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Asian Elder Recyclers Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

New America Media, News Report//Video, Words: Leslie Casimir//Video: Josue Rojas Posted: Dec 19, 2008

Editor's Note: Long a fixture in the urban recycling landscape, Asian seniors who collect materials for a pittance may be squeezed out because of the shrinking economy, a looming state law and increasing violence, NAM Editor Leslie Casimir reports. NAM's coverage of elder issues is supported by Atlantic Philanthropies. Josue Rojas as a content producer at NAM.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. On a recent morning, amid the cacophony of clanking aluminum cans and glass bottles, 77-year-old Tai Gong enters the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center, her lifeline balanced on her tiny shoulders.

She walks here almost daily, bearing her haul of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, or whatever the day's trash yields.

VIDEO: Tai Gong at the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center

"I have nothing else to do," said Gong, who carries her bags of rattling cargo with a pole, reminiscent of another era. "I have to do this to make a living."

Gong, a Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrant, is part of a graying workforce that scours the city's streets and people's trashcans to make ends meet.

A ubiquitous group, these Asian seniors can be spotted at just about any festival, park or curbside from San Francisco to New York, snapping up soda cans and water bottles, usually with a metal hook.

Their presence has generated mocking videos on YouTube.

But they are no joke. Like most of the elders who do this kind of work, Gong is neatly dressed and she is not homeless. She wears latex gloves.

"I feel safe doing it -- but only in the daytime," said Gong, who made $19.74 one recent Monday.

But with unemployment at an all-time high and people scurrying for extra cash, Gong may be squeezed out on numerous fronts. Street competition, a looming state law, and increasing violence threaten her tiny income.

"I get a sense that it is rougher than it once was," said Tristram Savage, a nine-year veteran at the Haight recycling center who sees more people flocking there. "People need money now."

State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, will require people to produce identification and be paid only by check if they bring in more than $100 worth of recyclable materials covered under the California Refund Value program, or CRV.

Ma's staff members say the law, effective in January, is not aimed at seniors or the homeless who collect recyclables. The intention is to stop large-scale truck operations from stealing an entire neighborhood's worth of materials during curbside recycling days.

"It's threatening the viability of San Francisco's recycling program," said Nick Hardeman, a Ma spokesman.

Gong's job is also becoming more dangerous. Last month, three men viciously beat an 80-year-old grandmother who was collecting cans in her Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland.

The woman, Yue (her family requested that police officials not release her last name), collected the cans for spending money, police said.

She was kicked, punched and beaten with her pole. When the thugs finished abusing her, they stood over 103-pound Yue and laughed, police officials said. Yue has been released from an Oakland hospital and is now under 24-hour care at a home, said Jeffrey Thomason, a police spokesman. No one has been arrested and the motive for the assault is unclear.

"When I get a report like this, I assume it has happened already to somebody else who for whatever reason didn't want to report it," said Officer Alan Yu, who serves as police liaison to Oakland's Asian community. "They're older, they can't speak English and they probably won't call the police and they probably won't be able to identify their attackers. So this work is very, very dangerous."

When Zheng of San Francisco senses a threat, he just walks away. "I'm not afraid," said Zheng, a man in his late 50s who recently lost his job at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco and did not want his first name used. "Some put on a ferocious front and once they attack you, you just go away, you just don't be around."

Zheng earns about $90 a week at the Haight recycling site, about $360 a month. He prefers to collect aluminum cans that yield $1.57 a pound or #1 plastic, which gets 92 cents a pound, materials that bear the 5-cent CRV redeemable price. He pushes a shopping cart to the Haight recycling center about three times a week. It takes him three hours.

"In China, my life was better I used to drive a tractor, but all my family came here," said Zheng, who hails from Guangdong province and has lived in the United States for five years. "My wife had surgery and we have a hospital bill of over $20,000Of course, my wife helps me collect -- even after her operation."

Whenever Anni Chung sees elders like Zheng or Gong on the street foraging through trash cans, she offers them information about Self-Help for the Elderly, where seniors receive a free hot lunch and other social services.

But most rebuff her offer, explaining that this way of life is the only way they can maintain their independence and not be a burden on their adult children.

"You have to give them credit -- They're not begging or panhandling; they're hardworking," said Chung, Self-Helps' CEO. "Recycling becomes money in these tight economic times."

The practice of collecting cans among Asian seniors is hard to quantify, said Wing Lam, director of the New York-based Chinese Staff and Workers' Association.

"People don't like to talk much about it You [are] getting stuff from the garbage so people are shy to admit it," he said.

In China, recycling is an art form with a viable infrastructure not seen anywhere else on this planet. Nothing goes to waste, said Arthur Boone, chair of the education committee of the Northern California Recycling Association.

For some Asian seniors, the language barrier and being relatively new to the United States at an older age makes recycling for cash necessary, said Angelo Locsin, special projects manager at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging in Seattle, Wash. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 175,000 of 1.6 million Asians over the age of 55 or 11 percent live below the federal poverty level, Locsin points out.

They don't have adequate work history to qualify for Medicare, which requires 10 years of U.S. work history. So "they have to figure out alternative ways to pay for that health care," Locsin said.

Now that option may be narrowing.

Leslie Casimir can be reached at lcasimir@newamericamedia.org.

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