With big hearts and an unlikely clientele, these Hong Kong manicurists are making a difference

About three or four times a month, Cass Ng switches out her salon’s nail polish collection for an arsenal of extra tough scissors, nail files and an electric nail drill. No matter how many bookings she has, the 37-year-old manicurist never fails to make time for an oddly intimate volunteer project: cutting the toenails of low-income elderly people in Hong Kong.

Dozens of senior citizens are waiting at a shopping center near a public housing estate in Lei Tung, a neighborhood in the city’s Southern District, when she arrives on a July afternoon. They’re huddled under a covered section of the mall, shielded from the heavy rain pouring around them.

“[The elderly] are quite happy because there aren’t a lot of these kinds of services for them,” Ng tells Coconuts. “So they are quite grateful that we do this on a volunteer basis, and we are too.”

She and another volunteer—a coworker at her nail salon—sit on step stools outside a shuttered unit in the mall. Facing them, two senior citizens lean back in chairs, one leg each outstretched on the volunteers’ towel-covered laps. Nail files in hand, the pedicurists get to work.

Cass Ng and a volunteer trim toenails for senior citizens at a neighborhood mall in Lei Tung. Photo: Coconuts Media
Cass Ng and a volunteer trim toenails for senior citizens at Lei Tung Shopping Center. Photo: Coconuts Media

Ng started the initiative, Sik Zeen in Chinese (惜剪), about three years ago, its name a combination of two characters meaning “appreciation” and “cutting.” She partners with charities and community groups across Hong Kong, doing visits to their centers every month or so. (The team, of about eight to 10 regular volunteers she recruited mostly through Facebook, does not cut fingernails—only toenails—unless the elderly person has a degenerative disorder like Parkinson’s that prevents them from doing so.)

Beneath the peculiar nicheness of Ng’s grooming service lies true, unvarnished utility. The simple, routine task of cutting one’s toenails can be arduous for many elderly people, she explains. Conditions common among them, like arthritis and other forms of chronic pain, make it difficult to bend over. Bad eyesight means they could injure themselves while trimming their toenails, which in the first place get tougher and trickier to handle with age.

Most of the senior citizens the team serves are above the age of 65 and on government welfare. Some don’t have caretakers who can help them and may only cut their toenails every few months, resulting in ingrown nails and a host of unsightly, painful problems.

“The nails can be as thick as two HK$5 coins,” Ng says.

Often, the volunteers have to use an electric nail drill—normally reserved for acrylic and gel manicures—to shave down the nails before cutting with scissors.

Cass Ng trims a senior citizen's toenails at HKL3C Life Commitment Charity Club. Photo: Supplied
Cass Ng trims a senior citizen’s toenails at HKL3C Life Commitment Charity Club in Sham Shui Po. Photo: Supplied

Poor hygiene can also exacerbate nail problems. For the elderly with impaired mobility and who live alone, even showering can be a feat, let alone cutting toenails. “Their ability to take care of themselves is quite low. They might only shower every two to three days,” Ng says.

One time, Ng cut the toenails of a man whose feet, in her words, “smelled like something had died.”

“It was so serious that after cutting the nails, you could see all the grime come out,” she recalls. “If we have a situation like that, I’ll step up. I won’t have other volunteers do it because I don’t want to scare them away.”

Before COVID-19 began, the Sik Zeen team would come to Lei Tung every month. But they paused because of the pandemic, and in March this year, the community hall they normally booked out became a virus testing center—hence the makeshift location in the mall that afternoon, the first time Ng is offering the service there since the pandemic started.

“They are our angels,” Carmen Lam, chairperson of the Hong Kong Lik Kwan Association says, gesturing at Ng and her coworker, their bodies hunched over as they trim hardened toenails and pick at dead skin.

The neighborhood group has been working with Sik Zeen for over two years. Volunteers from the group regularly conduct home visits, pass out face masks and hold free blood pressure checks.

On the afternoon of Sik Zeen’s visit, the association had also invited a crew of hairdressers to give cuts to senior citizens. A woman circles the area with a broom and dustpan, playing cat and mouse with the wind and sweeping up the greyed hairs as they fall.

An elderly woman holds a form that puts her in line for a haircut by a volunteer hairdresser at Lei Tung Shopping Center. Photo: Coconuts Media

Ho, 77, is here for a haircut and a toenail trim. She tells Coconuts she had surgery on her knees three years ago, so she has difficulty bending down. Unable to cut all her toenails in one go, she splits up the punishing task into more manageable chunks, tackling a few toes at a time.

“I start cramping after cutting two or three toenails,” the retiree says. “I need to take breaks before continuing.”

It’s the satisfaction of helping people like Ho that keeps the Sik Zeen founder going. Now, Ng is registering Sik Zeen as a social enterprise, which could allow her to receive funding and expand the service. To go with the registration, she’s come up with an English name for the initiative, CHANGE (Caring Health Anywhere Nails Goal Elderly). She’ll know by the end of the month if the application is approved.

“My intention since the start has not changed. If we want more people to benefit, we have to grow and keep going,” she says.

Read more: Behind the lens with Hong Kong Shifts, a storytelling project featuring the city’s working class