As tourists file into the Yonghe Lama Temple, a woman carrying a gray sack stops near the entrance and gets down on her knees.
She bows, lowering her head so close to the ground that her shoulder-length hair hangs inches from the concrete. Still hunched over, she extends her hands, palms up, toward a plastic bowl in front of her body. The bowl is filled with coins and a few yuan bills.
Most people walk past the woman without looking down, pausing only to snap a few pictures of a historic arch outside the temple – a Buddhist monastery that is one of Beijing’s most visited tourist attractions.
I recognize the woman. I’ve seen her near my office, begging for change from students walking to the college across the street. I’ve thought about giving her money but never have because my Chinese friends say she’s probably a fraud.
I’ve been warned about scam artists in Beijing by friends and guidebooks. Some of them congregate at busy places like the Forbidden City and usually begin a conversation by asking something like, “Would you like to see my art exhibition?” or “Do you want to go to Great Wall?” If you’re a man and a foreigner like me, they may try to lure you into their bar, where lots of “pretty girls” are waiting for you to buy them drinks. These scams are easy to pick out.
The beggars are harder to judge. While some appear unkempt or malnourished, others have deformations like nubs for fingers and curved feet. I’ve seen people on the subway with no legs, pushing themselves through the carriages on a skateboard. Sometimes they bring children who follow behind them, tugging on people’s clothes and bowing at their feet.
In 2009, the Beijing government conducted a census and through interviews determined that there were around 2,300 homeless migrants living in the city. According to the New York Times, the government has taken measures to help the homeless by providing “relief stations” and, in some cases, tickets home for people who request them.
One state-owned newspaper, The Global Times, said many homeless people refuse to go to the authorities for help because of stipulations that come along with the aid. “The most notable was a 10-day accommodation limit for lodgers at homeless shelters,” the newspaper reported last November. “Other clauses allowed shelters to refuse help to homeless people if they weren’t willing to seek full-time employment.”
When I was in college, I volunteered at a church that offered lunches for homeless people. I’d go there once a week and spend a couple hours in the cafeteria making sandwiches. I also worked at a gas station and in the winter would let people who didn’t have anywhere else to go linger in the store. I stopped doing that after a man vomited blood and passed out in the women’s bathroom.
Most of the homeless people who came into the store were drunks, which was obvious from the way they smelled and how they spent what little money they had.
The homeless people in Beijing don’t reek of booze. They just look weary, like the old woman I saw outside the Lama Temple.
I took a few pictures of her to use for this blog. When she figured out what I was doing, she said something to me in Chinese that I didn’t understand and hobbled over to a trash bin to dig out a plastic bottle that someone had just thrown away.
I put away my camera and dropped a yuan ($0.15) in her bowl. She nodded, and I walked away, not worrying about how it would be spent.