Behind Hong Kong’s clean streets and 24-hour convenience is a web of workers, many in low-paid positions, who toil tirelessly to keep the city going. Cynthia Cheng and Maxime Vanhollebeke have made it their mission to honour the people whose work too often goes unnoticed through social impact storytelling platform Hong Kong Shifts, which they discussed on the most recent episode of HKFP’s Yum Cha podcast.

Street cleaners featured by Hong Kong Shifts. Photo: Hong Kong Shifts.
Street cleaners featured by Hong Kong Shifts. Photo: Hong Kong Shifts.

The project involves speaking to shift workers across the city and telling their stories on Hong Kong Shifts’ social media accounts through photography and bilingual write-ups in English and Chinese.

“Storytelling is really at the core of everything we do at Hong Kong Shifts,” Cheng said.

“Not only is it just sharing of human stories, but there’s an angle to our stories, which is to put a spotlight on people who are working behind the scenes all around us in the city,” she said. “We really hope to be able to use these stories to build empathy, to build bridges, and to foster connections between different communities in the city – which is why we call it social impact storytelling.”

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Many of those featured by Hong Kong Shifts work low-income jobs in a city where some 20 per cent of residents, or 1.36 million people, are living in poverty, according to Oxfam Hong Kong. 

A weaker than expected economic recovery since all Covid restrictions were lifted last year has also had a disproportionate impact on those in low-income households, with many still struggling with living costs despite being in work. Oxfam’s latest poverty report found that almost 60 per cent of those experiencing working poverty have full-time employment.

Cheng and Vanhollebeke said that while earnings were rarely “an essential part” of their interviews, dignity and a desire for respect were.

hong kong shifts
Ho, a cardboard collector in Sham Shui Po who works five-hour shifts. Photo: Hong Kong Shifts.

Highlighting street cleaners and Hong Kong’s “cardboard grannies,” elderly women who collect cardboard boxes to sell for a few dollars, Cheng said that during the height of Covid, “they said to us that… ‘this is our wage – it’s fine, it’s not, it’s not great – but what we kind of really do miss is… connecting with people in our community, or people acknowledging us, or giving us the recognition that we are working hard and we’re here to serve the community’.”

Vanhollebeke said that giving people the recognition they deserved was “a consistent thing we hear from the people that we are interviewing.”

“We all need recognition: from our friends; from work, whether it’s recognition from our clients, from our colleagues. [It’s] just a basic human need which is not fulfilled for many shift workers because we fail to realise that their customers are all of us,” Vanhollebeke said.

“I still remember the street cleaner on Hollywood Road… [she said:] ‘Yes, I don’t make much. Yes, it’s challenging. Yes, I need more more sanitary protection. But what I need most is people to acknowledge me, or even eye contact.’ And that was really the moment I realised [Hong Kong Shifts] is worth doing.”

Cynthia Cheng (right) and Maxime Vanhollebeke, co-founders of social impact storytelling platform Hong Kong Shifts. Photo: Tim Fung.
Cynthia Cheng (right) and Maxime Vanhollebeke, co-founders of social impact storytelling platform Hong Kong Shifts. Photo: Tim Fung.

The project has benefitted the pair in other ways, leading them to explore corners of Hong Kong that they might never have otherwise ventured to.

“I mean, as a team working on the project, that’s one of the aspects we love. We just literally pick a neighbourhood we’ve never been [to] and we just walk around and we see what happens,” Vanhollebeke said. “And I would invite everyone to try it out. It’s a really fun way of discovering Hong Kong, and Hong Kong has so much to offer.”

For Cheng, who was born in Canada but grew up in Hong Kong before relocating to the UK, it also allowed her to reconnect with the city and its people through language.

“I did grow up in very much of a bubble, and so being able to use Cantonese – which is a language that I only started picking up again properly since I moved back here five years ago – using that to connect with people in our community, and to be able to engage with them, and to make them laugh… that for me is like really special,” she said.

“It’s just made my experience a lot richer.”

HKFP Yum Cha

New episodes of HKFP Yum Cha are published on Saturdays. The first season features a diverse range of voices, from artists to scientists, who share their perspective on Hong Kong as it is today through the lens of their industry.

Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


9/1/2024 at 10.18 am: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Cynthia Cheng had moved from Hong Kong to Canada as a child, whereas she was in fact born in Canada, then grew up in Hong Kong before relocating to the UK. We regret the error. 

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Mercedes is a British journalist who has been based in Hong Kong since 2012. At Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered a number of local environmental issues, including climate inequality and marine biodiversity, and explored how Hong Kong's arts scene reflects a changing city. She has contributed to the Guardian and BBC Travel, and previously worked at the South China Morning Post, where she wrote a weekly column about the social and environmental impact of tourism in Asia.