The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Hong Kong, a crowded restaurant, a death unnoticed and ‘McRefugees’

A photo posted by Suraj Katra (@jaruskr) on

As she neared her final breath, people around her were contemplating ham n’ cheese burgers and hotcakes.

At 8:39 a.m. last Friday, the 24-hour McDonald’s restaurant in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, was as busy as always. No one paid any attention to the middle-aged woman with short black hair and black-framed glasses, dressed in a gray jacket and slippers, who sat down at a table near the bathroom.

Early Saturday, at 1:20 a.m., the woman abruptly slumped over. Other patrons remained unconcerned, scooping Oreo McFlurry chunks into their mouths as they indulged in a late night snack.

At last, later on Saturday morning and a full day after the woman’s arrival was caught on CCTV cameras, a customer approached her.

She was cold, unconscious. The police were called, but the outcome was foregone: the woman was already dead.

This eerie montage, reported first in the South China Morning Post, has brought attention to the city’s growing population of “McRefugees,” homeless people who frequent — and often occupy — McDonald’s locations because the 24-hour establishments offer a public refuge found in few other parts of the city.

[Why China’s McDonald’s just ran out of hamburgers (and just about everything else)]

In a statement provided to The Washington Post via e-mail, McDonald’s Hong Kong expressed grief over “the unfortunate incident” and said police have yet to confirm the woman’s identity.

“The whole thing is shocking,” Lingnan University visiting sociology professor Paul O’Connor said in an interview. “It’s really caught people’s attention locally — it’s one of those tragic yet mundane things that occur.”

But some McDonald’s customers are unperturbed, as evidenced by a South China Morning Post photo taken at the crowded restaurant the morning after the woman was found. While the area where she had been sitting was blocked off by a large piece of black plastic, on the other side short-order cooks were seen preparing french fries and young men were sipping soft drinks.

“Immediately after the incident, we conducted a thorough disinfection of the Ping Shek Estate restaurant, which remains open as usual,” McDonald’s Hong Kong said in its e-mailed statement.

The fast food giant pointed out that they do not “disturb” their customers unless a customer expresses a desire for assistance. In this case, the e-mail notes, staff “swiftly delivered” water to the woman when she requested it.

The police department confirmed in an e-mail to The Post that initial investigations found no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death.

If fellow patrons last weekend failed to notice the dying human being in their midst, it may be because they have grown accustomed to the homeless people who have made a routine of settling into McDonald’s after sunset.

“A big problem in Hong Kong is the lack of public ownership of space,” O’Connor said, recalling a night where his friend was locked out of his apartment and advised by a taxi driver to spend the night at either a massage parlor or McDonald’s.

“McDonald’s is the option that people have got if they don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “You’ll see old people and teenagers there during the day, and in the nighttime you see the more vulnerable groups, like homeless people.”

[A quarter of McDonald’s restaurants in China may have been serving expired meat]

The patterns of these McRefugees have been recognized for years, and poignantly documented by photographer Suraj Katra in the Hong Kong Free Press.

Katra wrote in one Instagram caption: “After entering a McDonald’s late one night to grab a quick bite, I witnessed the staff clattering around the restaurant in an attempt to wake up the 15 odd people that were lodged sleeping there.”

These sleeping figures are jarring additions to an otherwise bustling landscape. Most of them rest their heads on their arms, leaning into the restaurant’s hard tables as they would a pillow; others are splayed across booths, their faces turned to the wall.

At these restaurants, located in the city’s poorer pockets — the McDonald’s where the woman died is in a public housing estate — people are frequently found drinking alcohol, smoking and using the bathroom to wash up.

When Katra asked some of his subjects why they had chosen to sleep in a fast food joint, many responded that “they simply couldn’t afford to live in a permanent accommodation and most had to do with temporary arrangements.”

Hong Kong rents have soared in recent decades, with prices terrifying even to New Yorkers, as one Wall Street Journal editor discovered. According to a 2015 report published by global financial services company UBS, Hong Kong residents have much lower incomes than their New York City, Paris and Geneva counterparts while shouldering comparable rents.

These demanding rents have contributed to a rise in the city’s “street sleeper” population, of which McRefugees are a subset. These are Hong Kong’s homeless.

“We endeavour to support street sleepers to enhance their self-reliance,” a spokesperson for the city’s Social Welfare Department wrote in an e-mail.

Services include employment guidance, emergency relief funds and temporary housing. Yet with rents so high, even those with the income to pay for housing are reluctant to do so when fast food places offer a quick and dirty alternative.

China Daily interviewed one such man in 2010. Zhang Dongjie, 23, worked in film and modeling, and made enough to afford a room.

Still, China Daily reported, “he prefers a KFC night and even carries his toiletries and clothes to prepare for the next day.”

These compounding patterns make it hard to blame any single entity for one woman’s nameless, quiet death — where the deceased was surrounded not by loved ones but rather by greasy tables and the familiar aroma of frying oil.

Her departure from the restaurant was as muted as her arrival. At 11:30 a.m., the South China Morning Post reported, her body was brought through the back door and taken to a mortuary.

Just 90 minutes later, the McDonald’s was back to business as usual.

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