CC Issue 15 / Literature / Social Work

Grubby Money

I was out on the streets of Hong Kong the other day, in an area known for its poverty, drug addicts and recently arrived immigrants. I went there on purpose with a few other girls to find people who might need help.

As it happened we bumped into a little granny who we’d seen a few times before. The first time we said hello she brushed us off with a gruff word and went on about her business. This time she let us talk to her.

“Let us take you to dinner,” we said, “somewhere nearby.”

She agreed but told us she had pack up her wares first.

“Let us help you, then,” we suggested. “It will be faster.”

So then we set about helping her pack away her merchandise – empty plastic packaging, secondhand clothes, wires and broken radios – all of which she had carefully spread out on the street on top of dirty old blankets,

It was all good fun until a group of swarthy Pakistani men began eyeing us from down the street.  I’ll spare you recounting all the thoughts that went through my mind, but suffice it to say that I was thinking about how to make a swift departure.

As they ambled toward us, a stocky middle-aged man at the center of a group of tall younger guys, I tried to avoid eye contact. But before long they were standing right in front of me.

“Excuse me, miss, what are you looking for?” he asked. “Here is nothing worth buying; the quality, no good. Come tonight, a few streets over, the lapsap market is very good. Good quality.” Lapsap is the Chinese word for rubbish.

I was just a potential customer. “Oh, no,” I hastily explained, “I’m not looking to buy. We’re just helping her pack up her things.”

A look of incredulity spread across his face but then he turned to his companions to relay what I had said. Immediately I relaxed. After a minute he turned back to me, offered a few genial words and a reminder about the location of the market in case I was interested later, and they moved on.

It was like a new wind was blowing in the streets; all my fear was gone.

We did get a few inquiries and stares from other passersby, but for the most part everyone had seen what had happened and it was like we now had a right to be there despite the peculiarity of the situation.

I know I said I would write about Charles Dickens’ “prescience” (how’s that for a high-falutin’ literary word) and the reason is this: he already foresaw and described this state of society over 150 years ago.

Dickens final complete novel, Our Mutual Friend, is entirely about a fortune that is made from picking through the dust or rubbish heaps of Victorian London, and the disruption of “good” society that is brought about by the dispersal of this money. John Harmon, alias John Rokesmith for most of the novel, is the man who is set to inherit this fortune:

“The man whose name is 
Harmon, was the only son of a tremendous old rascal who made his 
money by Dust.”

Dickens was able to see, document, and predict the currents by which society would move from the vested interests of land and title to a more fluid system of social class, especially the ability to make money and rise socially through the means of industry and trade.

His preoccupation with the fluidity of society and the plight of the poor is, I think, a lot of what makes his work so enduring and interesting. He essentially wrote the story of what would happen and is still happening in societies across the globe, over the next two hundred odd years. People in India are still reading Dickens because they find it relevant today. People in Mexico, like John Harmon’s father, are making a living just from what they find in the trash. People in San Francisco are even stealing recyclable rubbish because it is so valuable.[1]

Fascinating to me that the things I discard can become someone else’s livelihood.

Turns out this year marks Dickens’ 200th birthday and there are celebrations and whatnot going on throughout the year, in London especially. So happy birthday, Mr. Dickens, and thanks for all the good yarns.


[1] See the following links for India , Mexico and San Francisco if you’re interested. And also I realize its totally lame to have only one footnote but I can’t figure out how to take away the numbering and keep the note! (Technical advice welcomed.)

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