One night at McZzzzs

One night at McZzzzs
Two McRefugees spend the night in the central portion of the restaurant on Nov 14, unabashedly lying across the cushioned benches with nothing except a free cup of water to justify their stay.
PHOTO: The New Paper

It is just past 11pm and some are already slumped over tables, while others lie sprawled across cushioned seats, shoes kicked off.

In the background, orders for burgers, fries and chicken nuggets ring off at the counters.

But the dozen or so "McRefugees" - typically homeless people seeking shelter in Hong Kong's 24-hour McDonald's outlets where staff are known not to kick them out - seemed oblivious to the bustle and occasional stares.

And nobody seemed to mind the McRefugees turning the dining area into a public hostel.

Most of these McRefugees are said to be Hong Kongers. But last week, AP reported that a 60-year-old Singaporean had recently started sleeping over at a McDonald's in the Jordan district.

When I spent the night at that outlet last Friday, I was taken aback by the generosity of the McDonald's staff, as well as the nonchalance of the McRefugees, some of whom were rather unkempt and smelled as if they hadn't bathed in days.

I also quickly learned how unprepared I was.

McRefugees come in from about 10pm to scout out and "chope" a prime sleeping spot.

In this particular outlet, located in the basement of a commercial building, that is at the back, near the restroom.

That area is the warmest, one McRefugee told me, and restaurant staff even rearrange tables to close it off, so sleepers can get some peace away from other customers.

The lights in that section are also switched off at midnight, despite the outlet being open round the clock.

Having no clue about all this, and with the air-con temperature dropping to about 16 deg C, I found myself shivering in my thin hoodie by early Saturday morning.

With McRefugees, it is a first come, first served rule. The ones who have taken the most pains to stake out the best spots on the longest stretches of cushioned seating in the closed-off section are rewarded with the least disruptions.

Friday night's winners were four elderly folks who had come prepared with padded jackets and blankets. One man even had pillows.

A free cup of water from the McDonald's counter sat on a nearby table, the McRefugee equivalent of the tissue pack in Singapore hawker centres.

While these lucky early birds lay bundled in the quiet zone, others like myself were forced to weasel a spot among regular diners munching, conversing, and sometimes laughing loudly in groups over their meals.

Some latecomer McRefugees lined up two or three chairs in an aisle and stretched out, forcing customers to make detours around them.

McDonald's staff, meanwhile, did their best to make these people comfortable.

Waitresses cleared tables quietly, and every now and then, one would peer into the closed-off section as if to check if all was well.

They also served as pseudo sentries, gently telling other customers not to enter the main sleeping area.

And no one protested.

Customers would move off obligingly, and I saw neither menace nor complaints, only quick curious stares.

In Singapore, such a scene would probably have invited posts on Stomp and Instagram, maybe even a call to the police, but not here in Hong Kong, where McRefugees have long been a common sight.

I was the only one snapping pictures and I felt like I was crashing a sleepover.

To shake out the cold and aches because of my uncomfortable seat, I paced around the restaurant and was invited to share some fries by a neighbourhood resident who said he dropped by almost every night for a meal after his late shift closing up street stalls.

When I thanked him and told him I had eaten, and that I was in fact a journalist, he apologised, saying: "Sorry I didn't mean to offend you, only you looked like you wanted food, and I don't like seeing people hungry."

OTHER RELATED STORIES:

- McRefugees illustrate plight of HK's homeless

- Woman sits dead for hours in Hong Kong McDonald's

'PEACEFUL'

James, as he wanted to be known, had moved from Pakistan to Hong Kong for work more than a decade ago and was no stranger to McRefugees in Jordan.

"Sometimes, they would fight over sleeping places but mostly they are peaceful," he said, as he finished his meal.

"They know that they need to respect the peace here, or they will be kicked out."

At 6am, almost on the dot, staff turn on music in the restaurant and like an alarm, it rouses the groggy McRefugees from their sleep. Most of them declined to speak to me, keeping to themselves as they packed up and left, just as quietly as they had arrived.

One 60-year-old man said he worked nearby in the food and beverage industry doing a late shift and slept at McDonald's because his home was too far away.

A 55-year-old said he had lost all his money, survived doing odd jobs as and when he found them, and had no other place to sleep.

The only person who would give me her name was 80-year-old Tang Hang Shou, a wisp of a woman who had spent the night propped up against the entrance to the McDonald's, looking very much at home on the curb, wearing socks to keep her feet warm.

She had stayed outside as it was too cold in the restaurant.

Asked why she was there, Madam Tang said: "I've no money, my relatives are all dead, and I have nowhere else to go."

As dawn broke and I left to catch the train, she too was gone.

Singaporean woman among McRefugees

The “McRefugee” phenomenon in Hong Kong has provided sobering images of the city’s growing problem of homelessness.

Early last month, a McRefugee, a woman reportedly in her 50s who spent the night slumped over a table in a Kowloon Bay McDonald’s, was found dead 24 hours after she had entered the fast-food joint.

Hong Kong media reported that she had actually been sitting dead in the middle of dining customers for about four hours before her death was discovered.

A Social Welfare Department spokesman told The New Paper that the government is highly concerned about the plight of “street sleepers” — the official term for homeless individuals on the street — and that the subject is a “complex social problem”.

Hong Kong has a computerised Street Sleepers Registry to capture street sleepers’ particulars and record the services they receive.

The government helps fund non-governmental organisations that provide services to street sleepers, with the goal of putting them back on their feet.

SHELTERS

NGOs linked to the social welfare department operate five urban hostels and two emergency shelters, providing a total of 202 accommodation places.

This is in addition to eight independently financed hostels with 421 places for overnight or temporary accommodation for street sleepers. But the number of those out on the streets keeps growing.

As of the end of last month, the number of registered street sleepers was 884, up from 806 in January. It was just 555 at the end of 2012.

McDonald’s employees and diners told TNP that most McRefugees are local Hong Kongers across all age demographics, but there are also foreigners in the mix.

Last week, AP reported that a Singaporean, Miss Mary Seow, 60, had recently started sleeping at a McDonald’s in the Jordan district in Kowloon. This is believed to be the first reported case involving a Singaporean.

Miss Seow told AP she arrived in Hong Kong two months ago and had been swindled by Chinese acquaintances she had met in Singapore.

With little money left, she began sleeping at a park, then moved on to McDonald’s after seeing others doing so. She reportedly said that she was not ready to go back home and “lose face” with friends over her plight.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told TNP that the Singapore Consulate-General in Hong Kong had located Miss Seow and offered its assistance.

He said that MFA is also in touch with her family in Singapore.


This article was first published on November 16, 2015.
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