Let Money Be Your Guide (Part 1)

How Two Financial Turmoils Influenced One Man’s Life

By Solaire Hauser

BANGKOK – Scores of tourists climb the steep steps to the top of one of Bangkok’s famous temples. In the shade of the great Wat Arun sits a man. He is wearing black trousers and a beige button-down shirt. A slight gust of wind wafts through his short black hair as he shelters his eyes from the hot summer sun that shines almost throughout the whole year in Thailand.

Let Money Be Your Guide 1

Sarunsiri now earns money as a tour guide, showing tourists in Bangkok around temples and other sights. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Life did not seem so bright a few years ago. Ithidej Sarunsiri, who introduces himself to foreigners as Michael, was one of many Thais whose life was turned upside-down when a financial crisis hit his country in 1997.

Back then, he was working in his father’s company, a big leather goods production firm in Thailand. Sarunsiri says that the business received a strong financial blow during that time. That was when he had to start thinking about finding another way to earn a living.
“My father is a one-man show business,” he says.  “I am just like an ‘accessory’ on his head.”

So Sarunsiri had to go and find his fortune elsewhere, and after a while his path led him towards tourism.

In 1997 he started his training for becoming a tour guide. Being a Buddhist, like approximately 94% of the Thai population in 2010, he asked Emerald Buddha, one of the Buddha statues in the Grand Palace, to help him get his license. Because at the time not becoming a tour guide would have meant not having a job.

One year after starting his training he began to work. One of his big advantages in the job was that he enjoys talking; for instance about the Buddhist tradition of sticking gold leaves on Buddha statues.
“I would put them on the mouth,” he says with a grin, because that is where he sees his strength, which he would like Buddha to protect for him.

The next time the world engrossed in a financial crisis, starting in 2008, Sarunsiri again felt the effects on his profession. Tourists from Europe started to decline, while at the same time more people from Asia flocked into Bangkok.

In general, the effects of this second crisis were much less severe for Sarunsiri. “After the financial crisis in 1997 many people lost their jobs, lost their home,” he recalls.

Still, the money he earns from showing visitors around the city is not always enough, so Sarunsiri took a four-year break from being a tour guide in 2008 in order to figure out web marketing.

In the beginning, the online world was still a mystery to him.

“Wow! Hotmail! I have Hotmail! I have job!” is one of the things he used to exclaim in the early stages of his marketing career.

Now he knows that a web presence does not equal a job guarantee.
However, it has helped him to attract more customers and be more successful with his actual profession, so he can be prepared in case another financial crisis comes around.


Fishing in Deserted Waters

Text and photos by Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Wading through the dark brown muddy ground, Ho Jeon Pak is looking for shrimp. The villager, who is currently in his seventies, collects the small sea creatures, as well as tiny fish, simply for fun and to eat them.

“There is nothing else to do here,” says his wife.

She and Ho have been living in the Tai O fishing village on Lantau Island in Hong Kong for many years. Before his retirement about 16 years ago, Ho used to work as a fisherman, just like many other men in the small village. But now, there is hardly anything left to catch.

“I quit fishing when I was about 40,” he says. “No fish for us anymore.”

Hong Kong Taxi Drivers Fight for More Money

Text and photos by Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Easily distinguishable from normal cars in most cities, taxis come in different colors. In Hong Kong their signature colors are red, blue and green, depending on which area they are serving.

Drivers of the red cars, which are also known as urban taxis, have recently been on the news due to a discussion about an increase of the taxi fare.

At the moment, most drivers earn around HK$ 300-400 on an average day. Poon Shu Keung, who has been a cab driver for 20 years, thinks that the current price is acceptable. “Not too much, not too little,” he says.

On the contrary, cab driver Chow Chi Leung says that almost half of that money needs to be spent on oil and the renting fee for the car.

What urban taxi drivers are demanding now, in order to solve this problem, is a HK$ 2-increase in the taxi fare, according to a report in The South China Morning Post. They are also asking for an additional 10 cents for every 200 meters.

There have been a number of fare increases in recent years to deal with this situation. Whether this one will be approved or turned down remains to be seen.

A Ping Che Resident’s Fear For His Home

Chan Sing Shun sits at a table in front of his hut in Ping Che village. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Chan Sing Shun sits at a table in front of his hut in Ping Che village. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Chan Sing Shun shoulders his backpack as he stands on the front step of his small hut. The gray-haired man, wearing a gray pullover, black sports trousers and a black jacket, is off to do volunteer work for the elderly community.

Chan is one of three residents sharing a small complex of three huts in a village called Ping Che in the northeastern New Territories in Hong Kong. He moved to the area when he was about 20 years old and has been living there for approximately 40 years. Now, at around 60, Chan has to fear losing his home, as a government plan intending to replace the shacks and organic farms in the area with residential buildings threatens to leave an estimated 10,000 residents no chance but to leave the place they call home.

The plan has evoked protests by the villagers, who don’t want the government to build “another concrete jungle,” according to one of the protesters, Chang Guichai.
“This is our Central Park. We don’t want another artificial park,” he says.

Chan, who has been a school bus driver in Hong Kong before a stroke in 2010 forced him into retirement, does not worry too much about the impact the government plan might have on his farm. The vegetables he grows, he says, are not for sale, it is only a hobby for him. However, he wants the government to offer redemption for residents who will lose their homes if the plan is put into practice. So far, none has been offered.

The hut Chan lives in consists of two rooms, the first one equipped with a couch, a table, a few pictures and shelves on the wall, as well as a flat TV. In the adjoining room, Chan often sits at his computer in the afternoon to play chess or mahjong. He calls his living arrangements, in his matter-of-fact tone, “not inconvenient.”

Since his ex-wife left, together with his son and daughter, Chan has been living in the shack with an adjoining kitchen alone, and he wouldn’t mind moving somewhere else. However, the HK$ 3,000 he receives every month since he had his stroke are not enough to find a new place to live in the city, since he says that the housing prices in Hong Kong are much higher than what residents pay for their homes in Ping Che. Therefore, he supports the protesters, who are demanding a revision of the government plan.

Samuel Koch – From A Life Of Extreme Sports To Life In A Wheelchair

By Solaire Hauser

[The links included in this article lead to German-language websites.]


Koch at the presentation of his book in Germany, April 2012. (Source: Badische Zeitung)

HONG KONG – Samuel Koch, 25, who has been paralyzed from the neck down in an accident on the popular German TV show Wetten, dass …? two years ago, reflects on his life on the Austrian radio show Frühstück bei mir on Sunday.

“Sometimes,” says Koch in the interview on the radio channel Ö3, “maybe during the night, if I can’t sleep and would like to roll on one side or the other side; when I become restless and would like to move, it creates an inner unease, almost like claustrophobia, inside my body.”

In those moments, Koch tries to reason with himself, thinking about how lucky he is to have something to eat, a roof over his head, and telling himself that he can always get an assistant if he needs help. He has learned to deal with the restlessness at night, just as he has to learn to cope with other things in his new life.

How it all happened

On December 4, 2010, the former stuntman and acting student was one of the candidates on Wetten, dass …?, presenting probably one of the riskiest stunts the show had ever seen. The German TV format is a platform for people to bet. Bet that they can finish a bowl of water faster than their dog. Bet that they can survive being run over by 15 cars while singing “O Sole Mio!”. Or, in Koch’s case, that they can jump over cars driving towards them with 22 km/h by using jumping stilts, also called “powerizers”.

“I had been doing that jump so often that I almost knew it in my sleep,” writes Koch in his biography entitled Zwei Leben (Two Lives). However, millions of viewers were live witnesses when the stunt – for the first and last time – went horribly wrong.

Now Koch has to rely on a wheelchair, which was something the German, who had been in sports competitions since the age of 6, had to adjust to. Another thing he has to cope with, as he explains in Frühstück bei mir, is that he gets cold easily. Koch talks about one time when he took a plane, wearing four pullovers, after which he was still so cold that he had to lie on a water bed in a strongly heated room at home for some time to get warm again.

Still, when asked about whether he would do the stunt again in an interview by SPIEGEL Online in 2011, Koch said yes. However, there is also a part of him that thinks that he should not have done it.

In the radio show, he further explains that statement. If he would change something in retrospect, he says that “maybe I would try to act less reasonable and more emotional.” He explains that he made the decision to take part in the show mostly based on reason, thinking about the 40,000 euro (approximately 409,000 HK$) he would have received if he had been chosen as the winner at the end of the show.

He also adds that “an after show party with Cameron Diaz and Co. was also quite appealing.” Lastly, he thought about how he has been doing the stunt since he was 18 years old, often performing it for companies in order to earn money. “Companies quickly find something like that rather spectacular,” he says.

If he had listened to the bad feeling in his stomach, however, he reckons that he might have made a different decision.

Was the stunt too risky?

Koch’s accident drew a lot of media attention back in 2010, and both he and the organizers of the show had to face criticism about recklessness and security measures. In Sunday’s radio show, Koch denies having been put under pressure by the organizers of the television show. As for the allegation that he and his team should have known better about what could happen, Koch says that “the risk for me was, in the worst case, that I would break both of my legs.”

Now, more than two years after the accident, Koch looks towards the future. He has started studying acting again in April last year, according to a report by Focus, and currently stars in a theatre production of Nach Moskau?! (To Moscow?!), in which he plays a 60-year-old military surgeon. Some of his fellow students seem to think that the university is not the right place for him, he says in Frühstück bei mir, a view that he thinks some of his professors might share. Still, he follows the path he has chosen and is rewarded by the success of the production he currently stars in.

“My biggest compliment is that many people realized only after the play, or during the applause, ‘Oh, he really is in a wheelchair.’”

This experience, as well as the support of his family and friends, have helped Samuel Koch to get back his sense of humor and look at life in a positive way. He has also developed a certain liking for shoes, which first becomes evident at one point in the radio show, when interviewer Claudia Stöckl asks what he would have become if the accident had not happened. Koch jokingly replies that he would like to take up a job as someone who runs-in shoes for other people.

At the end of the interview, when talking about what he regrets in his life, he says “that I can’t run-in my shoes myself. And that they always look so new and unused.”

–> To listen to the radio program (in German), click  here.

Unable to Hear, but not Unable to Work

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – “Wai?“
That’s how people in Hong Kong answer the phone. But for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, this simple task can prove to be a challenge.

Insufficient communication skills, lack of technical knowledge or a lower level of education are only some of the factors that play a part in determining whether a hearing impaired person will be able to find a job or not.

“Blindness will separate people from the things. But deafness will separate people from people,” says Clara Lau, deputy director of the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf. This non-governmental organization has been founded for the purpose of helping deaf or partially deaf people to find a place in society and improve their interactions with the hearing world.

It all started about 50 years ago with a group of people who felt that their needs and demands were not properly met by society. After two years, they managed to get funding from the Social Welfare Department and that’s when the Hong Kong Society for the Deaf officially came into existence.

The Society also offers speech therapy to its members. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Today, the organization comprises of a number of volunteers and professionals, who have made it their mission to continue the work of their organization’s founders. One of the ways in which they do that is through their Employment Service. It was started in order to tackle the problem of unemployment among the hearing impaired population.

This is not only a local phenomenon, but appears in many countries around the world. While it is difficult to find official numbers for Hong Kong, a look at the statistics of other countries helps to get an overview of the current situation: In Canada, around 38% of deaf people are unemployed, while the amounts in Indonesia or Nepal went up to 60 and 85% in 2008.

The Hong Kong Society for the Deaf tries to work against this development by providing job search assistance, sign language interpreters or IT and English classes to its members. According to Clara Lau, the main barrier in the working environment is posed by communication.
“Most of them work in settings that can communicate with simple instructions, for example catering or cleaning,” she says.

Right now, the Employment Service mainly focuses on finding those types of jobs, but for the future, Lau hopes that technology will help to broaden the field of available employment. “We believe that hearing impaired people are just like you and me,” she says. And developments like the use of computers as a tool of communication could be “one step forward” to minimizing the gap between hearing impaired workers and their colleagues.

Work, Pray, Learn: An Indonesian’s Life in Hong Kong

By Solaire Hauser

Siti Khoidah, 26, in front of Kowloon Mosque (Photo: Olivia Lau)

HONG KONG – Every Sunday, a big crowd of people in colorful robes gathers at the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre located on one of Hong Kong’s most crowded streets, Nathan Road. While shoppers, restaurant-goers and general street traffic pass by, Siti Khoidah walks up the steps to the entrance of the mosque, takes off her shoes and steps inside.

Khoidah is a native Indonesian who came to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper. Every Sunday, the 26-year-old goes to the Kowloon Mosque, to see her friends and family and to learn.
Her weekly visits at the mosque are one of the reasons she came to Hong Kong.
“I worked in Singapore before. We didn’t have a day off on Sunday.”

Latest numbers show that there were more than 150,000 domestic helpers from Indonesia in Hong Kong in February 2012, and the number keeps on rising.
For many of the domestic workers who come to Hong Kong, the possibility to go to the mosque on the last day of the week is very important. Here, they do not only get to pray and meet with fellow workers, but also have the opportunity to take part in English-language classes.

Another reason the city is so attractive for foreign workers is the salary. According to the website of the Hong Kong Labour Department, the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) for a Foreign Domestic Helper is HK$ 3,920 per month, as of 20 September 2012.
A study conducted by the Asian Migrant Centre in 2006 found that underpayment was the most serious problem among Indonesian migrants in Hong Kong then. Nevertheless, Khoidah says that what she gets paid for her work in Hong Kong is more than what she would earn in Indonesia.

When Khoidah first came to Hong Kong about four years ago, she worked for a Hong Kong local whom she calls Mr. Kenny. Before she became a family helper in his household, she learned Cantonese. Soon she will start working for a new employer who is from Pakistan.

Even though Khoidah says she is very happy, she does not want to stay in Hong Kong forever. When her new 2-year contract expires, she plans on going back to Indonesia and finding a husband. “I would like to live in my hometown after I get married,” she says.