’! With this job, we get 4 days off a month. During my down time, I like to go yum-cha with my family, play with my adorable baby granddaughter or go with my husband to take a dip at Turtle Cove Beach – it is so peaceful and lovely there.”  

Editor’s Note: The stories shared in this article first appeared on Hong Kong Shift’s Instagram page. We reprint them here with permission from the founders.

More instalments in the Hong Kong Shift Photojournalism Series


All original photography courtesy of Hong Kong Shifts.


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