He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (2024)

I was born in Macau in 1943 but don’t have any documentary proof of that; Chinese midwives didn’t keep such records in those days, and anyway, I was born during wartime, and everything was pretty disordered.

Later on, I learned that our family lived above the “Jik Lei” bicycle shop on Rua do Cinco de Outubro, down on the Inner Harbour – it’s not very far from the Hong Kong Temple.

We were five children in our family, but only four of us lived to be adults. Unfortunately, my oldest brother died as an infant in Macau during the war.

Another older brother eventually moved to New York and settled there; he has now passed away. My next oldest brother and his family never came to live in Hong Kong – they stayed on in Canton (Guangzhou) and now they live in Sydney, Australia.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (1)

My sister was the first of our family to settle down in Hong Kong. She arrived by herself in 1959, and eventually had a family. They still live here, and we meet from time to time; she has also passed away, so I am the only sibling still living here now.

New China

We were a Shanghai family originally, but moved down to Canton after the Japanese invaded China. The family worked at a tobacco factory.

They moved to Macau when the business moved a branch operation there. Then sometime after the war ended, we settled back in Canton, at Sai Kwan (Xiguan).

We were living there when the Nationalist government left China for Taiwan, and the Communists took over.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (2)

My primary and secondary school years were spent in Canton. Life was hard at that time. The authorities put signs around the necks of people considered public enemies of one kind or another, with various abusive slogans written in Chinese characters; they were then driven around the streets for the public to curse at them.

So-called rich landlords and others who were considered “social undesirables” in the new order were pulled in for questioning whenever there was another political campaign under way.

That happened to us periodically.

My father was considered bat faat zi boon gaa, an “unlawful bourgeois”, and also a hak chat leui, “black seven category”, and so he was repeatedly harassed during the “Three-anti” and “Five-anti” campaigns (Mao Zedong’s reform movements to rid Chinese cities of enemies of the state and consolidate his power).

These social movements were undertaken in the early 1950s, political purges that started almost as soon as the Communists took power. It was just one thing after another – that was what I remember distinctly from my young years in the New China.

Never enough

Shortages of everything we take for granted these days were commonplace. In particular, soap and toothpaste were in short supply.

Staple foodstuffs such as rice and cooking oil, along with cloth and so on, were all state-issued on what were known as leung piu (ration cards) by this time, and there was simply never enough of anything.

For one meal, we had only three leung (about 150g) of rice to eat [...] Those were the times.

I went to Shanghai in 1965 and ended up staying there for about year or so. I can still speak Shanghainese – whether I have an accent or not, well, that’s for other people to tell.

My son grew up speaking Cantonese here in Hong Kong, but he also knows a few Shanghainese words – mainly foods, general expressions, that kind of thing.

First attempt

My reasons for eventually leaving the mainland were straightforward: I simply couldn’t get any work and therefore did not see any viable future for myself if I stayed there.

The first time I tried to swim out I was 25 years old, and that attempt was made on the west side of the Pearl River Delta. I first tried to swim across to somewhere near Taipa, in Macau, but that attempt wasn’t successful.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (4)

Unfortunately, as I was heading back to Canton, I got caught. I got arrested in Tan Chau (Tanzhou) and was later sent back to Canton. The others didn’t get caught, but I was unlucky. I was released after a period of detention in Canton, and then sent to a commune.

Take two

Naturally enough, after a short time I got fed up with that existence and made another attempt to get out. My girlfriend came on the second attempt, with one set of friends on their own bikes, and me and my girlfriend on another one.

Twenty-two people made the attempt. We got turned back at Lung Kong (Longgang), further up the East River, without even getting to the water, and had to return to Cheung Muk Tau (Zhangmutou).

The penalty for trying to get out was worse if you got caught again. I was kept in jail for 54 days at the Dongguan Detention Centre. I was accused of being the ah tau (ringleader) – which was true – which was why I was in jail longer.

Prison life

At the detention centre, sometimes eight or 10 people were kept on the same wooden board to sleep – there was no bed or anything like that. We even had to s*** there, too – it was an absolutely shocking experience.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (5)

Other, more fortunate people had some supplementary food brought to them – but my family were in Canton, so there was nobody to bring me anything.

The other people there didn’t take any pity on me, either. For one meal, we had only three leung (about 150g) of rice to eat; this made it clear to me that there was not enough to eat outside, either. Those were the times.

We also got some kind of vegetable, no idea what it was; green and mushy is all I remember now. There simply wasn’t anything else to eat, save for dried biscuits of various kinds, which just made it all harder.

Third time’s a charm

As a result of that horrible experience, I was even more determined to flee the mainland. On this last attempt, my future wife – my son’s mother – came along. We went down from Canton to Dongguan, which was far more convenient as a drop-off point to eventually get to Hong Kong.

Then I stole a bicycle and we rode some 70 miles to get to the jump-off point at the water’s edge. f*ck Tin (Futian) was where we jumped off.

When we came across into Hong Kong, we arrived with absolutely nothing. We had to get new clothes

On the mainland side there was no wire netting or fences or anything like that. On the Hong Kong side the frontier was completely wired off.

Around Lau Fau Shan there were a lot of oyster shells – that was dangerous as we could get cut on them. Further on there was a lot of mud and mangroves. So Tsim Bei Tsui was what we aimed for.

It was easy to aim for in the water, as it was completely black all around – there were no buildings or anything else there. Five lamp posts in front of the police post on the water’s edge was what we headed towards.

Warm welcome

On September 22, 1970, we swam into Hong Kong from China. As I recall now, we went into the water at around 7.30pm. We waited until it was dark enough for nobody to see us, and then just went for it.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (6)

We were in the water for quite some time – at least four or five hours, judging from the time we arrived at the police post in Hong Kong.

The European officer in charge was very friendly – I’ve never forgotten him. He gave me five Rothman cigarettes to smoke – that warmed me up after the swim. My son’s partner later tracked down who this officer was, but unfortunately he has now passed away.

Some people swam in with footballs or inflated bicycle inner tubes or other flotation aids, but we didn’t have anything like that. Fortunately, I was a good swimmer – I’d been in the swimming team at high school, and was still young and fit, so that helped.

After landing, we spent two nights at Yuen Long Police Station – it must have been for some kind of questioning, but I can’t remember now.

Family reunion

When we came across into Hong Kong, we arrived with absolutely nothing. We had to get new clothes, and after jail I had quite long hair, so almost the first thing I had to do was get a haircut – that needed to be done so a photograph could be taken for a new identity document.

My girlfriend’s parents were already in Hong Kong – they were living on f*ck Wa Street, in Sham Shui Po. The police sent us down to Kowloon. My older sister was living nearby, in Mong Kok, on Soy Street; other relatives were in Diamond Hill, and my godmother from Macau lived in Wan Chai.

My older sister was quite a party girl, loved dancing, and later was a single mother; her kids are now in their sixties, with grown-up families of their own.

What goes around

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (7)

I worked at various jobs – anything to make a living. My first job was working in a plastic bag factory in Lai Chi Kok. After that, I worked at my future father-in-law’s garment business for a while, then in a fabric-dyeing factory, and as a lifeguard at the government swimming pool at Lei Cheng Uk.

I worked as a lifeguard for about six years, until 1980, and later started up as a freelance taxi driver. Now I’m completely retired.

Proud dad

Our son was born in 1973 – he is our only child. He stayed with relatives in Hong Kong for a year, then we took him back up to Canton, where he lived for the next couple of years with my parents.

We visited him when we could, then brought him back to Hong Kong for kindergarten, and then primary and secondary school. We lived in various places – mostly in Diamond Hill – then moved to Ma On Shan in the late 1980s, where I still live.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (8)

Eventually my son’s mother and I divorced, but we are still friends. My son is a barrister now, and part of his work is to help refugees and asylum seekers who escaped to Hong Kong from other places in the world to deal with their own cases. I’m very proud of my son.

Looking back

I didn’t go back to Tsim Bei Tsui until late 2023, with my son and his partner. It’s totally different today, but the police post looked much the same.

We looked across to the other side; where the Shenzhen Bay Hotel is now was the spot where we made our way into the water, and this new life, so long ago.

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (9)

He fled mainland China for Hong Kong. Now his son helps refugees like him (2024)
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