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The toilet cleaner


When I am in Hong Kong I have so my favorite places to visit. I know where I like to eat, I like to walk at the boulevard at night to watch Hong Kong Island.

When I lived in Holland I was never that conscious about how lucky I had been being born in Holland. I had grown up in a peaceful country, no political turmoil, no poverty although my parents where certainly not rich. I had enjoyed a decent education, learned to swim when I was young and there was always a good meal.

Hong Kong Island, a very clean oasis in the middle of the financial city center
Hong Kong Island, a very green and clean oasis in the middle of the financial city center

I took this as many people for granted. And yes, I too saw the news with the Vietnam war, with the floods in Bangladesh, the never ending troubles in the Middle East, the continuing struggle for food in Africa and so on and so on. But it was far away and when the TV turned off I forgot.

I had to go out of Holland not only to know the life I had enjoyed had been easy and good but to learn to understand it too. When I started my journeys in Asia, I soon learned a lot about how lucky I am. And how Dutch I am too.

Hong Kong Island, many people working in the cleaning industry
Hong Kong Island, many people working in the cleaning industry

The journeys brought me to Hong Kong and that is where this story about the toilet cleaner starts.

I can hear you, why a story about toilets? Over the years I come in Hong Kong. It's still the best and easy place to pick up a Chinese visa. It's easy, cheap and fast. Hong Kong has taught me what life in a metropolis is. Hong Kong is a city that never sleeps. You can come at 3 in the morning and be able to find a hotel room, or a meal, find bar open, change money and so on.

Hong Kong Island skyline with the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island
Hong Kong Island skyline with the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island

Shopping centers are usually open from around 10am until 10 or 11 pm. And that's where the toilet story starts. Some years ago I was walking in the Ocean Center in Kowloon when I had to use the toilet. When I finished, I chatted a bit with an older man who was cleaning the place. His name was Mr. Kwok, as far as I could understand him.

He had grey hair and looked way over 60. He told me he was only 48. His job was to clean this particular toilet. He considered himself to be lucky. He had a job, the company provided him with clothes and although the work itself was not particular interesting, he was warm in winter and cool in summer. Many of his friends had less luck and did work as garbage men and other dirty jobs. And it was a reasonable clean job, no sweat or hard work involved too.

Mr. Kwok had no more education then primary school but I was not able to find out if he had even finished it. Mr. Kwok worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. He didn't want to tell me how much he earned with his work but I assume it wasn't much.

Mr. Kwok's day usually started by drinking some tea and having some noodles at home. His wife used to make it but she had died the year before I met him. As his both children were very busy themselves, being married and having children, often Mr. Kwok went to a noodle shop to get enjoy his noodles there. In his view, life had been kind to him despite the fact his wife had died young. His children had both married and found a good job. He was able to buy his noodles and tea while many of his friends had serious problems to find enough money to survive. Food in Hong Kong, here Mongkok

Mr. Kwok had to keep the toilet at the first floor in the Ocean Center clean. And as most people in Hong Kong, he did his job very proper. His toilet was always top notch clean. My mom used to say about this kind of situations: "you can eat from the floor" and in the case of this toilet it was almost true.

Mr. Kwok didn't see much else of the building, hardly knew where to find whatever kind of shop. All he saw in his working life was the toilet room.

Over the years I came back to Hong Kong. the second time I met Mr. Kwok he did recognize me as much as I recognized him. Apparently not many people do chat with a toilet cleaner. This year, 2009, I went purposely to this particular toilet, just say hi to Mr. Kwok.

Instead I found a younger man. He told me in perfect English, Mr. Kwok had died some weeks earlier. The company had given the family a small amount of money as Mr. Kwok had worked almost his whole entire life for the company as a toilet cleaner, more then 30 years! My first assumption was the Swine-Flu but it turned out Mr. Kwok had simply died of a heart attack. Mr. Kwok had turned only 56, the younger man told me.

I realized that I being born in the Netherlands had more opportunities, better education and thus more options for decent jobs. In fact, the fact I had given up a job to travel made me in many ways much richer (although in money poorer). A few times I had told Mr. Kwok about what I was doing. He always shook his head. "You need to work for your money", he used to say. Of course he was right, he could only not understand that my work nowadays was different then his job.

I will miss Mr. Kwok, I will miss the smile of a man who cleaned the toilets on the first floor of the Ocean Center in Hong Kong. And at the same time I realize how lucky I am I do not have to clean toilets to stay alive. But I was never allowed to make a photo of him! (thus explaining general photos of Hong Kong)

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