A Numbered Life

Chi Ma Wan prison on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Chi Ma Wan prison on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

It can be pretty jarring to find, one day, that you’ve lost your name in Hong Kong and will henceforth be known as “Sam-ling-yat-yat-lok-pak.” That’s what happened to Nida Naturan (not her real name) when she wound up at the Chimawan Correctional Institution on Lantau Island not too long ago. She was told she would be identified as #301168 while serving her six-month sentence.

Having steeled herself ever since she finally decided to turn herself in to the Immigration Department, Nida, accompanied by two weepy friends, was fully prepared to face her ordeal. After all she’d stayed in Hong Kong for 12 years with an expired visa and passport, surreptitiously working at parttime jobs while lying low and ducking the police. That was after her Chinese employers suddenly emigrated to Canada and left her with just two weeks in which to find a new job. But she dithered and wasted time haggling with various employment agencies over their placement fees which, in this hard-nosed town, range from HK$8,000 to $12,000.  In the meantime her savings and three different house-cleaning jobs were only enough to cover her meals and a bunk-bed at a Sheung Wan boardinghouse, so she decided to tough it out and live underground in Asia’s World City, as Hong Kong styles itself.

Once she surrendered herself at the Immigration Department in Kowloon Bay, Nida expected to be subjected to stern grilling, as well as a lot of finger-wagging – which is what happens to lawbreakers in her home country. Instead she found that Hong Kong officials are not just dispassionate, they’re coolly efficient. She couldn’t believe they didn’t look angry and even seemed bored by her tale of woe (perhaps, she thought, because they’re used to dealing with many other over-stayers).

When she approached the counter and greeted the official there, he asked “What’s your problem?” So she told him. He took down her personal details in a deadpan manner and asked “Why did you overstay for 12 years?” She replied, “Because I needed to earn money for my sick father” (which was true).

The man scribbled some more, then gave her an official-looking piece of paper and told her to report back the following week. She looked at him incredulously because where she hails from, anyone not jailed immediately after confessing to a crime or misdemeanor and told to return in a week would be gone with the wind. That’s easy to do in a country with lots of islands one can hide in (officially numbered as 7,107) but not likely in Hong Kong (which only has 235, most of them uninhabitable).

Nida had fully expected to be fined and deported forthwith, so ending up in prison the following week after she reported back was pretty shocking. She was detained for two days at the Tai Lam Women’s Remand Centre where, to her bewilderment, she was examined vaginally — later she remembered hearing that some of her compatriots arrested over the years had had their private parts probed for drugs, the sort of smuggling of which she would never dream of doing. Then she was taken to the Shatin Magistracy where she was stunned to hear her sentence pronounced — “Six months’ detention for breach of condition of stay.”

When she was put on board a police launch at a Kowloon pier, along with a dozen other Southeast Asian women, Nida learned that they were headed for a Lantau Island prison. Once there, their bags were confiscated and they were shown the dormitory, their assigned bunks and daily work schedules; they were given baggy brown checkered prison outfits and small packets of toiletries. And Nida was given the numbers that were to be her name from then on.

The jail at Chimawan Bay is on two levels – a lower bunker for inmates like Nida whose sentences are for five years and under, and a higher one for more serious offenders. Not too long ago Vietnamese refugees were housed in the buildings. Now used as a women’s detention centre, the correctional institution is overseen by all-female Hong Kong officials and staff. The only males calling in at various intervals are the Chinese and Vietnamese pastors who appear each Sunday to minister to those wishing Christian services, and the psychologist who assesses each inmate’s state of mind periodically.

Nida’s tale of woe is the time-worn migrant worker’s story. Born in a poor country which exports its women so as to keep its economy afloat, she was just another statistic, a victim of her nation’s corrupt government.  For decades, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India have turned their female population into export commodities to generate income for their graft-ridden governments. Hence the phrase “the commodification of women” often used by feminist sociologists studying migrant worker patterns.

A couple of years ago the Philippines earned some $283 billion in remittances from its migrant workers who are now estimated to total about l0 million (some 70 percent of them female) in various parts of the world. Their remittances have contributed to roughly 14 percent of the country’s GDP growth – fourth in the world next to India, Mexico and China. The figure is higher today.

The magic word “remittance” is cherished not just by the remitters’ relatives but by their governments.  But economists point out that such income, being temporary, is not the solution to any developing nation’s chronic economic problems. That’s because only a small portion of those funds is used for investments; instead the money goes mainly into consumer spending. This is what has fueled years of consumption-led growth in the poor countries.

The situation in the Philippines is reflected in the other countries whose women toil abroad — dependents at home expect their wives, mothers, sisters and aunts to provide them, not just with the basic things in life, but with coveted high-end items as well. The money sent is meant mainly for food, rent, school tuition and clothing, and offspring are often showered with the latest electronic games, toys, gimmicks and foodstuff by guilty mothers trying to make amends for their absence. And there are, along the dependent chain, siblings who likewise expect to have their studies financed, jobless brothers and male cousins expecting hand-outs, as well as ageing parents needing medical care – all members of the traditional Asian extended families. One result of this dependency is that too many able-bodied male relatives feel no incentive to work, knowing that those precious remittances arrive regularly to cover their necessities like cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets and cockpit charges.

Inevitably, many fractured families result among the women abroad acquiring new, often foreign, mates (divorce is not recognized in Catholic Philippines). The lucky ones find well-off Western men seeking pliant Asian partners, while the unlucky ones resort to seeking domestic employment for their children, thus keeping the poverty cycle going. Meanwhile the males back home further ignite the population explosion by acquiring new mates and producing more children. It’s an old story replicated in many developing countries.

The unlucky women who, like Nida, overstay their visas or commit minor crimes face similar jail experiences like hers. The numbers fluctuate. As of January 2010, there were 122 Filipinos in Hong Kong prisons, 98 of them female. As for the Indonesians, who have now outnumbered the Filipinos, 177 women and 33 men are currently serving sentences for various misdemeanors.

Luckless women who overstay abroad tend to rely on a network of friends, NGOs and some religious sects to bail them out of sticky situations. But Nida, before her incarceration, had met a divorced British businessman in a Wanchai bar who was in the market for an exotic Asian woman. He found one in the vivacious Nida. After a few dates and after learning of her sad situation, he urged her to turn herself in to the authorities, promising to see her through her ordeal, which he did. He visited her at the jail each weekend, and when she was released four months later for good behaviour (hair all grey since dyes are banned in prison), he flew with her to her home country where they had a quiet church wedding before he had to return to his job in Hong Kong.

A year later, Nida’s knight in shining armor arranged to bring her back to the territory where they now live happily ever after. That was easily accomplished, once she’d acquired a new married name and passport – one that no longer bore the numbers “Sam-ling-yat-yat-lok-pak.”

– Originally featured in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Dec. 20, 2009 with the headline “Nida’s Tale of Woe and Redemption” –

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