A light in the dark Chan Chak-ki
While heaps of things at his home are junk to most of us, Chak-ki regards them as useful. He likes to trawl the rubbish bins on the streets for “treasure”, and would often haul back home bits of glass pane and wood he found near construction sites. His favourite creation is a light installation. I ask him why he likes these lights. He laughs and flicks on the switch. “Because they’re bright,” he says. Although some of the lights are so bright he has to squint or look away, he enjoys the show of light and shadow, which reminds him of his happy childhood.
“When we were young, my younger brother and I loved to roam the streets for discarded wood that we’d use to make stools. My brother was the more skilful with his hands. He even knew how to fix the lights at home. He was really smart.”
Chak-ki grew up in Guangzhou. His father was a sugar trader, and was well off enough to afford sending him to school. Then came the Cultural Revolution. The family fled and got separated. In 1968, Chak-ki found himself working as a farm labourer in Sha Tau Kok, at the border with Hong Kong. It was back-breaking work, particularly for someone used to a comfortable life.
“It was so tough. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I crept through the wire mesh at the border and fled to Hong Kong,” he says. On arrival, he looked up a cousin who had settled in Hong Kong and went to live with her. In Hong Kong he tried his hand at various jobs – an apprentice for housing renovation, delivery worker, and so on – but none for long. He didn't feel well, too: he couldn’t sleep at night, and often thought people he met were scolding him.
His cousin eventually took him to a doctor. In 1974, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After a long stay in the hospital, his health improved and he was allowed to leave. He then worked as a bus cleaner, and stuck to a schedule of regular check-ups and medication. In 2006, he quit his bus cleaning job and began to live on a monthly social welfare of HK$4,170. He has no savings. To supplement his income, he sometimes collects discarded electrical appliances and strips out the metal for sale.
We also talk about his family. Chak-ki says his father is now over 80 and lives in a home for the elderly in Tianhe district in Guangzhou. I ask him about his brother. Suddenly more serious, Chak-ki says when he last visited his father two years ago, he took the opportunity to ask his relatives there about his brother’s whereabouts. One of them later pulled him aside and told him his brother was dead. Chak-ki doesn’t believe it, he picked up a slip of paper taped to a can. Pointing at the Chinese characters for “Merry Christmas”, he says, “See. This is obviously my brother’s handwriting.” The paper he’s holding is actually a pamphlet distributed by a voluntary organization during Christmas. And the words “Merry Christmas” were printed in a commonly used computer font.(Excerpts from the book Life and Times)