To most of us the famous Golden Arches provide a quick food fix whenever our hunger strikes, whatever the hour, but to some of the less fortunate people of Hong Kong, they provide so much more – a home. Self-taught photographer and charity worker Suraj Katra reveals the astonishing reality of homelessness in our city through his series of photos taken at various McDonald’s outlets.
The world’s largest fast food chain has over 235 restaurants in Hong Kong making it one of the most McDonald’s-heavy places in Asia. What makes it so popular? The answer is very simple – in an expensive and fast moving city like Hong Kong it offers a ‘bang for your buck’ with cheap food, comfortable seats, air-conditioning, wi-fi, toilets, and 24-hour service.
The astonishing reality in Hong Kong is that these outlets, with their red and yellow branding targeted to tonnes of people looking for a quick, cheap meal, turn into a joint for people facing poverty by night.
If you were to walk into some of the 24-hour McDonald’s in Kowloon between 1am to 5am, you are likely to find it turned into a hibernation den with people lodged on its acrylic furniture.
As I entered some of the McDonald’s at various odd hours of the night to capture these images, many a time I was struck by the unmistakable body odor and smelly feet of 30-40 people, who had taken over an entire section of McDonald’s to sleep.
When queried, the staff said they were helpless as “every attempt to drive them away was met with failure, they just kept coming back!”
According to The Hong Kong Census and Statistical Department, 19% of the population is living on or below the poverty line, which is a sizeable number in this city of 7 million that is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive places to buy property in the world.
When I approached some of my subjects to ask them why they chose to spend their nights in McDonald’s, the most common response was that they simply couldn’t afford to live in permanent accommodation and most had to make do with temporary arrangements. McDonald’s is where they go when they had no other place to go! Though they were thankful that they did not have to resort to sleeping in the street, it brought a smile to hear some of them complain about the limited food menu offered in McDonald’s.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear a smattering of good English, but could sense their helplessness from their expressions and tone. Some of them forbade me from taking their pictures because they said they did not want their friends and relatives to know about their situation as they would ‘lose face’ in front of them.
There were people who choose to work odd-hour shifts and lodge here until the train starts running again in the morning. It was appalling and depressing to witness people drinking alcohol, smoking, and washing up in the McDonald’s toilet in some outlets that were located in the decaying parts of the city. The fact that the police are sometimes called in to clear them out means that they are here to stay and homelessness is a reality in this city of millionaires.