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Sunday, 04 February 2018 00:00

The Happy Golden Years of the Rag-and-bone Man

Written by  Tan Kim Hion, KL & Selangor / Translated by Shila Gephel

Eighty-six-year-old Ng Chung Eng does his part to protect the environment while making a living collecting recyclables. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]

Rag-and-bone man Ng Chung Eng has always been the first to arrive for the monthly recycling initiative at Tzu Chi recycling point in Kuala Lumpur in the last five years, except once when he was sick and could not make it. Choosing recycling as a way of life is his loving contribution to our planet and knowing that fills him with happiness.


Affectionately called Grandpa Ng by volunteers, 86-year-old Ng Chung Eng looks more like a 70-year-old in real life with his fit frame and sturdy gait.

“I believe it is due to my livelihood as a dumpster diver that I am relatively free of serious ailments except for minor high blood pressure and pain in the knees. I am very contented with my life and I don’t have any worries. I pick up discarded resources every day and I participate in Tzu Chi’s recycling every month. That makes me very happy.”

Grandpa Ng spoke to some 50 Tzu Chi care recipients on February 4 this year, detailing his life story of saving our planet through his efforts. Far from being a useless old man, his work of recycling has given him a sense of pride and dignity. He took the opportunity at the Chinese New Year reunion celebration held at Tzu Chi Taman Seraya Community Centre to encourage everyone present to lend a hand at recycling centres. “Participating in saving the environment,” he said, “keeps one youthful and worry-free.” Every day in his sunset years is a happy day.

Every day from Monday to Saturday without fail, Grandpa Ng pushes a trolley cart along Jalan Pasar to pick up discarded cardboards and other saleable stuff. With a full trolley, he then makes his way to the recycling plant to sell his stuff.

Grandpa Ng’s day consists of navigating the traffic and walking for half an hour in the hot sun, but he thinks little of the hardship. There are times when he earns a meagre one or two Ringgit, barely enough for his meals.

As a rag-and-bone man, he is sensitive to the difficulties of such a livelihood. Many of those in this trade are driven by desperation and Grandpa Ng refrains from picking up recyclables left by the roadside for fear of taking away the “business” of his counterparts.

Recycling as a livelihood

Due to the lack of parental love from his family, Grandpa Ng, a native of Penang, came to Kuala Lumpur as a young teenager and through the years, has come to regard Kuala Lumpur as his hometown.

“I used to have a happy family with two sons in KL, but they disappeared to America and Canada in their twenties. In the beginning, I would receive letters from them but as time passed, they became uncontactable and I have not heard from them in the last 25 years. I don’t even know where they are now.”

As his voice became hoarse and his eyes watered, Grandpa Ng recounted the time some ten years ago when his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Hoping to find his sons, he approached different associations for help but to no avail. Regretfully, his wife passed on without seeing their sons.

Living alone, Grandpa Ng had no choice but to face the vicissitudes of life silently. Formerly a construction and renovation worker, Grandpa Ng gradually lost his ability to work as age caught up with him. Unable to scale heights, he could only do odd jobs but this too became impossible when prospective employers chose to let him go upon seeing his lined face and white hair. His savings soon ran out and Grandpa Ng knew he had to find a way out.

As fate would have it, Grandpa Ng saw some cardboards lying on the road one day and got the idea to sell cardboards for survival. The moment he picked them up, Grandpa Ng admitted to feeling ashamed but the cash in his hands when he sold them motivated him. He soon began the life of a rag-and bone man.

“Fortunately for me, there are a few recycling plants near where I live, so it is not at all difficult to sell what I pick up. It has been 12 years since the day I first started doing this.”

Worry about declining ‘business’

Whenever Grandpa Ng reminisces about his life as a rag-and-bone man, what stands out is the hardship inherent in the trade and the cold stares and unkind words he has had to endure. Some people go as far as to think that rag-and-bone men collect filthy stuff and because of that perception, avoid them.

Grandpa Ng does not take all that to heart. He feels that recycling is a “business” and there is nothing wrong with earning one’s keep through hard work. As the economy slows down, more and more people are turning to collecting recyclables. This has unfortunately resulted in competition and declining earnings.

There was even once when Grandpa Ng picked up a whole bag of recyclables only to find it gone the next instant, taken away along with his old bicycle. Another time, feeling unwell, he fainted in the hot sun and was rushed to the hospital by helpful passers-by. Disheartened by the never-ending difficulties, he was encouraged by kind Samaritans who gave him a new bicycle and referred him to Tzu Chi.

In October 2013, when volunteers visited Grandpa Ng in his small rented room, they learnt that he received a welfare subsidy of RM300 and an income of RM200 to RM300 per month from recycling. There was not much left for food after paying the rental of RM400.

Some days, Grandpa Ng ate only two meals a day and went hungry in the evening. There were times when a bun alone constituted a meal. What moved the volunteers in that first visit was his immediate wish to donate RM2 every month to Tzu Chi when he learnt of the bamboo bank of Tzu Chi and the Foundation’s recycling initiatives. It did not matter to him whether or not Tzu Chi was going to assist him.

Having heard of the good work done by Tzu Chi and the many people who were helped, Grandpa Ng also started going to the nearby Tzu Chi recycling centre every month as a volunteer. In the last five years, he has never failed to turn up and render his services, except once when he was sick.

Seize the opportunity to help

To Grandpa Ng, volunteering is a way of repaying Tzu Chi’s kindness and in turn, he has found warmth and love among his fellow Tzu Chi volunteers, besides learning the practical know-how of sorting and categorizing recyclables.

“I have always craved kinship and with the passing of my wife, I was all alone. I used to weep thinking about the past but ever since I got involved with Tzu Chi’s recycling initiatives, I no longer mull over the sadness in my life…”

It is the family feeling that Grandpa Ng enjoys with the rest of the volunteers that moves him deeply. The care and warmth that he experiences as they eat and work together makes him so happy that he forgets all his worries and sleeps like a baby whenever he ends his day at the recycling centre.

Through joining Tzu Chi and sharing by volunteers, Grandpa Ng has come to understand the importance of protecting the environment. Left unpicked, recyclables will become trash and the precious resources of our planet will be depleted sooner than later. Grandpa Ng’s greatest consolation in life lies in doing his bit for our Earth.

In this lunar festive season, he happily makes a wish to continue his recycling efforts until the time when his body can no longer do so.

 

 

From Monday to Saturday, Ng Chung Eng waits by the shops at Jalan Pasar for discarded cardboard boxes. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]   Ng Chung Eng pushes the tied-up rolls of cardboard down the flight of stairs to conserve energy. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]

From Monday to Saturday, Ng Chung Eng waits by the shops at Jalan Pasar for discarded cardboard boxes. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]
 
Ng Chung Eng pushes the tied-up rolls of cardboard down the flight of stairs to conserve energy. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]
 
Pushing his full trolley across the road and walking for half an hour to sell his goods is Ng Chung Eng’s daily chore. Instead of dreading it, he looks forward to a full trolley every day. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]   A constant figure at Tzu Chi’s monthly Recycling Day, Ng Chung Eng never missed a day in five years, except once when he was ill. [Photograph by Lim Kar Guan]

Pushing his full trolley across the road and walking for half an hour to sell his goods is Ng Chung Eng’s daily chore. Instead of dreading it, he looks forward to a full trolley every day. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]
 
 
A constant figure at Tzu Chi’s monthly Recycling Day, Ng Chung Eng never missed a day in five years, except once when he was ill. [Photograph by Lim Kar Guan]4
 
Volunteer Wong Yin Lan (left) sharing Ng Chung Eng’s life story and speaking of her deep respect for him. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]   Every year, Ng Chung Eng looks forward to the reunion dinner organized by Tzu Chi. This is a time when he experiences the warmth of a family with other care recipients and Tzu Chi volunteers. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]

Volunteer Wong Yin Lan (left) sharing Ng Chung Eng’s life story and speaking of her deep respect for him. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]
 
 
Every year, Ng Chung Eng looks forward to the reunion dinner organized by Tzu Chi. This is a time when he experiences the warmth of a family with other care recipients and Tzu Chi volunteers. [Photograph by Lim Chin Shein]