I've lived with free range chickens and know the difference a good life makes to the taste and goodness of their eggs and, eventually, to the taste and goodness of their meat.
The yolk in the egg of a free-range hen fed well is a deep golden orange, nothing like the insipid yellow you get from a factory-farmed hen. The proof is in the taste. It seems obvious to me that the food produced by an animal that is free to move around at will, forages in the dirt and plants for seeds and insects, and is fed a good variety of greens, grains and appropriate table and food prep scraps will be far superior in taste and goodness than that of a creature that is confined to a small space without even natural lighting.
I've been empathising with factory-farmed animals a lot lately. Studies have been done but again, it seems fairly obvious that a lifestyle that constrained would result in stress and stress causes illness (antibiotic use is high in factory farming), as do overly crowded quarters. (NB: My home country also lags badly on this issue.)
There came a time, after the chickens had been free range on my friends' farm for about 20 years, that the woman of the house finally got sick of them shitting in the laundry and trying to help themselves to the sacks of grain. Finding the eggs was also a great adventure - there was a henhouse where most slept at night and where they usually lay, but there were always a few rebels, who preferred to roost in the lower branches of a macrocarpa or lay their eggs in a secret space they'd made under a hedge. Whenever I worked in the garden I had one eye on where the hens were coming and going from as there was often a clutch of eggs at the end of the trail.
So we built them a chicken ranch. This was no mere chicken run, it was an area about four times the size of my Hong Kong apartment with a sheltered, reasonably barren area behind the henhouse where they were fed each morning and could scratch among the scraps and soil to their little poultry hearts' content. It also had an area of hardy bush and a grassed area, both over the fence from a large kitchen garden so they got plenty of good greens and insects tossed over the fence to them also. The eggs continue to taste amazing.
When home in Aotearoa/New Zealand last month I visited a young friend and we chatted while we spontaneously weeded his garden and I checked out his hens. They were eating crayfish (not crawfish but a tastier cousin of lobster) shells with meat still in them. The friend had got the crays diving, and I realised that the hens I know at home had better lives than I did in Hong Kong.
At one extreme of Hong Kong, people literally live in cages. Landlords divide rooms with metal cages and people live cheek to cheek with their neighbours in spaces about the size of a large dog cage. Others live in shanty housing sheltered only by a tarpaulin or plastic sheet if lucky, yet more live on the streets.Yet others have their cooking facilities, laundry and toilet all in one small room. The Society for Community Organisation and photographer Benny Lam did a powerful exhibition and book on this last year and it's well worth the time to check out the images.
|One of Benny Lam's powerful images of a side of Hong Kong few visitors know exists. Credit: Benny Lam/Soco.org.hk|
|Benny Lam records the lives of cage residents. Credit: Benny Lam/Soco.org.hk|
Domestic helpers don't necessarily have it much better. Although employers are required by contract to provide helpers with “suitable and furnished accommodation” and “reasonable privacy”, there are no guidelines as to what constitutes "suitable accommodation". A recent survey of 3,000 plus Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers found 43 per cent were not provided with private rooms. Of those who were, in one-third of cases, the room was also used for other purposes, such as storage or to house pets. One helper, in an extreme case granted, slept in a kitchen cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven.
Hong Kong could not run without its army of helpers yet they are treated as invisible by most employers, and suffer abuse and exploitation at the hands of many others. Those employers are the elite of Hong Kong - the ones who can afford to hire a human to tend themselves, their children, elderly and pets yet often treat those humans with less care than they bestow on those same pets. Former colleague Yonden Lhatoo likens this dystopian existence to an H. G. Wells sci-fi cautionary tale.
Now on to what I admit is a first-world problem but no less a concern for that. The mid-level position worker in Hong Kong also lives a very constrained life, living in a larger box and often with better views but often just a better decorated self-chosen cage. Hong Kong is known as a vertical city because of the multitude of these boxes built one atop another, in many of which nobody knows their neighbours or even spends much time in the box other than to sleep (roosting) while believing themselves to be free-range during the day.
|Vertical Hong Kong - the view from my apartment of so many other apartments. Credit: Tracie Barrett|
Or at least, during those hours of the day when they're not ensconced in their cubicle cage doing whatever pays the exorbitant rental on their roosting boxes and the lifestyle that goes with being in Hong Kong. Many have no natural light in their workplaces, an issue animal rights groups consider abuse for animals, many go without breaks during their often long and relentless work days, and many turn to other things to cope with the stress of living and working here. The healthy choices include yoga, exercise, meditation and healthy eating and all have become big business in a city where stress (and overcrowding and pollution, both of which add to stress) reigns supreme. The less healthy but possibly more prevalent coping mechanisms include drugs and alcohol and I am stunned by the amount of drugs I see or know of used casually here (and I lived and worked in an Australian skifield for two winters in the '90s, when drug use was rife).
Friends and acquaintances in such mid-level jobs often tell me they don't feel valued by their employers for themselves or what they have to offer, but merely as another "employee unit" that is easily replaceable for the right money. Money is the constant justification for working the extra hours, accepting the regular illnesses that go with being overworked, overstressed and often overlooked - "I'll just do it for a few more years", I often hear, and it's a valid trade-off to set yourself up in life if you consider it worthwhile.
Personally, I did the math and it doesn't add up.
I love this city, I love the friends I have made here and I hope to keep the city and those friends as an important part of my life. I hope to visit regularly but I can't live here. For me, it's not sustainable.
I need to go back to where I can be truly free-range and dig in the soil whenever I wish. I need to go home, and I am . . .