It was a very hot day, typical of early summer in Hong Kong. I was sitting in a small store by the roadside, enjoying a cold beer and feeling grateful for the shade provided by the awning above my head. I was paying attention to nothing in particular—it was that kind of day.
Consequently, I didn’t see the roadsweeper when he first appeared. It was the old lady who owned the store who drew my attention to him when she walked across and handed him a bottle of Coke. I saw no money change hands, but then I didn’t see the transaction from the beginning. Nevertheless, it did puzzle me at the time: was it a gift, or did they have some kind of regular ‘arrangement’?
However, this problem didn’t occupy my mind for long. The arrival of the drink posed a problem of its own, this time for the sweeper. He was a very old man, or so he appeared by Western standards, with a wizened face burnt by the sun and a small, almost shrunken body. He wore a grubby, once-white singlet and a pair of khaki shorts that were absurdly too big for him. The rest of his attire reflected the influence of modern consumer-oriented technology on even the most menial residents of this self-proclaimed ‘world city’: in a word, ‘plastic’. He wore plastic slippers of the type that oblige the wearer to shuffle rather than walk, the type that can be seen all over the territory and that, though distinctly non-utilitarian, must have been based on some ancient Chinese design.
His hat was also an ugly piece of work. Clearly based on the design for the old-fashioned pith helmet that was once de rigueur for white men in the tropics, it too was made of plastic. The total effect was to make the old man look pathetic rather than comic, but the problem he faced fell squarely into the latter category.
When the drink arrived, he’d been holding a cigarette in his left hand and a bamboo-handled broom in his right. He accepted the drink in his left hand, but the continuing presence of the cigarette seemed to prevent him actually drinking. The solution seemed obvious to me, but the old man was clearly confused. Eventually, he set the bottle down, perching it precariously on top of a pile of empty bottles. He drew indifferently on his cigarette then proceeded to sweep up a pile of refuse that was revolting in its appearance. This debris had already been fashioned into a crude heap, and his efforts didn’t seem to make any difference to its aesthetic character. Finally, however, he was satisfied, and he set down the broom.
I was unprepared for what happened next. He suddenly opened the hinged lid on the top of his handcart with an ostentatious flourish, almost as if he was playing to an imaginary audience. In that moment, I realized the wrong that has been wrought on other societies by the spread of Western technology and ideals. Here was an old man, seemingly too dim to work out an elementary problem in permutations, obliged to wipe the arse of a society that, in all probability, despised him. No doubt he lived nearby, in some dilapidated hovel, investing, when he could afford it, in a government lottery ticket and generally hating the existence forced on him by his inability to adapt to change and an improved system of education.
He was an anachronism, as out-of-date as the stagecoach and the blunderbuss. In a society that had not been ‘forced’, like a hot-house plant, he might have been a village elder, but so that bloated businessmen can eat until their braces burst and their trousers fall down, so that elegant ladies can see their photographs in the society columns of local newspapers, so that thrusting young executives can fill their expensive apartments with all the best in imported furniture and objets d’art, this pathetic scrap of humanity cleaned the streets. The only thing that he retained was a sense of dignity.
He leaned against a wall, enjoying his drink and a break from the tedium of his work, quite oblivious that he’d made a contribution to the advancement of the human race after all. This was his moment.