One day this fall, a bag of used clothes, neatly folded, appeared on the front porch of our house in west-end Toronto. We knew right away who left it there.
For years, a woman who calls herself June has been combing our street for empty liquor bottles and beer cans. You can see her around the neighbourhood most days, winter and summer, good weather and bad. A tiny, weathered figure with a big grocery buggy, bags tethered to its sides, she pulls her bulging load along Dundas Street, calls out to other bottle collectors in loud Chinese and sorts her collection at the Beer Store.
Those who leave bottles out often find little rewards on the step, sometimes signed "June" with a marker. One neighbour has received everything from tomatoes to chicken stock to a cheap electric kettle. Another used to get bushels of an onion-like vegetable from June's garden. Others get a kind of peanut candy that June makes herself. A woman around the corner was getting so much food – including, just the other day, a slice of melon – that she begged June to stop. June left her two bottles of beer instead.
Over the years, she has become a neighbourhood legend and, to some, an annoyance. One man told her off because she was ringing his doorbell looking for empties as late as 11 at night, when his small children were asleep. The same neighbour once saw the clerks at the Beer Store tell June to clear out and never come back because she was making such a mess sorting her bottles and cans. (She now does her sorting outside.)
She shows up at the store three or four times a day to turn in her loot for cash – 10 cents for a beer bottle or can, 20 for a wine bottle. Down there she is the leader of the pack, first among equals in a roving crew of bottle collectors, many of them middle-aged or elderly Chinese women such as herself, who have become a fixture in downtown neighbourhoods: the bottle ladies of Toronto.
They flock to sports fields to pick up empties left behind by baseball players. They gather in parks where young people sprawl on the grass with tall cans of craft beer. They are most visible on the night, every two weeks, when households leave out their recycling bins for collection. That's when the bottle ladies (and sometimes men) come out en masse. If you don't see them, you hear them at work. Clink, clank.
Big, complex cities such as Toronto contain worlds within worlds, many of them unknown to each other. The world of the bottle ladies is one of the city's most obscure.
Social agencies that track downtown poverty and work with the Chinese community admit they don't know much about who they are or what drives them, although they think some may have dementia or hoarding issues. My neighbours don't know much either. June speaks only a few words of English.
Most of the bottle collectors are wary of strangers. Few will give their full names. One, a tall, lanky woman in a lined winter hat with ear flaps, actually broke into a trot to get away when I approached with a translator and asked if we could talk to her. Another, an older man pushing a beat-up bike with a bag of bottles tied to the back, just looked down at the ground and kept pushing. No wonder: A city bylaw forbids disturbing waste left at the curb, though bylaw officers haven't charged anyone for years.
But some did stop to talk – including, eventually, June – and, over the course of a few evenings on city sidewalks, a rough picture of their lives emerged. Despite their old clothes and their willingness to trudge the streets for a few dollars, most are not homeless or desperately poor. Many have families. Quite a few have a government pension or other income. Many live with a son or daughter and spend the daytime caring for grandchildren. They insist they never take money from anyone. The last thing they want is charity or pity.
They go out collecting, they say, to bring in a little spending money and to keep active in their later years. That's not unusual in China, where garbage picking has been refined into an art. Even in prosperous Hong Kong, wizened, bent women can be seen pushing carts piled high with scrap cardboard down busy city streets. Many bottle ladies, it turns out, come from neighbouring parts of southern China, especially Taishan, in the Pearl River Delta.
Scrounging through other people's trash for useable stuff is common in many countries, a spontaneous form of recycling that long predates blue bins. Most societies relegate garbage pickers to their lowest rungs. In India, it is the low-caste people who ply this often-despised trade. In Toronto, the forerunners of today's bottle ladies were the "rag 'n' bones" men of pre-War Toronto, many of them hard-up Jewish immigrants.
Two women found rummaging through recycling bins around the corner from my place call themselves Lap Sap Po, "old garbage women." They told a translator they were both from Taishan. One, Ms. Wu, 63, was small and slight; the other, Ms. Zhao, who said she was over 65, taller and bigger boned.
Ms. Wu said she came to Canada 10 years ago, sponsored by family. She found that, with just six years of schooling and no English, she was "useless" in her new country. "I can't even take the streetcar," she said.
She turned to bottle collecting when she saw others doing it. Now she goes out once a week, using her earnings (about $20) to buy treats for her grandchildren. Her family doesn't like her bottle picking. Why on Earth would you do that, they demand. But she says she doesn't want to be a burden and likes the freedom that comes from earning a few dollars on her own.
After long practice, she has developed a technique for searching the big-wheeled recycling bins. She opens the lid, then, shining a flashlight inside, tips it first one way, then another, then a third way so she doesn't miss any returnable bottles or cans.
Ms. Zhao, the taller woman, goes out every night. Guided by the city garbage-collection schedule, she visits a different neighbourhood each time.
She grew up poor, she said, so even a few dollars seem like a lot of money. Even though she gets an Old Age Security cheque from the government, "everything is so expensive. I make a dollar and I can buy an apple."
Despite appearances, some people insist on believing the Chinese bottle ladies are secret millionaires. With Chinese money flooding into Canadian real estate, the idea that all Chinese immigrants drive luxury cars has spread, the flip side of the old prejudice that all newcomers must be poor and ignorant.
One of the regulars at the Beer Store, Bernie, who collects bottles from local bars, told me that June owns two or three houses. How he knows this he can't say. Another bottle collector I met, a 59-year-old man who lives alone in a $330-a-month room and started collecting after losing all his money to a gambling addiction, said a young man on the street once yelled at him: "All you Chinese are rich, so why are you picking up bottles?"
In fact, social agencies say there is still a good deal of poverty in the Chinese community, especially in the old Chinatowns near Spadina Avenue in the west end of the city and Broadview Avenue in the east. A report on Chinese restaurant workers in Toronto found that older workers in particular get stuck with low-status, low-paying jobs such as dish washing, but stay with it because they don't like to complain or don't want to be a burden on their children.
I finally caught up with June herself one damp December evening. My neighbour spotted her checking behind the house for bottles and cans. We met at a coffee shop on the corner.
She arrived pulling her grocery buggy and wearing her full bottle-lady uniform: red snow boots, sleeve protectors with elastics at the elbow and wrist, a red-white-and-blue Adidas tuque with the strings tied under her chin against the cold and a dark jacket with a logo that read "Champion Bullseye League."
She was looking for bottles, not questions, but stayed long enough to answer a few. She is 75 and came to Canada in 1981 – from where in China she would not say. Before taking up bottle collecting, she worked serving dim sum in Chinatown and ironing sheets in a hotel. She has a son, a daughter and four grandchildren.
She lives close by, in a house near the big Cadbury chocolate factory. She rises early in the morning and spends about 10 hours a day in search of bottles. She insists she doesn't do it for the money: Whatever she makes – a few dollars one day, maybe $10 or $20 another – she gives to a Buddhist temple in Chinatown or sends to family back in China.
She goes collecting to keep herself busy and stay healthy. If she didn't, she said, she would spend all her time at home with her husband, watching TV and talking on the phone. "If I don't keep walking, I'll die young."
She takes pride in working hard. The phrase she used to describe herself is "ngaii duk," a Cantonese term to describe someone who can endure hardship with fortitude. She insists that she is different from the bottle ladies who root through recycling bins. Unlike them, she said, she collects bottles mostly from her neighbourhood "friends" – people she knows who leave bottles out especially for her. She leaves the gifts to show them she is a good person. "If I treat them well, they will treat me well," she said. That way, it is not scrounging but a fair exchange.
A couple of weeks after we talked, a neighbour met June on the snow-covered street. She was on her way over to give him a bag of gifts in exchange for all the bottles he has left her. In the bag: one red Chinese 2017 calendar, one GoodLife Fitness sports bag, still in its wrapper, and three tall cans of lemonade lager. She gave him the bag, marked "June For," and, buggy in tow, trundled off down the sidewalk.