Simon Lee, a street sleeper and practitioner of what is now known as the “lying flat” movement, passed away in December 2021. Hong Kong photographer Ko Chung Ming had the chance to document the bits and pieces of Simon’s life and his way of engaging with the social world.
I started photographing street sleepers in 2014. The friends I made came and went; there was no regularity to when I would see them. Some people successfully made it through drug rehabilitation programs, others returned home to their families. But many continued to live on the streets, eventually passing away. Following the death of Uncle Hung in 2014, Simon Lee (aged 52), “Brother Sharp of Victoria Park” (維園犀利哥), also recently passed away. In his younger days, his introverted leanings led him to lower his standards of living and cut himself off from society and his family. His silent passing seemed to reflect his personality and public persona. My only regret is that I had moved out of Hong Kong at his last hours and was unable to see him off.
I first met Simon in late 2018. The original “Brother Sharp” (Sai Lei Gor in Cantonese; Xi Li Ge in Mandarin Chinese) hailed from Ningbo, China, homeless there too. The worn-and-torn clothing style of ripped jeans and faded shirts earned him instant fame on the internet in 2010. Simon, who didn’t look or act like an average street sleeper, was dubbed “Victoria Park’s Brother Sharp” by Hong Kong media. Before meeting him, I had photographed several other people who were homeless, including infamous former triad member Uncle Hung, the Nepalese-drug addict Ah Sing, Vietnamese boat person Brother Quang, and Little Mun, who had suffered from meningitis, eventually causing intellectual impairments, since childhood. At that time, my own bipolar disorder (BPD) was finally showing signs of improvement with the help of medication. Out of fears about the effects of BPD, I opted to reduce my emotional investment in Simon when we first met. Instead, I kept our interaction as shallow and surface as possible. However, this ended up making photographing him a little harder, with unexpected roadblocks that took a while to overcome.
Nowadays, the concept of “lying flat” (躺平主義) has grown in popularity. Social mobility has been stagnant, and to achieve spiritual freedom, young people have chosen to sacrifice material desires and say no to social expectations - no marriage, no children, no capitalism. Having pursued this mindset and lifestyle for almost 20 years, Simon is arguably a pioneer of the “lying flat” movement before it went mainstream. In the early 1990s, Hong Kong’s position as the window to China and an up-and-coming city made it a land of opportunity. Coupled with the wave of immigration before the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, there was a shortage of managerial professionals in various industries, and hence a need for new blood to take over. People with only a few years of experience were able to climb in rank quickly. Hence, Simon’s life choices were bizarre in the eyes of most Hong Kongers.
He studied chemistry during his university years, before landing a stable job that put him comfortably in the middle class. However, he soon felt like there was no point in endlessly working. He also became estranged from his family, leading him to eventually make a clean break from his original social circle in 1997. He ended up heading to Macau and Zhuhai for his “newfound liberation”. When his savings ran out, he survived on the free food offered at Macau’s casinos. After returning to Hong Kong in 2010, he took up temporary residence at Caritas Evergreen Home on Sai Wan’s High Street. But he soon moved to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. There, he was able to access wifi services at the Central Library, slowly building up his social media presence. Over the years, Simon’s popularity began to grow due to frequent interview requests [and media exposure]. He was eventually hired by a local travel company as a Key Opinion Leader (KOL), and began receiving invitations to review and introduce different restaurants. But after so many years out of the labor market, he wasn’t used to working with people, and soon quit his job.
According to Simon, being sociable was never something he enjoyed, nor was he good at it. However, since becoming homeless, he began to interact with the world a lot more, and became more comfortable expressing his thoughts and ideas. He would lead tours, accepting donations to introduce his lifestyle to the public. Most of the participants were middle-class parents, wanting to “educate” their children through these tours. It was somewhat ironic that an open-minded, expressive, coffee-loving street sleeper had become the window for the middle class to understand people from the other end of the social strata. Regardless, after almost 20 years of reflection, Simon had long since developed a mantra to live by: Living on the streets makes life more exciting, allowing him to overstep social norms. If he could have left home earlier, he would have. That being said, he does regret not properly saying goodbye to his then-girlfriend.
Building a friendship with Simon was not easy. He wasn’t one to open up about his past easily. And the only emotion he directed at me was a sign of irritation when I showed up late. Occasionally, when he played chess with a friend, his face would beam with satisfaction. But truthfully, was he truly satisfied with window shopping in Causeway Bay and living off leftovers from fast food restaurants? This is a question to which I have no answer.
One day, I received a call from the hospital, informing me that a friend had been admitted and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It turned out that Simon had listed myself and a social worker as emergency contacts. I visited him and learned that “Simon” wasn’t his real name, nor was his surname “Lee.” I told him, “I’ll keep coming to visit, but I won’t take pictures of you anymore. I don’t want to interfere with your treatment.” Simon responded, “There’s no need to think like that.” We took a break from shooting. When we started again, he was a lot more willing to open up about his past, so the project ran a lot smoother. For example, he was happy to take me to Aberdeen and the area he spent time as a child. He led me through the secret paths in the housing estates, and shared with me old stories and tales of the district. During these trips, I saw a nostalgic and vulnerable side of him that I’d never seen before. “Why don’t we go to Lamma Island as well?” This was where he used to go on dates with his girlfriend. By that point, we’d known each other a little over 3 years. Doing a long term project like this truly takes perseverance and patience.
Simon also had a different way of communicating with me. My Facebook account would receive many messages from various fake accounts that said, “People like Simon are parasites and not worth your time. Befriending him is hypocritical!” or “Helping the homeless makes you a bodhisattva~” The content of these messages were contradictory in meaning but the writing style was similar. They sometimes even mentioned details only known between me and Simon. One day, he asked me out of the blue, “Have you been receiving a lot of messages these days?” I confirmed my suspicions that he was the one behind the strange messages.
The last time I saw Simon was May 2021. On the eve of my move to Taiwan, I hosted a solo exhibition titled Exiled: The Homeless in Hong Kong (《放逐》). Simon was one of the three street sleepers featured. I didn’t know what Simon would have felt when he visited the exhibit and saw his everyday life transformed into an art installation. In November, the social worker was informed that Simon’s condition had deteriorated and he needed to be hospitalized. With Simon’s temperament, he would try to escape from the hospital so long as he could still walk. He would rely on his home-made remedies, drinking cream and sesame oil to “fight the cancer.” Or he would take advantage of hotel price reductions thanks to the pandemic, staying overnight to recharge his numerous spare batteries.
I tried messaging and calling Simon on numerous occasions, but never heard back. One day, I received a message from a “stranger”, saying that Simon hadn’t updated in a while and inquiring as to whether he was okay. After learning Simon had been hospitalized, the “stranger” said he wanted to visit him. He also said that being able to let go of his ego made Simon a practitioner of Buddhism. I thought to myself: This must be Simon himself! The “stranger” sent over a picture of Simon in the hospital: it was him getting a nasogastric tube inserted as he drank coffee. He appeared in good spirits but was bone-thin. Over the next few days, I kept receiving updates, which brought me a bit of relief.
Then, in early December, the social worker informed me that Simon had passed away. I relayed the news to the “stranger”, treating it like a goodbye to Simon. But a few days later, I received a reply. Was it a ghost? The stranger reiterated that Simon had brought him great inspiration, but I was disappointed. I had assumed that I had spent the last few weeks messaging with Simon, not an actual stranger. I thought I had accompanied him on his final journey. Turns out, it was just my wishful thinking. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye after all.
To avoid rejection, the safest thing to do is to reject others first. However, even though Simon rejected the world, he still wanted to express parts of himself. For the most part, street sleepers just want to stay in their own bubbles, observing the world without interacting with it much. But they also want to be cared for, and crave being understood. Loneliness is a common language between humans, and the distance between “us” and the street sleepers is not so far after all.
(To read the Chinese version of this article, please click: 沒有發生的告別──香港躺平族始祖，維園犀利哥逝世)
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