Most citizens of Southeast Asia have come to accept Western backpackers as a permanent, cliché and occasionally obnoxious presence in their lives. Epitomized in Alex Garland's 1996 novel The Beach, these wanderlust-y youths hailing from the globe's wealthy nations have spent more than three decades capitalizing on the region's relative affordability to enjoy its rich culture and tropical climate while "finding themselves" along the way. And though the economic boons of the '80s and '90s helped normalize such "gap year" travel indulgences, they have been supplanted by an economically precarious new normal. The Western youth of today have managed to keep this modern tradition alive, albeit occasionally via means that irk the locals.
"Beg-packers"—Westerners who finance their travels via panhandling, busking or selling trinkets—are a fairly new breed of tourists popping up in places like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In April of this year, the phenomenon gained international exposure after a Singaporean woman's photos of two western couples engaging in the practice, replete with signs asking for donations to support their travels, went viral on social media. Locals and foreigners alike decried these "travel beggars," citing entitlement, white privilege and even "orientalist views" as contributing factors in these tourists feeling comfortable enough to break both cultural mores and the law of the land.
"Gosh, I hate them," says Cytheria Tan Si Ying, a young Singaporean professional who's seen a recent uptick in these beggars during her daily work commute. "They have hands and legs. I don't see why I should give them a single cent just because they don't want to work but have wanderlust." And though she stated that busking is better than outright begging, she'd still rather give her money to "poor old aunties and uncles selling tissue paper in hawker centers."
In Hong Kong, disdain for western beggars has reached such a fervor that Facebook groups of concerned mothers post sightings of recurring characters at various metro stops as if they were Autobahn Society members spotting rare birds. Beyond harboring the typical grievances with the practice, some of these group members even go so far as to compare it to theft.
"When they are begging… and actually don't need resources to pay for essential daily living, food, shelter [and] clothing, they are actually appealing to the sympathy of people by deception," Laram Aime, one beggar-spotting group member, told me. "If you take money that you haven't worked for, haven't taken a loan for, isn't that stealing? Of course not, when [the donor] gives willingly. But are these people giving knowingly and willingly? Or are they being pressured into giving, in order to stop them feeling obligated by someone who is actually manipulative?
This allegation gets at the prevailing underlying presumption that these beggars are not truly people in need and, should their financial situation become too fraught, they could always call home to friends or family in their wealthy motherlands and secure emergency funds for a return flight.
But not everyone is on board with this assessment. In April 2017, during the height of travel beggar complaints, Independent writer Helen Coffey cautioned against rushing to judge them without further context. Furthermore, not every local who encounters travel beggars finds them a nuisance.
Karman Chow, a mother from the aforementioned Facebook group, told me she believes some Western beggars attempt to "look ugly and pitiful" to play on people's empathy and is "not a fan of those [beggars who] take their child or babies along" their rounds as props. However, she doesn't have a problem with those who bluntly ask for travel funds as they're being "honest for their purpose."
Rather than engage in further speculation on the motivations and circumstances that lead these travelers to this... controversial method of acquiring income, I attempted to track down and speak to some of Hong Kong's infamous travel beggars myself.
I quickly learned that, despite many of Hong Kong's locals speaking of them as if they were a biblical plague, their presence in the city was a tad overstated. Tracking one down was much harder than simply hovering around a train station and waiting, as I'd originally planned. Fortunately, with a bit of crowdsourcing help from the maternal Facebook group, I was eventually able to track some down.
I first spoke with two young Ukrainians playing djembes on the sidewalk. They were shocked to learn that the locals were keeping such close tabs on them, having only really encountered face-to-face pushback from "one crazy man" thus far.Seeing "smiling faces" every day, they'd assumed the population both welcomed and respected them. One of the two, Nika, claimed that she and her fellow busker, Roger, only make around 200 to 300 Hong Kong dollars per day [$25-38 USD], which is enough to secure them food and shelter at Chungking Mansion, high-rises with some of the cheapest lodging in the city.
Nika said she migrated to HK after her attempt at a singing career in China fizzled out. Though Hong Kong only grants Ukrainian visitors two-week visas, she had been there for more than a year.
"I don't want to come back to Ukraine," she said. "We can find no work. The people there do not matter. Now, because of this, too many people from Russia and Ukraine—intelligent, talented people—try to earn money here now."
This claim, however, directly contradicted the sign in front of her coin box, which said "WE SAVE MONEY FOR TICKET HOME, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT."
Greg, another busker at a nearby station, also flagged for me by the Facebook group, stopped playing guitar at the top of a station escalator to share his story.
After being thrown out of a detention center in Australia 17 years ago, Greg moved to Hong Kong and just started sleeping on rooftops, playing music on the street to get by. And though he admits to grappling with some illicit substance "demons,"he claims that the majority of the donations he scrapes by on go toward sustenance. He also took umbrage with the locals' assumption that he didn't have it as hard as anyone else scraping by on the streets.
"There are locals who are impoverished, but few of them are willing to break a few rules to get things done for themselves," said Greg, offering no shame or regrets about his practices. "They're offended by the idea of a white man busking because things are supposed to be in my favor already. But this is not a serious profession to them. Every time I say 'this is my job,' they look at me incredulously."
Greg says, "were [he] to suddenly get handed a plane ticket, [he'd] be gone." But, until that unlikely windfall reaches him, the Facebook moms and other locals will just have to put up with his approach to subsistence. And for those still convinced that this is just a bunch of lazy white kids exploiting another culture's hospitality, Greg offered this musical retort.
A representative from the Hong Kong Police Department told me that the number of those arrested for begging nearly doubled from 2013 to 2016, climbing from 85 to 188, before dipping back down to 112 arrests in 2017. While the department does not keep statistics on who among the arrested is western and who is not, they were able to share that the majority of those arrests each year were Chinese citizens that had come from the mainland.
Given Hong Kong's 7.3 million population, the above numbers might seem pretty low, even if every arrestee had been a Westerner. But these figures only pertain to outright begging or asking for alms, not busking. It seems that instruments being played by the western beggars I spoke with give them relative immunity from the authorities so long as they follow all the other laws.
"Street performers, like the public at large, are subject to the laws of Hong Kong, including, among others, the prohibitions of obstruction in any public place to persons or vehicles; the prohibitions of noise nuisance at anytime; and the prohibitions of taking part in, providing or managing any objectionable performances," wrote the HKPD representative.
While it's clear that many Hong Kong locals find the presence of these street performers objectionable, it seems that their begging-via-music loophole is sanctioned in the eyes of the law. The offended will likely have to endure the minor nuisance as they go about their daily commutes until that law changes or donations dry up and the beg-packers move on to friendlier venues. But as objectionability is in the eye of the beholder, I'd advise Greg to avoid a repeat performance of the song he played for me if he plans to stay out of trouble.