And no, we are not talking about any current holiday trend, but the group of Asian ladies of a certain age who have divvied up the “turf” of single-family housing areas in Vancouver. They collect bottles and redeemable containers from blue box recycling containers on recycle collection days. Some are pleasant, and respectful, and know all the neighbours. Others are more demanding, going onto properties and in garages to retrieve their booty. One local bottle lady tucks her treasures in a late-model car. But what is the life of these women, how do they divide their territories and how does it all work?
Marcus Gee of the Globe and Mail also wondered how these ladies operate in Toronto, and armed with a translator approached them. Marcus notes: “Big, complex cities such as Toronto contain worlds within worlds, many of them unknown to each other. The world of the bottle ladies is one of the city’s most obscure. Social agencies that track downtown poverty and work with the Chinese community admit they don’t know much about who they are or what drives them, although they think some may have dementia or hoarding issues.”
“Despite their old clothes and their willingness to trudge the streets for a few dollars, most are not homeless or desperately poor. Many have families. Quite a few have a government pension or other income. Many live with a son or daughter and spend the daytime caring for grandchildren. They insist they never take money from anyone. The last thing they want is charity or pity.”
“They go out collecting, they say, to bring in a little spending money and to keep active in their later years. That’s not unusual in China, where garbage picking has been refined into an art. Even in prosperous Hong Kong, wizened, bent women can be seen pushing carts piled high with scrap cardboard down busy city streets. Many bottle ladies, it turns out, come from neighbouring parts of southern China, especially Taishan, in the Pearl River Delta.”
Marcus also found that one bottle lady actually leaves gifts and tokens for customers who left bottles out for her, and collected to stay active. “The phrase she used to describe herself is “ngaii duk,” a Cantonese term to describe someone who can endure hardship with fortitude.”
An article in the South China Post published in 2014 found that nearly 70 per cent of vulnerable Hong Kong seniors collected recycling to pay for basic housing and food costs. It is also a part of Vancouver life dominated by one cohort of ladies who have wholeheartedly embraced the bottle collecting task. The Globe and Mail article gives a glimpse into the reasons why.