Big-hearted and unlikely clientele, these Hong Kong manicures make the difference
About three or four times a month, Cass Ng replaces her salon nail polish collection with an arsenal of heavy-duty scissors, nail files, and an electric nail drill. No matter how many bookings she has, the 37-year-old manicurist never fails to take time for a weirdly intimate volunteer project: trimming the nails of low-income seniors in Hong Kong.
Dozens of elderly people wait in a mall near a public housing estate in Lei Tung, a neighborhood in the city’s southern district, when she arrives on a July afternoon. They are huddled under a covered part of the mall, sheltered from the driving rain that pours around them.
“[The elderly] are very happy because there is not a lot of this kind of service for them, ”says Ng Coconut. “So they’re very grateful that we are doing this on a volunteer basis, and so are we. “
She and another volunteer, a colleague at her nail salon, sit on stepladders outside a closed unit in the mall. In front of them, two seniors lean on chairs, one leg stretched each on the knees covered with towels of the volunteers. Nail file in hand, pedicures get to work.
Ng launched the initiative, Sik Zeen in Chinese (惜 剪), about three years ago, its name was a combination of two characters meaning “appreciation” and “cut”. She partners with charities and community groups across Hong Kong, making visits to their centers every month or so. (The team, made up of around eight to ten regular volunteers whom they recruited mainly through Facebook, do not cut toenails, only toenails, unless the senior has a degenerative disease such as Parkinson’s disease which prevents it from doing so.)
Underneath the special niche of Ng’s grooming service hides true unvarnished utility. The simple, routine task of cutting toenails can be daunting for many older people, she explains. Conditions common among them, such as arthritis and other forms of chronic pain, make it difficult to bend over. Poor eyesight means they could injure themselves while cutting their fingernails, which becomes more and more difficult to manage as they age.
Most of the seniors the team serves are over 65 and on government social assistance. Some don’t have guardians who can help them and can only cut their nails every few months, resulting in ingrown toenails and a host of unsightly and painful issues.
“The nails can be as thick as two HK $ 5 coins,” says Ng.
Often, volunteers must use an electric nail drill – normally reserved for acrylic and gel manicures – to shave the nails before cutting them with scissors.
Poor hygiene can also make nail problems worse. For older people with limited mobility who live on their own, even taking a shower can be a feat, let alone cutting their toenails. “Their ability to take care of themselves is quite low. They maybe only shower every two or three days, ”says Ng.
Ng once cut the nails of a man whose feet, in his words, “smelled like something was dead.”
“It was so bad that after cutting the nails you could see all the grime coming out,” she recalls. “If we have a situation like this, I’ll step up. I won’t ask other volunteers to do it because I don’t want to scare them away.
Before the onset of COVID-19, the Sik Zeen team would come to Lei Tung every month. But they took a break from the pandemic, and in March of this year the community hall they normally reserved became a virus testing center – hence the makeshift location in the mall this post. That midday, the first time Ng has offered the service there since the start of the pandemic.
“These are our angels,” said Carmen Lam, president of the Hong Kong Lik Kwan association, pointing to Ng and her colleague, their bodies bent as they cut hardened nails and plucked dead skin.
The neighborhood group worked with Sik Zeen for over two years. Volunteers in the group make regular home visits, distribute face masks, and organize free blood pressure checks.
The afternoon of Sik Zeen ‘During its visit, the association also invited a team of hairdressers to make cuts to seniors. A woman walks around the area with a broom and dustpan, playing cat and mouse with the wind and sweeping up the graying hairs as they fall.
Ho, 77, is here for a haircut and nail cut. She says Coconut she had knee surgery three years ago, so she has trouble bending over. Unable to cut all of her nails at once, she breaks the grueling task into manageable chunks, attacking a few toes at a time.
“I start to have cramps after I cut two or three toenails,” says the retiree. “I need to take breaks before I continue.
It is the satisfaction of helping people like Ho that keeps the Sik Zeen founder goes. Now Ng registers Sik Zeen as a social enterprise, which could enable it to receive funds and expand the service. To accompany the registration, she found an English name for the initiative, CHANGE (Caring Health Anywhere Nails Goal Elderly). She will know by the end of the month if the request is approved.
“My intention from the start has not changed. If we want more people to benefit from it, we have to grow and keep going, ”she said.
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