Published: 10:06, March 10, 2023 | Updated: 19:52, March 17, 2023
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A light in the dark
By Oasis Hu

Hong Kong’s disabled and the disadvantaged are deeply indebted to the unsung heroes of social enterprises who have helped them to go about their normal lives. Oasis Hu reports from Hong Kong.

The driver of Diamond Cab helps a wheelchair user get into the car. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Doris Leung Shuk-yi has earned the gratitude of more than 74,000 wheelchair-bound residents in Hong Kong for making their daily routines easier and more manageable. 

Leung set up a social enterprise called Diamond Cab (Hong Kong) in 2009 — the first private project offering point-to-point transportation services for wheelchair users, and one of the over 710 social enterprises in the city that aren’t profit-driven. 

Behind her entrepreneurship and social ambition to help others in wheelchairs was the plight of her mother — a tumor survivor who had a right limb permanently paralyzed after surgery in 2006. 

Leung once had to rely on taxis or Rehabus — a bus service operated by a local charitable organization to provide public transit services for people with disabilities — to take her wheelchair-bound mother to hospital for follow-up treatment. But those services seemed undesirable. The space in a taxi is too confined; and sometimes the drivers are restless. Rehabus vehicles are few and far between, and often have to make detours to pick up other passengers along the way.

Eventually, Leung had to settle on vans. But she felt heartbroken seeing her mother stacked up in the back of a vehicle which permeated a stale smell, having previously been used to transport heavy equipment like welding and pumping gear and weighty buckets.

Leung, a former senior news reporter with a Hong Kong television station who used to report stories about the underprivileged, quit her job and established Diamond Cab, providing an alternative solution for people with disabilities, like her mother.

It took her more than a year to secure taxi licenses and find cabs that are easily accessible to the handicapped and wheelchair users. Her vehicles — Toyota Noah Welcabs from Japan — were big enough to accommodate wheelchairs, with mechanical ramps at the back, allowing wheelchairs free access to the cabin.

Leung also spent a great deal of time and effort seeking partners, investors, drivers and potential clients through people she had interviewed as a reporter, residential care homes, hospitals and non-governmental organizations. Diamond Cab finally got off the ground in 2011. 

Leung’s mother, who was Diamond Cab’s first client, passed away in 2012. “Diamond Cab is the best legacy and gift my mother has left me,” said Leung. She named her enterprise Diamond Cab because her mom loved diamonds and she wanted to remind people that wheelchair users are also diamonds who deserve dignified lives. 

Leung’s business soon made a splash, making news headlines as the first local social enterprise to provide such services. It drew voluntary sponsorships and prizes. Her operations went without a hitch until 2015 when the buzz waned. 

Diamond Cab could hardly make ends meet as funding dried up, more competitors appeared, and vehicle maintenance fees continued to mount. It was like chasing rainbows. In 2017, Leung faced a double whammy when she was diagnosed with third-stage breast cancer amid a stressful life trying to find a way out for her enterprise. Her doctors said she might have only a few months to live. 

But the thought of giving up Diamond Cab soon vanished when Leung thought of the helpless wheelchair-bound patients, whose number was expected to grow as the city’s population continued to age.  

Government statistics in 2020 showed that 74,200 people (about 1 percent of Hong Kong’s population) had to rely on wheelchairs to move or walk around. Another 24.1 percent of the elderly population had to seek long-term medical treatment. 

Leung found a friend to help her run Diamond Cab while she sought medical treatment. A lifebuoy was thrown to her a few months later when an insurance company contacted Leung, offering to put up advertisements for her fleet of cabs for three years. Fortunately for Leung, she was cured in 2019, allowing her to resume her mission.

By the end of December last year, Diamond Cab had five cabs and about 14 drivers in service. It had picked up more than 180,000 wheelchair users since its inception. Many long-term users have committed themselves to using Diamond Cab’s services for three or four years. The company has helped many wheelchair users to travel far and has taken patients to hospitals. It has also transported many elderly people on the final journey of their lives.

The driver of Diamond Cab helps the elderly get into the car. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Changing dynamics

Diamond Cab’s contributions to Hong Kong go far beyond that, says Andy Ng Wang-tsang, chairman and founding member of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Social Enterprises, of which nearly half of the city’s social enterprises are members.

“After Diamond Cab came into being, many people saw possibilities in operating such vehicles. So more and more service providers of wheelchair-accessible vehicles have appeared in Hong Kong. Diamond Cab has revolutionized the taxi industry and promoted the development of the entire wheelchair-accessible transport system in the city,” said Ng. 

Calling Leung “a light in the dark”, Ng said social entrepreneurs like Leung have made such operations a success and are a vital force in driving the progress of our community.

He said social enterprises are meant to benefit society by creating employment opportunities for the disadvantaged, protecting the environment and helping the elderly, and etc.

Unlike charitable organizations, social enterprises must be self-sufficient financially, Ng said, adding that 65 percent of their profits must be used for social purposes instead of dividends paid to shareholders.

As head of a non-governmental organization himself, Ng said he found that NGOs, which rely heavily on government funding, don’t normally make full use of the resources available. But in the case of social enterprises, which have to be self-sustaining and able to compete in a free market, it’s a different story. Social enterprises need to fully exploit their resources to make a profit in order to survive. 

Ng, who believes that Hong Kong is an excellent place to start and develop a social enterprise, created HKGCSE in 2009 to support these enterprises, along with other NGO heads.

Doris Leung, founder of Diamond Cab. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)The HKSAR government has been supporting the development of social enterprises for more than two decades. It allocated HK$50 million ($6.37 million) and HK$150 million in 2001 and 2006, respectively, to launch seed funding, providing grants for eligible organizations and individuals to set up social enterprises. 

Hong Kong’s favorable business environment has also helped, with social enterprises having snowballed in the city in the past decade. As of April last year, there were 711 such enterprises in the SAR — a 93-percent increase from 368 registered 10 years ago. 

The nature of their operations has also diversified and expanded. A decade ago, social enterprises mainly provided employment opportunities for people with disabilities. They’ve now taken on various social missions, including advocating fair trading, promoting sustainable development, and uplifting marginalized groups. “At the same time, more social enterprises are created by individuals rather than NGOs,” Ng said. 

He said Hong Kong people are new to the concept of “social entrepreneurship” as most of them believe it’s impossible to make money and do good deeds at the same time. However, that perception has changed lately. 

Employee of V Cycle is recycling plastic waste. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Striking a balance

V Cycle — a social enterprise that recycles waste plastics and provides jobs for elderly waste pickers — is another exemplary case. 

Founded in 2017, the enterprise was a fitting move by Eric Swinton who had hit rock bottom by leading a hectic, unhealthy and “meaningless” life as a business director for a local gifts and premium company. On the advice of his mentor, who invited him to join a charity organization, Swinton, 46, occasionally volunteered to visit the underprivileged. After experiencing the happiness felt from helping others, he subsequently left his job and used all his savings to launch V Cycle.

Swinton found that the recycling rate for plastic waste — the second-largest category of municipal solid waste in Hong Kong — was low, at merely 6 percent in 2021, when 2,331 metric tons of plastic waste were disposed of at landfills daily, accounting for 21 percent of the total municipal solid waste discarded.

V Cycle hired seven full-time elderly waste pickers to help sort out waste after collecting discarded plastic bottles from offices, or cosmetics bottles from retailers. These plastic products would then be sent to a factory and turned into sustainable goods, including tote bags, umbrellas, table lamps and hangers, for sale. 

According to Swinton, currently, there are about 3,000 waste pickers in Hong Kong, of whom 80 percent are women, 80 percent are elderly and 70 percent live alone. The job of waste pickers on the streets is nothing if not dangerous. They could be hit and injured by vehicles, have their wallets stolen, get into a fight with others over a piece of garbage, or be reprimanded by security guards.  

Eighty percent of staff in Dignity Kitchen have some disability. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Before joining V Cycle, an 80-year-old woman surnamed Lee had been picking up waste on the streets for several years. She could earn only 20 HK cents for each kilogram of waste collected. Even if she worked into the wee hours of the morning, she could make just HK$30 a day.

Wandering on the streets would mean having to endure the scorching heat in summer and the biting cold in winter and being despised by pedestrians. “They would often avoid me when they walk by because, physically, I look dirty,” said Lee, who had to toil to make ends meet.  

At V Cycle, Lee works six hours daily and is paid HK$50 per hour, earning HK$300 a day — 10 times more than what she earned from collecting waste on the streets. “I’m really grateful to Swinton for offering me a job. I don’t have to continue drifting on the streets anymore. I have an office. I have hot water to drink and I even have colleagues to talk to,” she said.

V Cycle collects up to four tons of plastic each month and has recycled about 180 tons so far. Swinton said he plans to recruit 18 more workers like Lee this year. Asked about the secret of his company’s success, Swinton said the only thing he knew was to help people. “Good behavior, naturally, leads to good results,” he said. 

The staff of Dignity Kitchen prepares free meals for homeless people. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Sharing the same belief, 63-year-old Singaporean Koh Seng Choon started a restaurant called Dignity Kitchen, whose employees are mostly people with disabilities.   

Around 50, Koh set up the first Dignity Kitchen in Singapore to provide the disabled with training and jobs. He brought the idea to Hong Kong in 2019 despite the social unrest that year, followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With just a few customers, the restaurant couldn’t make ends meet. But Koh refused to budge. He secured loans to keep the eatery afloat because, for its more than 40 employees, it was probably their only source of income in addition to their meager government subsidy. Koh believed he must give something back to society after turning 50, having obtained knowledge, fortune and reputation from society when he was young, as his family told him.

At Dignity Kitchen, a person with dwarfism can be trained to be a cashier, an amputee can be a cook, and an autistic person can be a waiter. After they’ve proved they can handle their work professionally, Koh will introduce them to other restaurants to work, helping them to integrate into the community. Thus, the disabled can have a higher income, and Kitchen Dignity can train more disabled people. 

Life is all about learning how to strike a balance between give and take. For social enterprises, they’ve found the balance to make business work and turn the world into a better place for the underprivileged.  

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