Beggars. To give or not to give?

by Blue Lam, Feb 4, 2002 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

Despite all the flattering statistics about an economy taking flight, the truth is, there are many, too many perhaps, people who are left choking in the dust of China's take-off. During the fortnight I was backpacking in China, I was constantly reminded of this everywhere I turned. I could see the desperate sitting, squatting, standing or walking around begging for spare change. Old people; children; the handicapped; teenagers who had outgrown their "pitiful kiddy look", but knew no other way to make a living; mothers nursing babies; broken men - they were just there. Coming from a country where it is almost illegal to beg (Singapore), such sights were disturbing, to say the least. I had to figure out for myself - to give or not to give? In the end, I chose refusal. I chose refusals because I believed that a lot of the children and disadvantaged were set up by syndicates aiming to make money out of these unfortunate people. I had read reports where children were kidnapped and disfigured, or had their limbs chopped off, to "qualify" them as beggars. The money they got for a day's "work" would be taken away. I did not want to play a part in encouraging such a business. There was also a very practical side to this - giving to one could result in me getting mobbed by a scary crowd of other beggars. Just because the other beggars couldn't be seen didn't mean that they were not there. I had heard enough personal accounts where the kind giver and his family were frighteningly surrounded by hordes of children when he relented and gave to one needy child. And if you are a Caucasian walking on the streets, you can expect more persistent asking. Do take a stand for yourself. Can you be hard-hearted enough to say no? If you say yes, can you cope with the crowd if they descend on you? That said, pretending not to see these people and saying "no" were very hard work. I had looked over children's heads, feigned deafness and blindness, and made a dash for it with my backpack bouncing crazily over my shoulders - all at the price of enormous guilt. But there was one case where I was utterly defeated - where a teenage boy had wrung dollars from me. I was sitting in a train station in Hangzhou and waiting sleepily for my train to arrive. All of a sudden, there was this teenager in front of me. He was in a dirty and torn yellow T-shirt and a pair of muddy pants. He just walked over and knelt down silently in front of me, head bowed low and hand out-stretched. I was so taken aback that I dug into my pockets immediately. To hell with all my theories about bashing beggar syndicates. With a kid kneeling in front of me for a few bucks, there was almost nothing else I could think of doing. I managed a smile as I pressed the money into his hand. He gave me a blank look in return. I remembered thinking - was he retarded, or was he like, dead on the inside? It was one of the most heavy-hearted memories I had of China. And I recalled mumbling to myself, sheesh, I hope that not too many beggars would catch on that idea because I would definitely end up parting ways with my limited budget too many times, if that went on.