Beyond the Lens of Innocence: The Lives of Refugees in Hong Kong

Beyond the Lens of Innocence: The Lives of Refugees in Hong Kong
Photo Credit: Innocent Mutanga

What you need to know

One Zimbabwean man's quest to help refugees as they try to rebuild their lives in the bustling Asian metropolis.

It was a cold Friday evening, and gusts of wind could be felt as people hurried on their way. When I arrived, Innocent was already waiting for me outside Chungking Mansions, its old and dim appearance a sharp contrast with Hong Kong’s glorious shopping malls and business buildings. Innocent only wore a blue jacket and was pacing around the entrance with his hands in his pockets. His sneakers were worn out but he did not seem to notice.

He grinned and reached out his hand as I approached.

“On every typical day, you can find around 200 nationalities inside this small building,” Innocent said as he brought me inside Chungking Mansions. “Here you are entering a globalized society.”

Located in the bustling business area of Tsim Sha Tsui, Chungking Mansions is a mysterious and exotic place that houses refugees, tourists and minorities from South Asia. Most local residents stay away from it, but Chungking Mansions is a unique universe with people from diverse backgrounds and interesting stories.

We sat down in an African restaurant. Surrounded by different dialects and the smells of spices and cologne, for a moment I thought I was no longer in Hong Kong. Innocent began his story as we ate the traditional African cuisine. He spoke cheerfully and energetically, with fast and intelligent responses. Judging solely from the conversation, you could hardly tell that he was once an asylum seeker, who is now in the process of applying for a 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 U.S. and tried 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’s youth militia due to his involvement in political issues, and has settled here ever since.

While speaking about his struggles after he first arrived in Hong Kong, he was rather calm and rational. Sometimes he did not want to talk more about his predicament, which he said was not really important. However, Innocent's determination to change people’s perception of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong never flagged. He has published an article in Hong Kong Free Press about the Hong Kong government’s policies toward refugees and how society should be more open-hearted towards them.

“The government doesn’t know what it is doing, but it is trying,” he said, repeating the last sentence twice, as if 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 nervously tapping the floor with his foot.

Hong Kong has been using the Unified Screening Mechanism to review refugee claims, but bureaucracy remains a big problem. Only one in every 500 asylum seeker will be given refugee status, and it takes five to six years before the result can be known. To make matters worse, there are also fake claims by 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 immigrants, but I’d say there are many,” he said.

It’s hard to tell whether the government knows about the situation, but it is the unspoken truth within the African refugee community in Hong Kong. When I asked more about illegal workers, Innocent became more agitated.

“Have you been to the back of the kitchen in the restaurant? A lot of them are illegal workers,” he said.

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,” he said. “What you need to do is first, shorten the years processing and second, get proper employees.”

He suggested that if the government can deal with the bureaucracy and shorten the years needed to process refugee claims, it would not only save a lot of money but also discourage those who come to work illegally in Hong Kong because they would not have that many years before they have been processed. Another issue is that the interviewees’ accounts undergo three, sometimes four translations, and the original meaning is often distorted or changed in the process. This clearly indicates that trained people who understand the language and culture are required for translation. Trained 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 for both of us. He stood up and walked to the counter. The restaurant owner nodded and shook his hands, and then whispered something I could not hear. I waited for him outside.

“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,” he said.

We went to the second floor of the building, where some people were carrying boxes of electronic devices inside their shops. Innocent put his hands in his pockets and gave me a tour of Chungking Mansions.

He was sharp and often eloquent in giving his opinion, but there were occasions when he looked like he was in another dimension that no one could see, and when it happened he would become silent and bite his lips. As we awaited the elevator, there were signs showing different hotels inside the building, many of them 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 I was 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 — HK$1,500 (US$193) for rent, HK$1,200 in food coupons and less than HK$500 for other expenses. I wondered if this was enough, especially when they are not allowed to work and some of them have to support families.

“Charities,” Innocent said. “Many charities offer food and support to those arrived in Hong Kong. They are a really great help.”

He brought me to the 15th floor, which was Christian Action, one of the organizations that supports 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,” he said.

Many organizations and individuals hold activities for refugees and help them engage with society. On how refugees adjust to the society, Innocent shrugged and spoke in a flat tone.

“It’s hard. Imagine the language and cultural barriers,” he said. “I have seen many of them who have psychological problems. It will drive you nuts when you don’t have a purpose to live.”

Perhaps it is also the reason that motivated him to organize activities and lessons for refugees and those who are neglected by society. Innocent is currently running Mandarin and coding lessons for refugees. Those 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 backgrounds and geographical areas based on where they live to prevent conflicts and save transportation costs for them,” he said.

“Many students are motivated, but teaching is about whether you respect them, and listen to them instead of having excellent teaching skills,” he said.

“Initiatives are what drives 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 said. “It will never work if you don’t understand and listen to the people you are assisting, and what they truly need.”

As we climbed to the rooftop, a sudden cold blast gave me chills, but Innocent seemed comfortable in the cold weather. He crossed his hands in front of his chest when he talked about how some journalists would come and made “friends” with refugees to get their stories, and after they finished their piece they would break off any contact with them.

“What refugees need is not journalists taking photos of them without sufficient clothes or how tragic their lives are,” he said. I saw tears in his eyes, reflecting the lights from buildings. “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.”

I was a bit ashamed to admit my stereotypes toward refugees, but Innocent 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 in society. Some fail, but others never give up. Innocent is one of those who stands up against the odds and tries to help people around him, to become a force to shape society. He also pays attention to social issues in Hong Kong and runs programs to assist the elderly and the hearing impaired.

“They are marginalized people in society. They need to feel being useful and accepted,” he said. “Even if they are just assigned some simple tasks, it will make a huge difference to them.”

Despite the things Innocent has done, he still does not describe himself as an activist.

“Activists are always fighting for what they believe, and it is dangerous not to question your belief,” he said.

I asked him whether he had thought about going back to Zimbabwe. The answer was a definite yes.

“I will go back one day,” he said without a trace of hesitation in his voice. “This time I want to do something that can really help the grassroots.”

He wants to teach programming and coding to primary school students in Zimbabwe, and has teamed up with his former classmate 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,” he said.

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 we finished our tour of Chungking Mansions, we stood on the rooftop and watch the neon lights outside shopping malls flash on and off. I couldn’t help but think it was such a beautiful place, where people from all over the world gather and strive to live their lives. Throughout the skyline you could see the islands were separated by the 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?” he asked.

At first I thought he was referring to the view, but I now understand that he was probably talking about himself and those who face struggles but refuse to give in to the strong winds and storms ahead of them. 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 society with a new perspective towards marginalized groups in Hong Kong.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang