HK's McRefugees have stories worth telling, says I'm Livin' It director

HK's McRefugees have stories worth telling, says I'm Livin' It director


SINGAPORE – A few years ago, the folk who bed down nightly in Hong Kong’s 24-hour fast-food restaurants made the news here when it was discovered that there was a Singaporean woman among them. She had fallen victim to a scam in China and was too ashamed to come home.

McRefugees, as they have come to be known, have been a social phenomenon in the city for a decade.

According to a survey released in 2019 by the Society for Community Organizations in Hong Kong, there were 1,270 registered street sleepers by the end of 2018 – up from 780 in 2013. Nearly 40 per cent of them were staying overnight at McDonald’s outlets.

McRefugees made the news again this year when social distancing rules forced 24-hour restaurants to switch to takeout only and close at 6pm, forcing hundreds of them into the streets.

Hong Kong drama I’m Livin’ It, now showing in cinemas, is set in one such community.

Director Wong Hing Fan, 51, tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview that he had hoped to show that not all those who sleep in cafes are destitute.

Rather, many are the working poor, holding low-paying jobs – often, more than one – yet unable to afford rent or have incomes siphoned into debt payments.

Those who see the McRefugees as lazy or averse to hard work fail to understand the competitive nature of life in the city, Wong notes.

“Hong Kongers work hard, whether they are rich or poor. Hard work is essential for survival. Lazy persons are weeded out over time,” he adds.

The film’s characters include Mama (Cya Liu), an undocumented migrant from China; Uncle Wait (Alex Man), a widower who cannot bear sleeping alone in his flat with the memory of his dead wife; and Sam (Zeno Koo), a teenager distancing himself from a toxic family situation.

With the help of the resourceful big brother figure of Bowen, played by Aaron Kwok, they form a de facto family. Miriam Yeung plays Jane, a good-hearted lounge singer who helps Bowen out of tough situations.

“It takes a multi-faceted perspective to complete a story. There are many stories about McRefugees. When choosing what to include, I chose the elements that spoke to me,” says Wong, who makes his feature film debut with I’m Livin’ It.

The film earned 10 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April, including for Best Film, and was selected for the Asian Future section of the Tokyo International Film Festival last year.

The screenplay is by Ja Poon (romantic comedy A Beautiful Moment, 2018). With the help of social workers, Wong’s team went in search of authentic stories.

“From speaking with them, we found a person who loves to help other McRefugees find jobs. This trait can be seen in Aaron’s character, who believes the poor must help each other,” Wong says.

While it might be tough to find affordable housing, it is not a place without heart. In community fridges, Bowen and friends find food and drink donated by vendors and members of the public. Charitable organisations distribute packed lunches to seniors.

The donations allow cafe dwellers to pool their meagre resources to escape their predicament. Without such a boost, they might stagnate and their temporary homes under the golden arches might become permanent.

“When you are poor, you have to wait and hope. McRefugees can turn their life around only if they leave the 24-hour fast-food restaurant,” Wong says.

I’m Livin’ It is in cinemas now.

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