Posted by Aideen McLaughlin
For one week in May, myself and a few of my colleagues were humbled and privileged to be let intimately into the lives of some of Hong Kong’s refugees. We travelled the length and breadth of the island and outlying territories with Filipina photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani, documenting through words and pictures, stories of cruelty, hardship and terror; but ultimately of hope, survival and love.
We met Hong Kongers whose grandparents had fled here from China during the civil war and Cultural Revolution; Europeans whose parents had sought protection after the atrocities of the Second World War; Vietnamese who took their lives and their belongings in their hands, making perilous journeys on equally perilous boats; and families who are more recently seeking sanctuary in Hong Kong from war, torture and persecution in places as diverse as East Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Their stories, although all completely individual in their own way, shared a similar theme, a common narrative, a collective history. It is one of inspiration, resilience and survival; ordinary people always in the midst of the most extraordinary of circumstances, ‘making it’ against the very worst of odds.
And so #SharedPasts was born. Collaborating with award-winning photographer Xyza, #SharedPasts will give a taster of these stories in an online photo essay which we will launch just before World Refugee Day at the end of the month. The online photo essay will be premiered at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on June 17 (by invitation only) and then showcased on our website the day after. #SharedPasts is an ongoing project and we plan to have an exhibition of the full works later in the year.
In advance, we would like to share with you the words of ‘Manly’, a woman currently living in Hong Kong, whose father fled here from China in the sixties. ‘Manly’ didn’t want to be photographed or to use her real name, but she wanted the inspiring story of her father and his journey from China to Hong Kong to be known. It is the story of many people who have made Hong Kong what it is today. We thank ‘Manly’ and all the refugees and their descendants who have made this project possible. And a special thanks to Xyza Cruz Bacani for shining her lens on this lesser known subject. We will have more on her collaboration with us later.
There is life when there is a will, by ‘Manly’ from Hong Kong.
In 1962, Hurricane Wendy hit Hong Kong. It was recorded as the strongest no. 10 typhoon since World War II, causing hundreds of deaths and destroying thousands of temporary establishments, leaving many families homeless.
“The aftermath was devastating, yet 1962 was the year I successfully fled China to Hong Kong. I would never forget this,” my dad proudly proclaimed.
Like thousands of other refugees who leave their homes involuntarily due to political persecution, war, financial hardship or torture, my father also fled China with a hope for a better life.
“I had no choice. There was great famine in Mao’s era during which more than ten million people died of starvation. More horrifying was that I had seen people in hunger madly craving for food and eating other people. The Communist Party then gradually rose to power and the political environment had become more uncertain. I didn’t see hope and future as Mao and the Party had done too many evil things in the past,” my father recounted in agony.
Perhaps it is the biggest achievement ever in his whole life. I can hardly remember how many times I have heard about his “adventure” over and over again since I grew up.
According to his vivid account, he sailed from China to Macau for days and nights in a small boat with a huge crowd of Chinese refugees, despite his fear of water, before landing in Kowloon. At that time, there was no electricity, so when the boat finally reached shore, he walked a thousand miles, with trembling legs, in complete darkness and looked for the flat where my grandparents were residing.
“It’s scary when you don’t know anywhere and anyone. I even came across a stranger who offered to guide me, but blackmailed me in the end. It’s intimidating. Of course I refused to give him money and ran away as fast as I could”, my dad recalled.
As a descendant of a refugee, I do not have many loving memories with my father in my grown-up experience, as the traumatic events he witnessed in China and the boat-rocking journey to Hong Kong had burdened him so much, that he exhibited many symptoms of what we in the modern day would now call “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) – emotional insecurity, anxiety, anger, mental distress, insomnia, distrustful towards the world and difficulties in relating to other people. These not only negatively impacted his parenting style, but also my personality.
For example, he would constantly magnify the negativity of many activities that a teenager is supposed to experience and learn in adolescence. He would obsessively make sure all household items are placed in order and forbade me to reorganise them. He discouraged me from learning swimming and engaging in outdoor activities as he considered them risky behaviors. He also ridiculed people who volunteered and went to church, because he believes these virtues do not exist in humanity. The “Communist Party” would get on his nerves whenever he heard it on the news.
That said, I am still very proud of my father. To me, he is the greatest man in the world as he extended himself so much to bear the parental obligations, bringing us up and taking care of three families at the same time (his family of origin in China, our family and my grandparents’ family). He deprived himself in many ways, just to make sure we received the best – education, food and living conditions. In him, I see determination, courage, perseverance, unconditional love, as well as a strong will for survival.
In the lead up to World Refugee Day, I hope to dedicate my father’s life story to refugees in all parts of the world who are struggling to survive with tears and bitterness, like our family did.
If you would like to participate in #SharedPasts by sharing your refugee story, please get in touch at email@example.com.