Beyond the Lens of Innocence – Lives of Refugees in Hong Kong

by Jessie Yang (Hong Kong)


It was a cold Friday evening, and bursts of wind passed by as people hurried on their way. When I arrived Innocent was already waiting for me outside Chungking Mansions, where its old and dim appearance stood as a strong contrast to the glorious shopping malls and business buildings on the street. Innocent only wore a blue jacket in such a cold weather, and he was pacing around the entrance with his hands in the pocket when I saw him. His sneakers were already worn out but he did not seem to notice.


As I approached he grinned and reached out his hand to greet me. “In every typical day, you can find around 200 nationalities inside this small building.” Innocent said as he brought me inside Chungking Mansions. “Where you are entering is a globalized society.” Located in the bustling business area of Tsim Sha Tsui, Chungking Mansions remains a mysterious and exotic place that inhabits refugees, tourists and minorities from South Asia. While most local residents steer away from the place, Chungking Mansions still create its unique dynamics in people from diverse backgrounds with their interesting stories.


“You should have come to my lecture. I have talked about issues about refugees in Africa.” Innocent stopped to greet his friends before he could finish the last word. We sat down in an African restaurant. Surrounded by different dialects and the mix smell of spices and cologne, for a moment I thought I was no longer in Hong Kong. Innocent began his story when he dug in the traditional African cuisine. He spoke cheerfully and energetically, and his response was fast and often intelligent. Judging solely from the conversation you could hardly tell that he was once an asylum seeker, who now tries to apply for student visa.


When I asked him about his personal story, he shrugged and told me everything at ease and fluently as if he had told the story many times before. “Before the presidential election two years ago in Zimbabwe, I came back from my school in the US and try to challenge and change the political system” he said. “But eventually I had to flee, like many millions of Zimbabweans now living in exile.” Innocent came to Hong Kong because he had to run away from the Zimbabwean government youth militia (junta) due to his involvement in political issues, and has settled here ever since.


While speaking about his struggles when he first arrived in Hong Kong, he was rather calm and rational. He sometimes would not want to speak more about his predicaments, which he said was not really important. However, they did not cease his determination to change people’s perception towards refugees and asylum seekers in the society. Previously he had published an article on Hong Kong Free Press regarding Hong Kong government’s policies towards refugees and how the society should be more open-hearted towards them.


“The government doesn’t know what it is doing, but it is trying.” he commented, and repeated the last sentence twice, as if he was confirming the answer. “You see, those people know nothing about what’s going in Africa. They don’t understand what the refugees have been through.” He opened his cola and drank almost the whole can.  For a few moments he just kept stomping quietly under the table.


Hong Kong applied Unified Screening Mechanism for reviewing refugees, but behind the system is a bigger problem with bureaucracy. For asylum seekers, about only 1 in 500 asylum seekers has the chance to be recognized with refugee status, and it would take five to six years in average for the result. However, to make matters worse, there are also fake claims from people who look for job opportunities in Hong Kong, or want to establish business ties with China.


“I don’t know how many people come and work as illegal immigrant, but I could say there are many.” Innocent paused for a moment and frowned. There is not really a way to tell whether the government knows about the situation, but it remains the unspoken truth to the African refugee community in Hong Kong.


When I asked more questions about illegal workers, he became more agitated and distressed as he raised his voice. “Have you been to the back of the kitchen in the restaurant? A lot of them are illegal workers.” Innocent finished his last piece of meat and washed his hands inside the basin.” However, is there any possible way to identify the fake claims? Or is there any way to improve the selection system? “You have to change it inside the system.” Innocent said firmly. “What you need to do is first, shorten the years processing and second, get proper employees.”


He suggests that if the government can deal with the bureaucracy and shorten the years of processing claims, it can not only save lots of money from taxpayers but also discourage those who come working illegally in Hong Kong because they do not have that many years before they have been processed. Another issue is that the interviewees would undergo three or four translations and the original words may already be distorted or changed, which is why trained people who understand the language and culture are required for translation. Those interpreters can also easily detect lies because of similar cultural background, which reduce the cases of fake claims as well.


As we finished our meal, Innocent insisted on paying the check for me, and told me not to worry about the money. He stood up and walked slowly towards the counter. The restaurant owner nodded at him and shook his hands, and then whispered something to him which I could not hear. I waited for him outside for him to catch up. “It has always been a tough issue. I wouldn’t deny that there are refugees who engage in drug selling and robbery, but before you jump into any rough conclusion, you should not just accept everything the media told you.” We went on to the second floor in the building, where some people were carrying boxes of electronic devices inside their shops. Innocent put his hands in his pocket and strode as he gave me a tour inside Chungking Mansions.


He was sharp, and often eloquent in giving his opinions, but there were also sometimes he looked like he was in another dimension that no one could understand, and when it happened he would become silent and bit his lips while staring at the front towards something nonexistent.  As we awaited the elevator, there were signs showing different hotels inside the building, and many of them are named after Chinese cities. Perhaps in some way people come here for the same reason- to settle down and search for connections to their hometown in this foreign city.


While we passed through different vendors, the dazzling signs made me feel like watching a movie in slow motion, where the scenes seemed blurred by their surroundings. I asked Innocent about how refugees support themselves, as only less than half of the expenditure on refugees goes to their daily expenses, which includes $1500 rent, $1200 food coupon and less than $500 of other expense per person. I wonder if the amount would be enough especially when they are not allowed to work and some of them have to support families. “Charities.” he said. “Many charities offer food and support to those arrived in Hong Kong. They are a really great help.” He brought me to 15th floor of the building, which was Christian Action, one of the organizations that support refugees in Hong Kong. He pointed to the sign on the door, “I come here every weekend. A professor from Chinese University, Gordon Mathews, would discuss current affairs with us.”


Many organizations and individuals hold activities for refugees and help them engage in the society. Regarding how refugees adjust to the society, Innocent shrugged and spoke in a flat tone, “It is hard. Imagine the language and cultural barriers. I have seen many of them having psychological problems…… It will drive you nuts when you don’t have a purpose to live.” As he finished his sentence he looked away from me and took the chewing gum out of his pocket.


Perhaps it is also the reason that motivated him to organize activities and lessons for refugees and those neglected by the society. He is currently running Mandarin and coding lessons to refugees, which started a year ago and are taught mainly by volunteers from universities. “Dealing with refugees can be hard. Before we had large classes but it didn’t go well. We had to separate them into different cultural background and geographical area based on where they live to prevent conflicts and save transportation costs for them.” he said.


Innocent scratched his head and sighed, and his voice became clear as it echoed in the staircase. “Many students are motivated, but teaching is about whether you respect them, and listen to them instead of having excellent teaching skills.” He turned back and told me why some institutions would fail. “Initiatives are what drive those projects forward. I have seen churches offering language lessons, but all they want is to attract more people to their churches, and they could never succeed.” He raised his voice and was displeased towards those who do things without the right initiatives. “It would never work if you don’t understand and listen to the people you are assisting, and what they truly need.”


As we climbed up stairs and went to the rooftop, a sudden cold blast gave me chills, but Innocent seemed comfortable in such a cold weather. He crossed his hands in front of his chest when he talked about how some journalists would came and made friends with refugees just to get their stories, and after they finished their piece they would break off any contacts with them. “What refugees need is not journalists taking photos of them without sufficient clothes or how tragic their lives are.” He gestured to emphasize on his words and stepped a bit forward. I was surprised to see tears in his eyes as they reflected the lights from buildings. He had never showed strong emotions like this before.  “Showing how tragic their lives are will not improve their current situation. They need dignity. The society needs to understand that they are not so different from us.”


People are all biased towards refugees in some sense. I was a bit ashamed to admit that before talking to him, I had certain stereotypes towards them, but he gave me a new perspective on them. Refugees in a sense are similar to us, who are searching for a safe place to settle down, and try to fit into the society. Some failed, but others never give up. Innocent is one of those who stands up against the odds, and tries to help people around him, and becomes a force to shape the society. He also pays attention to social issues in Hong Kong and runs programs to assist the elderly and the deaf. “They are marginalized people in the society. They need to feel being useful and accepted.” He stared behind me firmly, as if he was looking towards something approachable within his reach. His tone softened and once again became the eloquent and confident person I knew. “Even they are just assigned with some simple tasks, it will make a huge difference to them.”


For all the things Innocent had done, he still denied himself as an activist. “Activists are always fighting for what they believe, and it is dangerous not to question your belief.” There was a long silence, and he turned to face the buildings across from us. He put his hands inside the pockets of his jacket and leaned against the wall like he usually did. I asked him whether he had thought about going back to Zimbabwe. The answer is a definite yes. “I will go back one day.” He said without hesitance. “This time I want to do something that can really help the grassroots.” He wanted to teach programing and coding to primary school students in Zimbabwe, which he teamed up with his former classmate and tried to raise money. “Who knows, maybe one day one of those children will become the next Steve Jobs and have the ability to change the country.” Innocent is hopeful, but he is not only a dreamer. He is the kind of person who dares to pursue dreams and make them happen.


As he finished his tour with me in Chungking Mansions, we just stood on the rooftop and watched the neon lights outside shopping malls flashed on and off. I couldn’t help but think it was such a beautiful place, where people from all over the world gathered together and strived for their lives. Throughout the skyline you could see the islands were separated by sea, and we were surrounded by tall buildings in such a small city, but at this moment I felt refreshed and peaceful. “It is significant. Don’t you think?” Innocent said to me before we left the rooftop. I thought he meant the views up there, but I understand now the word could be used to describe him, and to those who are living in struggles but refuse to give in to the strong winds and storms ahead. They transform their distress into compassion and pour in effort to help those in need. It indeed is significant, and the force can slowly shape the society with a new perspective towards marginalized groups in Hong Kong.

About the author


Jessie Yang is currently a student in University of Hong Kong, double majoring in psychology and media & cultural studies. She writes about social issues and observations of diverse cultures. She is proficient in Chinese and English, with a little Cantonese and Spanish.
Visit her Blog

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