Wednesday 27th March 2019
“Put your right thumb there” the masked and gloved Hong Kong young government official says to me, over the top of her large monitor screen. I can just see her eyes. They are not smiling eyes like the happy official diagonally opposite in booth 48, who is also dealing with another hopeful applicant for Hong Kong’s official right of abode status. But I’m smiling enough for both of us, as I have come to the end of my two hour interview process and it’s looking positive. I fronted up at Immigration Tower (yes, a whole tower) as instructed at 09.45 am for my first interview at 10.00am, on the 25th floor. I queued to use the lift, as the access to all the lifts is guarded by uniformed security officers who could be mistaken for army officers. This harks back to the times when masses camped outside of immigration tower, protesters and applicants, one man setting fire to the lobby area because he was refused his HK ID. These HK IDs were coveted before handover back to China in 1997 and are much in demand now, especially the kind I’m applying for that grants me permanent right of abode. At my first interview, only 3 of the 14 documents I have brought with me, are requested to be verified. These are my original Hong Kong birth certificate, my adoption certificate and my current passport. This is quite different from what I was told I might need to produce. A very long list that included all my old passports, my current marriage certificate, my previous marriage and divorce certificate, my change of name by deed polls (2 versions) etc. A little frustrating, as after my first failed attempt here, when I came in November 2018, I spent many hours back home in the UK searching out these precious documents and sent the copies as requested. But the upshot is, I can now produce an official paper trail of my life. There’s nothing like an insistent, albeit over zealous Chinese government official, to force you into getting your ‘document’ house in order.
Following more form filling and checking, they’re struggling with Martin’s surname, perhaps that’s why I’m Tan and not Pemberton, I’m told to go down to the 8th floor for the second part of my interview. Thank heaven Winnie is with me again, telling the officers off for speaking to me in Cantonese. I know she’s rooting for me, but wonder if her protective stance of me might tip the officials over into refusing my application. ‘A banana woman (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) who can’t speak our language, wanting permanent status. Bah!’ But no, fortunately, personal opinions have no place in this strict process.
On floor 8, there are 64 open plan work stations, where the interviews are conducted. We have to wait for my name to be called, and I jolt when I hear my Chinese name Tang Yuk Lan come over the loud speaker. This is the very first time I have heard my birth name said aloud in public. At my allotted booth number 45, there are none of the tricky questions I thought I might need to grapple with, the answers to which I’d rehearsed in my mind. Just a few more forms to fill in.
“Put your right thumb there”. I give the official my right thumb, and then my left thumb. She tells me to relax. I am struggling to line up the correct area of my arthritic thumb on the tiny glass plate. But after a few attempts we get there. Next, I’m told to move across to sit on a black stool to have my photograph taken. “Remove your earrings” and “show your eyebrows” are the two instructions. I try to tie my fringe into the rest of my hair but my eyebrows are still lurking. The official hands me some hair grips. Obviously a common problem.
This morning I set off from my 8 bed dorm. Getting dressed in the dark. It was the morning after I landed in Hong Kong, after a day on trains getting from Cornwall to Heathrow, by the 11 hour flight. I’m jet lagged and not sporting a scrap of make up, not even my normal ‘perk me up’ red lippy. Stupidly it didn’t occur to me this process would culminate with my mug shot. The government official taps a few keys, the flash goes off and two equally ‘old looking Laura’ photographs emerge on a screen. I’m told to choose one. And smiling, still smiling, I pick the one where I look so very like my birth Mother.
My Mother. I never knew you . But after a search of 22 years I finally saw photographs of you. My Mother. 58 years ago, to this day, you pressed your own left thumb onto an ink pad. I doubt you smiled though, for you were illiterate , desperate and starving, ‘signing’ an agreement for me to be adopted from Hong Kong to the UK.