Poverty ‧ Masters


Michael Elliott

On a clear day–I know,I know–there are few more magical sights than that of Hong Kong island from Kowloon. Buildings creeping to the sky, steep green slopes, and, in the foreground, a harbor bustling with commerce and energy. You have to have something other than blood in your veins to find it thrilling.

And you have to have something other than a soul in wherever your soul lives to find it profoundly moving, too. For Hong Kong is one of the very few places on the planet – there really are less than people suppose – that has made the transition from the poor world to the rich one within living memory. Millions have seen their life chances improve immeasurably – seen their housing and healthcare improve; taken the occasional break from hard work; celebrated, with pride, the educational attainments of their children.

But read histories of Hong Kong – or better yet, look at old photographs (the city has long been blessed with great photographers) – and you very quickly become aware that Hong Kong has not always been what it is now. The city suffered terribly in World War II. And after the war supposedly ended in 1945, the region did not find peace. Civil war broke out in China, and countless refugees with little more than the clothes on their backs flooded in to Hong Kong from the mainland, living in shanty towns at risk of fire and other calamities, crowding on to houseboats in Aberdeen and elsewhere. My wife’s mother lived in the city in those years, and in her journal one day in 1949 described hearing a “scratch at the door”. Outside her apartment in Mid- Levels she found a poor woman who had lost everything in Shanghai and was now selling clothing door to door – not much more than rags, my mother-in-law wrote – to make a few dollars to feed her family. Comfortable colonial life was just a step away from those who had nothing.

It is precisely because Hong Kong as a whole, as a collective expression, has made such progress from those days that the photographs in this collection by the finalists in the WYNG Masters Award competition are important. They remind us of something that is true not just in Hong Kong, but which is increasingly exercising policymakers around the world: much of the planet’s poverty is now to be found in states whose average wealth per head would put them among the rich or middle- income countries.

That requires us to think of the world in a new way. Say “poverty” and many people think of a dusty African village with no access to clean water or electricity, and where preventable, killer, diseases are a constant threat. And it’s right that those of us who work to eradicate poverty concentrate our efforts on the poorest of the poor, and support programs that reduce child deaths, extend vaccination to all, and take the fight – a winnable one, by the way – to the scourges of HIV/AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis.

Yet poverty is not – has never been – just a rural phenomenon. In fact, it was the dire state of slums in “rich” cities such as New York and London that, more than a century ago, led to some of the most important breakthroughs in the never ending quest to give ordinary people a decent life – one in which water wasn’t a carrier of diseases like cholera, and where “home” meant something better than a rat-infested tenement or basement. And today, as the world’s population is increasingly gathered in cities, our picture of what poverty means has to expand. It has to go beyond villages, to those who eke out a living from the land, to include the tens of millions who live in tight urban spaces, and whose economic prospects are hardly more comfortable than those of subsistence farmers. As international leaders start this year to think about a “new development agenda”, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire at the end of 2015, it’s vital that they remember how many of those who would most benefit from inclusive development live in cities, and in parts of the world where some people are getting very rich.

But all that’s for the policy wonks. What about those who just come to these wonderful photographs and want some human connection to them?

Looking at the finalists’ work, three thoughts kept coming in to my mind. The first was about space: people deserve safe and comfortable spaces to live and work. This is no small matter. We’ve all been guilty of romanticizing the cheek-by-jowl living conditions of crowded cities: telling tales about how you could almost smell the food from Kowloon kitchens when you made the approach to Kai Tak airport in the old days, marveling at the bustling humanity you see when you take a trishaw tour of Old Delhi. But one person’s picturesque cityscape is another’s hard living. We would do well to remember that space is a basic human need.

The second thought was about rest. It’s striking how many of these photographs show people who just look plain tired. Those of us who are more fortunate take it as granted not just that we will get a good night’s sleep, but that we will find time in the day to relax, to wind down, to enjoy life without worrying all the time. But for many people, life is an endless grind. In a world that we could be really proud of, it isn’t just the necessities of life that would be widely spread – necessities like access to health care and security. It’s the things that make life enjoyable, fun, happy. Things that you can’t do if you’re dog-tired.

Thirdly, though, I thought how many of these photographs showed the resiliency of the poor. That’s something I’ve seen throughout the world on my travels; poor people cope with what life throws at them, often in ingenious ways – finding somewhere unexpected to live, showing more entrepreneurial zeal than well-known corporations, doing all they can to make life a little better for themselves and their families, taking pride (see that picture boy in his graduate’s gown?) in the achievements of their children.

Such resilience is something that I have always associated with Hong Kong. This is the city that remade itself a er the horrors of World War II,  that absorbed a tide of refugees, that through hard work and determination turned itself into a marvel, one of the indispensable hubs of the global economy, forming, with New York and London, the Asian representative of the world system of trade and commerce that I once christened Nylonkong.

It wasn’t just wise officials who made that happen. It wasn’t just brilliant entrepreneurs and corporate opportunists. Of much, much, importance, was the resilience and creativity of Hong Kong people themselves, and not just those who were comfortably off. For 60 years, the poor of Hong Kong have been a critical part of their city’s success. I see these wonderful photographs as a chance to celebrate them, to give thanks for all they have done, and to look forward to a time when space and rest are things that come to them so naturally that we do not have to look at photographs and think what special gifts they are.