Top jewelry executive Erwin Huang (黃岳永) is a respected power broker in Hong Kong’s business community, but he scored a failing grade when it came to garbage collection.
The 46-year-old got a hard lesson in low-paid work as part of a hit television show that turns some of the financial hub’s wealthiest business titans into its poorest laborers for a few days — sparking a ratings bonanza.
Donning a mask, apron and rubber gloves, Huang nearly passed out from the rotting stench of trash he was tasked with dumping and threatened to quit his temporary job after just a few hours.
“It’s very stinky ... I need some fresh air. I can’t take it anymore,” Huang, who received about US$6 dollars a day, complained to his unimpressed supervisor.
“Look at my hands, they are swollen. It’s because of the dirty water. This is very hard. I’m dizzy, I need some time to rest,” he groaned, taking repeated rest breaks.
Huang’s hapless performance aired on The Battle of the Poor Rich, which has soared in popularity since its 2009 debut.
Some of Hong Kong’s mega-rich have appeared on the show as janitors and sweepers, scrambling for their next meal while sleeping in the territory’s infamous cage homes — tiny cubicles that rent for about US$200 a month.
The wealthy volunteers are taking part in the reality show — which highlights the plight of the territory’s poor — to experience another side of life while hoping to boost their flagging public image.
Huang, then-chief executive of Tse Sui Luen Jewellery, found his small quarters too much to bear in Hong Kong’s stifling heat, so he opted to sleep on the street instead. Adding insult to injury, Huang’s female superior gave him a failing grade, noting that his slack effort caused them to miss the rubbish truck.
“I know some people think it’s funny seeing these millionaires sweep the floor,” said Doris Wong (王祿霞), the show’s executive producer, adding that the gimmicky style “draws audiences.”
The show’s weekly ratings have soared from about 64,000 during the first season to 1.2 million viewers in the second season, or about 17 percent of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents.
The territory is usually associated with laissez-faire economic policies and super-rich tycoons, including its wealthiest man Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), a household name who has been dubbed “Superman” for his business prowess.
However, a rising tide of anger has emerged in recent years as poor and middle-class residents struggle to afford homes amid soaring property prices.
Now, the once-admired tycoons are more often vilified, including Li and his vast property holdings. Hong Kong’s wage gap is one of the developed world’s largest, while the territory’s millionaire ranks grew about 33 percent last year.
For Hong Kong financier Johnny Chan (陳光明), collecting cardboard was an “eye opening and humbling experience,” far from his lucrative job in Hong Kong’s glitzy financial district.
“When I was on the show, I felt so empty and scared — it was hard living as a cardboard collector,” the 39-year-old father of three said.
“I hope I was able to shine some light on this problem. Society needs to help the poor collectively — the government, media, citizens,” he added.
Although dozens of the territory’s wealthy have forsaken their luxurious lifestyles and Brooks Brothers suits to live in poverty, the show’s producer said it’s tough to find new takers.