27 September 2009

Wang Tong People: The Garbage Lady

Meet Miss Leung. She's our friendly neighborhood garbage woman. She shuffles past a couple times a day, sometimes pushing her trolley piled high above her head with fully-stuffed black garbage bags, other times just pushing a wicker broom. She empties the public trash bins, sweeps the footpaths and, crucially, scoops up errant dog mess. She also likes to stop to admire people's gardens.

This morning my wife and I happened to be outside the house admiring some of the colorful flowers drooping over our garden wall, when Miss Leung came along and started chatting with my wife about plants. I don't know what they were jabbering about because I don't know most of the flower names in Chinese. Miss Leung doesn't have a garden herself, but she sees a lot of other people's. With a wink she promised next time to bring over a cutting of some flower or other that we don't have.

For decades, the garbage lady industry in south Lantau Island has been controlled by a cabal from Tai O, the famous fishing village at the other end of the island. Apparently the government made some kind of deal, in compensation for relocating a few fishing families, promising them a long-term monopoly on the lucrative dog poop-scooping and leaf-sweeping labor market in Mui Wo. The other garbage lady in our village, whose beat is the east side of Wang Tong (where we used to live), is from Tai O. She's as cheerful as the chimney sweep in "Mary Poppins", calling out a hearty hello to each of her--what would you call us--clients?--every time she sees us.

Miss Leung isn't as gregarious. In fact, she's a bit shy. Maybe that's because she feels like an outsider, since she commutes here from Cheung Chau island. In 1997 the government stopped hiring new people to clean the village footpaths in our district. As garbage ladies retired or quit, their positions were filled by experienced women from other districts. When Cheung Chau's garbage collection was privatized seven years ago, Miss Leung was happy to take the government job in our village.

Her territory is the west side of Wang Tong, which has a lot fewer houses and trash bins than the east side, though a longer and steeper footpath to keep clear. This gives her time to stop and smell the flowers, and indulge in a little conversation now and then.

When's the last time you had a chat about peonies and zinnias with your garbage collector?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a neat glimpse into your life, and the life of Miss Leung.