Through The Lens: Mrs Wong & Mrs Zheng

Through the Lens is a recurring photography and poetry series that champions creativity and collaboration. Produced by storytelling platform Spill Stories, this edition delves into the lives of two women who work as street cleaners in Kennedy Town.

Mrs Wong

Mrs Wong’s hands have provided for 82 years

Scrubbed government officials’ homes until she was 60

Cleaned porcelain and metal in a wet market washroom

Until a recent renovation turned her hands away

Mrs Wong takes the news in stride,

Says she’ll return to the market if there’s work,

Return to retirement if not

After all, her hands are not idle as they

Fasten pearl earrings nestled in golden leaves gifted by one of three daughters years ago,

Button and unbutton her grey uniform

Feel apples, gourds, monk fruits at the wet market,

Turn the key to her door for the last 20 years

Cook for herself and her son

Spread over a red leather couch that doubles as her bed

We sit on this couch for her birthday

A 200-square-foot public housing unit

Previously sheltering her family of six

Now welcomes a photographer, writer, and friend

Mrs Wong has spent her years cleaning, erasing traces of mankind

While her home is an endless accumulation of history

Eight umbrellas, 21 shoeboxes, 10 combs, a box of 88 VCDs

Two framed photos of her daughters, who no longer visit

Two calendars on the wall, one taped on top of the other,

As if the passage of time must be reinforced,

Otherwise, the flat itself might float away into the past

It is here where she regales us with recipes

Listens to her neighbour, who sings love songs at the top of his lungs

She is in her home and she is at home,

A state of mind where nothing can be taken away from her

She chooses to give,

Stuffing us with vanilla cake and corn soup

Mrs Wong pushes golden clip-on earrings into our hands

They catch glimmers of light as we leave her flat at sunset

Purple, orange and green glass swaying below our ears  

Mrs Zheng

Mrs Zheng’s hands are smooth as they slip into mine

Four fingers fold over the back of my palm

Her textured skin stretches over hard bones

I can feel Mrs Zheng’s knuckles are swollen, but she doesn’t dwell on them

Most old people have swollen knuckles, she shrugs

She knows people feel sorry for her

But, “We are not pitiful,” she asserts

After moving from Guangxi and collecting three decades in Hong Kong

She wakes up alone at 5 a.m. most days to clean for 10 hours

Wisps of grey hair fall under her blue cap

“I am never bored,” she assures

Proud after a day of completed work

I wonder where her optimism ends and her struggle begins

Unspoken complexities behind her cheerfulness

The careful bamboo scaffolding around her resilience

Her hands clasped in mine, a silent affection, a small reveal of longing

But we move on, because

She is passionate about other topics, like

The body’s pressure points, diagrammed in her posters at home

How to brew tea with apricots, pears, and brown sugar

Her closet, bursting with colourful blouses collected over the years

She looks at me with wrinkled worry

Telling me I am the one in trouble, not her

Urging me to get married as soon as possible,

Unsettled by all the blank pages left in my life

Her chapters, conversely, are mostly filled

Her life calm and consistent,

Her kitchen neatly organised and stocked daily

She writes the remaining pages in peace

And rests her hands by her side

Translated by Ng Mei Kwan.

Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association 
These poems were inspired by several visits to the Kennedy Town refuse collection point and an interview with Tsz Yan Leung from Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association, a non-profit organisation supporting working women. Out of the city’s 22,000 street cleaners, 70 per cent are over 65 years old, and more than half are women.