Let Money Be Your Guide (Part 2)

(Click here to read Part 1.)

Text and photos by Solaire Hauser

BANGKOK – Being a tour guide means telling a lot of stories. Sometimes, however, it is the storytellers themselves who share details about their lives.

Ithidej Sarunsiri has been a tour guide in Bangkok since 1998, and it wasn’t exactly the career he had always imagined for himself.

“Life is easy for Thai people,” he says, because the weather stays sunny almost throughout the year. However, in terms of his professional career, life did not always seem so bright.

After working in his father’s business for a few years, he eventually had to look for a new job when the Thai-based company suffered a hard blow during the financial crisis of the year 1997.

Even though becoming a tour guide did not seem like the best option to him back then, there were not many other choices available. So he started his training and began to pray to Buddha to help him get his license.

Now Sarunsiri walks tourists around the most famous sights Bangkok has to offer and explains their history to them. “I keep details like a library,” he says with a laugh as he turns to a giant golden Buddha statue to explain the story behind its creation.


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.

A Wish Upon A Tree

One Woman’s Choice to Pursue Enlightenment

[A long-form article]

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Jian Jue Sik, 31, kneels before a table in a small room, her face illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through the dark wooden bars of a window in front of her. She is wrapped in a gray robe, her hands folded in prayer. A statue of a man with a long black beard towers over her. The light changes, falling on the woman’s head. Her hair is shaved, only a few millimeters of stubby wisps remain.

Jian Jue is a Buddhist nun living in the Chi Lin nunnery in Hong Kong, a recent and controversial addition to the UNESCO World Heritage site short list. Since the age of 12, Jian Jue has been trying to find her path. Now, more than a decade later, she is following in the footsteps of her mother and devoting her life to Buddhism.
The story of how she came to Chi Lin is connected to two things: one of her Buddhist masters, and a tree full of money.

A Wish Upon A Tree: Jian Jue SIK

A Buddhist nun walking along the streets of Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Evita Li)

Before Jian Jue became a nun, everyone knew her as Yee Lai Heng. At that time, she was searching for the answer to a question that had haunted her since childhood.

One day when Jian Jue was 12, her mother asked her to pluck out her gray hair.
“Mum, why do people get gray hair?” Jian Jue remembers asking.
“When people get older, they get gray hair,” her mother said.
Then they get sick, and then they die.

“I felt very sad,” says Jian Jue. And that’s when she asked the question that would change the course of her life.

So Yee Lai Heng became Jian Jue Sik, a Buddhist nun on a spiritual journey towards enlightenment and a quest to find the answer to that one simple question:

How can I find a path that doesn’t lead to eventual sickness and death?


Jian Jue’s search lasted years.

Born in Malaysia, her first job was working as a secondary school teacher in her home country in 2005. She also taught 3- to 12-year-old primary school kids math using an abacus.
“I have always liked calculating,” she says with a laugh.
She took the teaching job after quitting college, where she had studied Accounting for one year.

But even then, she felt life held something else for her. Still, her efforts to find out what it was had so far been fruitless.

Jian Jue was accompanied in her search by her mother. They went to Christian church together, in case they would find their calling there. When that didn’t work, they turned to other religions.

For Jian Jue, Buddhist temples had always contained a certain fascination. While working as a teacher, she was also volunteering at a temple.

Jian Jue still remembers the first time she went to a temple as a girl. Upon entering through the gates, the first thing she heard was the chanting of the monks.
“For some reason, I started to cry,” she remembers. “It was a feeling like going home. I felt ‘touched inside’.”
Then she smelled the incense.
“I always thought it looked easy. But it’s actually quite complicated.”
Jian Jue realized that incense burning requires determination to the task. Usually, a number of sticks are used, which have to be burnt more or less equally.

Jian Jue went to temples regularly after her first visit. She also started chanting at home almost every day.
Her decision to eventually become a volunteer was sparked by her trip to a temple for Buddhist monks.
“I felt that the temple was very dirty,” she recalls. “All the books were so dusty.”
So she offered to help keep the place clean.

Even though she went to the temple three to four times a week after school, Jian Jue hadn’t yet considered becoming a nun herself.
In 2006, her mother got in ahead of her: she told her family she wanted to become a Buddhist nun. For most of them, this choice was unexpected. Jian Jue was 24 at the time.
“I think maybe she didn’t make her thoughts about Buddhism too obvious because she didn’t want to leave her husband,” she says.

That may also be the reason her mother didn’t ask to become a nun right away. Instead, she asked her husband’s permission to live in a nunnery in Malaysia. About two months later, she told him she wanted to be ordained as a Buddhist nun.
Jian Jue’s father agreed, only demanding that she go to a temple only for women.

“I was in Indonesia at that time, in a temple,” Jian Jue recalls.
But she came home to see her mother’s ordination ceremony, as did most of her other family members. Together, they watched as a Buddhist master, also called a shifu, shaved her mother’s head and presented her with her Buddhist robes.

[Click on the page numbers below to read the next part of this article.]

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.”

Simon Chau’s Tree of Life

By Solaire Hauser

Simon Chau is currently teaching Translation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Simon Chau at the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

HONG KONG – Simon Chau is known in Hong Kong for both his environmental work as well as his achievements in the field of translation. Being the only one out of four children to have a university education, he feels that he should use it to improve the way of living in Hong Kong.
He says that “at this very moment, I think Hong Kong is in a big crisis; economically, politically and socially.”
According to him, many well-educated people left the country about five years before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
“Like abandoning a sinking ship,” he says. However, Chau and his family stayed.

He urges people to do more for their country and the preservation of its environment. Chau himself is a “green campaigner”, as he calls it, setting an example of a sustainable and healthy way of living. The roots for this engagement in environmental activities reach deeply into his childhood, while the origins for his interest in translation can be found in a rather unexpected place: the Catholic Church.

A Man of Memories

By Yan Chiu, Solaire Hauser, Evita Li, Momo Mao

HONG KONG – Light bulbs, cables and fans hang from the ceiling of a small store on the side of the street. A man sits in an old chair next to the tiny door, his wrinkled hands buried in a box of shiny silver tools.

Choi Chueng Yun, 77, has been sitting in this chair almost every day from early morning until afternoon since his retirement.

The products he sells in his store in Wan Chai are former possessions of people he has helped to move out of their apartments. Ties, housewares, memorabilia and old books tell a story about their former owners. Customers rummaging through Choi’s bookshelf might sometimes even find a dinner invitation from the 1980s between the dusty pages of a Harvard Law book.

What the products in the shop don’t tell, however, is Choi’s own story.

Born in Guangdong in China, Choi came to Hong Kong when he was only 13 years old. Those times still hold bittersweet memories for him.

“Those days were not easy, but we felt happy,” says his wife.

Working used to be an obligation for Choi. Now he does it for fun.

“I could have retired. But I’ve become attached to the old stuff, so I can’t just leave.”

Interview by: Yan Chiu, Momo Mao
Camera operators: Solaire Hauser, Evita Li
Editing by: Yan Chiu, Solaire Hauser, Evita Li, Momo Mao
Narration: Solaire Hauser
Special thanks to the Choi family.

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.

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.