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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 â€œtreasureâ€, 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. â€œBecause theyâ€™re bright,â€ 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.
â€œWhen we were young, my younger brother and I loved to roam the streets for discarded wood that weâ€™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.â€
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.
â€œIt was so tough. When I couldnâ€™t take it anymore, I crept through the wire mesh at the border and fled to Hong Kong,â€ 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 â€“ an apprentice for housing renovation, delivery worker, and so on â€“ but none for long. He didn't feel well, too: he couldnâ€™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 brotherâ€™s whereabouts. One of them later pulled him aside and told him his brother was dead. Chak-ki doesnâ€™t believe it, he picked up a slip of paper taped to a can. Pointing at the Chinese characters for â€œMerry Christmasâ€, he says, â€œSee. This is obviously my brotherâ€™s handwriting.â€ The paper heâ€™s holding is actually a pamphlet distributed by a voluntary organization during Christmas. And the words â€œMerry Christmasâ€ were printed in a commonly used computer font.(Excerpts from the book Life and Times)