Hong Kong

And she’s off (nearly)

Here I go again.  Hong Kong travels 2020

Sunday 12th January 2020

At the Stratford upon Avon Leisure Centre to board the National Express to LHR with a change at Cheltenham.  One of those ‘did I lock the door and turn everything off moments?’, and more disconcerting ‘am I really up for this?’, wobbly moments.

This visit is about trying to get to know my family better.  And hopefully crack the basics of Cantonese and learn more about my Mother and the life I nearly had.  I’ll be staying in the New Territories (NT) nearer to all three of their homes, but quite a different experience from staying in Tsim Tsa Tsui Kowloon in my 8 bed dorm.  Last night was spent desperately trying to find the nearest swimming pool as the Tai Po one closes for maintenance in the winter. Do HK ers in the NT really hang up their cossies from Nov to April?  I think not.  Winnie, who should be asleep at 4am her time, unhelpfully tells me all the pools close in winter, but then she cannot, and does not swim, so I discount her wisdom on this occasion. A bit like me, a golf hater, advising someone on golf course opening times.  So I plough on and find one that does have its main pool open in the winter, just two MTR stops from where I’m staying. Phew.  8 weeks and no swimming = grumpy Laura.  Bad enough I can’t take my sax’. 

omg. I’m sitting in front of a National Express Bus with a sign for Paignton thinking ‘what if I just went to Paignton for 2 months instead?’ No trying to get on board with slightly too much luggage (I paid for and promptly cancelled hold luggage. Remembering how happy I am when I travel light and I can actually carry my stuff with ease half way across the world) and no putting endless weeny bottles into climate unfriendly plastic bags, and taking off boots and belts and jewellery and risk losing my stuff as I am so prone to do.  It’s now 10.04 and my bus is due 10.05. I’m a little confused.  And the friendly driver standing by his  coach says “you’re not booked on this bus are you?”.  I say “no I’m going to Cheltenham” – where I’m changing to go to LHR. He says “oh that’s this one”.  And helps put my luggage on and checks my ticket with one minute to spare.  Hopefully he thinks I’m a confused foreigner rather than a dizzy dipstick. Oh dear. Does not bode well for Ms International jet setter! 

Hong Kong

It’s going to be a bright, bright, bright, sunshiny day. Coming home

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Strange to think that a week ago I was in Hong Kong. Getting closure but at the same time affirming my new beginnings. The sun has set on all those questions about “Who was my Mother? Who was my Father? What was my story?” And now I know. And the sun rises on new beginnings.  I have a big family in Hong Kong. Faces I recognise, and see myself in, Arms in which I am held. Hearts that have found a space for me within them. My second visit was, in comparison with the first, fleeting. 3 weeks. The first visit back in November 2018, for 90 days, to find my birth family. And safe to say, I did that, and more. This last shorter visit to get to know them better, celebrate XingMing Festival (ancestry worshipping), get my Hong Kong ID Card entitling me to permanent right of abode, retrieve the prohibited file from Social Welfare, celebrate two siblings’ birthdays and do some DNA detective work to confirm the identity of my Father. This, all of this I did. Today, back home here in Cornwall it’s Easter Sunday. I’m blogging early on this day.  A day to celebrate.  Resurrection. A new promise. Sunrise. All of these ideas and images feel poignant today.

Hong Kong

Prestige cars, poor family, 7/11 and taking on the Access to Information office

Do you remember that file I so desperately wanted to read? The one held by the Social Welfare Department in Hong Kong. The one they said they never had when I wrote to them in 2004. The one that tells about my very early days, detailing my Mother’s and my family’s circumstances, why she put me up for adoption.  Containing the names of my half siblings.  The one I tried to decipher over the Social Welfare Department desk.  Well I finally got it.  After two meetings, and a lot of heated email exchange I received an email from the department of access to information – DAIO, with a bill for $79 Hong Kong dollars, that’s about 8 quid, saying ‘pay this, and the file’s all yours.  Ready for collection’.  I am offered the chance to pay in all manner of ways, but not by what might be simplest, cash on collection.  I choose the most unsophisticated but easiest method of paying, in person at the 7/11 shop.  (There’s a 7/11 on almost every street.  Like popping into a branch of, mmmm and now I’m struggling to think of a chain of shops in the UK that are similar to 7/11s.  Where in the UK can you can buy almost anything to eat, from Asian snacks to Haagen Das ice cream, sandwiches, fresh fruit, milk, batteries, newspapers, wine, ciggies, toiletries, gifts?  You name it, The 7/11 has it all, like a mini mart.  Here you can top up your Oyster, pay your bills, cook and eat your microwave supper.  Is there such a chain in good old Blighty?)

I digress.  Sorry.  It’s been a long hard battle to win my file.  7/11 snacks kept me going.  In the end I was forced to quote HK law to the DAIO government office, as nicely as possible, so as not to **** them off entirely and have them double their efforts to prohibit my access to the file.  But the law is the law.  Even in a two system Special Administrative Region of China. And HK law states that all of an adoptee’s files must be held in perpetuity and released to the adoptee if s/he is root tracing.  After about 32 emails, backward and forwards, forwards and backwards, I think they must have thought ‘this woman is not giving up, we can’t take any more of this.  Give her the ****** file’.  I think only two of about 700 adoptees, who were sent abroad from HIK in the 1960s, have managed to get their files, most, not surprisingly, just give up!  Some of my fellow UK adoptees are looking for me to pave the way in this root tracing conundrum, so I’m glad not to have disappointed.  Similarly, I now know how to advise regarding getting HK right of abode which more UK adoptees are already considering applying for, in light of my recent success.

So, early Thursday morning, I make my way across the sea to Wanchai, the business district on Hong Kong Island.  The irony that the DAI office is in a huge tower block above the McClaren and Rolls Royce showrooms is not lost on me. Above showrooms that house millions of pounds worth of pointless (to me) gleaming status symbols (where is there to actually go in these cars?), that can be easily bought by any of the multitude of billionaires that live here, my 61 page file is incarcerated.  Within those pages the story of  my starving birth family,  barely surviving on welfare rice. My Mother and me, a newborn baby and my three half siblings, clothed in rags and all squished into a 16×16 foot dilapidated hut with a rusty bed , some old suitcases and a couple of chickens scratching in the corner.

Look, here is the ‘entrance’ to the DAIO office.  Am I I imagining it, or does it look to you as though they really do NOT want anybody having access to anything?  In the corridor, every other government office has a glass door, a welcoming reception area.  But I don’t feel welcome here.  NOW I can see why it’s been a long drawn out battle, this place is like Fort Knox.  Through the small hole in the wall I sign a paper to confirm receipt of my file.

And I have it.  Finally in 2019.  A file first started in December 196, when I was 3 months old, and closed in 1968 when I was legally removed from the responsibilities of my temporary Hong Kong guardian.  In my hands I clutch the very first chapter of my life story.  Priceless.  It’s unlikely I know, but say I was offered a swanky car from the ground floor showrooms, OR or my file from the 25th floor, could have one OR the other.  I’m pretty sure you know which one I would pick.

Hong Kong

Life’s what happens when

Making plans, bloggin’.

And what a life. So much I want to share but feel unable to at the moment. But rest assured I will. If and when I am able.

But all good here in HK. Today the skies are blue and the sun is bright. About 24 degrees and not yet 10.00am.

I’m off to meet my family for a day out in Tai O. Phone will be turned off. I’ll allow others to maybe capture the day in photos and focus on being fully present with this new family of mine. No thinking about DNA challenges and/or other family members who may or may not be, waiting someplace in the wings.

So I’m blogging off for the day but just before I go I am sending bloglove across the China seas.

Hong Kong


Did you see Call the Midwife Christmas Day Special? One of the story lines was about orphans being brought to the UK from Hong Kong as part of the United Nations Year of the Refugee Programme. It took place in the early ’60s, and 103 babies, mostly girls were brought to the UK. Over 600 went to the States, and smaller numbers to other countries.

Here are five of us, by coincidence, here in Hong Kong at the same time. I’m going to tell more of the story that comes before the ‘finding my family story’ soon, but for now I have to keep this short. I’m a bit pre occcupied, with my new family and catching up with my fellow adoptees. I’ve also now got two DNA mysteries to solve, that get more bizarre and exciting by the minute.

Apologies to cut this short, I’ve got an awful lot of catching up to do….

Hong Kong

Still Laura

Saturday 30th March 2019.  Hop Inn Mody.

Two days before I flew to Hong Kong, flicking through Netflix I stumbled upon the film ‘Still Alice’.  The main role of Alice played by Julieanne Moore, who was instantly recognisable, but I had to Google to retrieve her name.  Ironic and a little scary, as Alice is a linguistics Professor in her 50s who is battling Familial Alzheimers, a genetic form that attacks early and aggressively.

As we get older, Martin and I both joke about our Alzheimers’ moments.  But whilst I joke, I also know the possibility that either of us might succumb to some sort of dementia scares the pants off me, having witnessed first hand, the devastating path of destruction dementia leaves.

Two scenes from the film have stayed with me.  Alice out on a run, suddenly totally lost.  Absolutely no idea where she is or how to get home, doubled over with fright, suffering from a panic attack, shaking figure in the foreground, whilst her surroundings are depicted out of focus, to give us a sense of the severity of what is happening.  The second scene, where the disease has progressed so rapidly Alice needs 24/7 monitoring, depicts her desperately opening door after door in her own home, trying to find the toilet.  She fails, and wets herself.

When I came to Hong Kong in November, I got lost easily and all too frequently, even towards the end of my 3 month stay.  But I always knew that with the help of my laminated map and/or Google, I would somehow make it home.  I felt waves of panic consume and shake me, especially if I was due to be someplace at a specific time, but there was within me a nugget of reassuring certainty, that I had lodged someplace in my brain sufficient navigational skills to survive.  Despite this deep knowing, still, there was one time I panicked.  cried with frustration, had to stop, breathe deeply, relax and give myself a good talking to, taking an hour for what should have been a 10 minute journey. Fortunately I did not wet myself. Just in case you’re wondering.

Today, after three busy days, I locked all my valuables in my under bed storage crate and handed my room key and the padlock to the Reception at my hostel.  I wanted to run.  Run freely, not encumbered by anything.  Around these streets that I now know reasonably well.  But today, something was much changed.  It seems I can now sense which way I need to turn, without looking at any signs, without really thinking.  Which is useful as it was busy out in Tsim Tsa Tsui today.  Shoulder to shoulder.  Waves of people on every street.  And all without the comforters of my laminated map and phone.  I realised it’s the weekend, that time when Mainlanders arrive in hoards to buy.  The image of immaculately made-up women stuffing cosmetics into suitcases and discarding the packaging on the street is not my favourite memory, but it is as vivid as my memory of Alice lost in her own home.   I turned the corner into Canton Road, home to Tiffany, Gucci, Chanel, Hermes et al, and there before me was exactly the scene I had remembered, a hive of immaculately dressed Chinese, frenzied squatting and cramming. Same place, different faces.

This type of reassuring flashback, this soothing confirmation that my memory serves me well, began to fire as soon as I set foot in Hong Kong.  Knowing exactly where to go, and in what order at the airport.  Remembering that I had a choice of ways to get from the airport to Kowloon, what the prices would be, how to top up the Octopus card that I relocated from its safely stored and well-remembered place.  Differentiating between the babble of Cantonese and Mandarin, picking out a few phrases.  Knowing instinctively which direction to go on which MTR line.  And on arrival at my hostel, recognising the reciprocally, friendly smiling faces of the staff and not needing the initiation tour. I already knew exactly where I would find my bed, the fridge, a hot drink, the shower, the toilet.

Today, I ran and ran My body felt free and my mind felt light and expansive.  There was a calmness and softness to my run. Trying to understand dementia I usually picture it as a condition that can be scaled, and Julieanne as Alice, weighs in heavy on the far, very demented end of it. My, as yet unvoiced fear, is that I’m somewhere on the scale but just don’t know it yet.

But today it felt as though coming back to HK for a second time might almost have catapulted me right off the scale, and in the event I was in it, was reducing my chances of sliding down to join Alice.  As if all the neurological pathways had magically lit up in my brain, receptive, and made whole and new again. I know they say learning a new language and playing a musical instrument, eating well and regular exercise are likely to help prevent dementia. Perhaps repetitive visits to a place one yearns for, and has had to overcome challenges within might be proven to work in the same way. If anybody wants to set up some research, I’d happily volunteer to be part of THAT study.

Hong Kong

Happy to look old

Hong Kong

Mum, I’m home

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.

Hong Kong

Art Basel

How did it get to be gone 11pm? I know 4 hours got creatively spent at Art Basel, but quite where the other 8 daytime hours went is a bit of a mystery.

I’ll sleep on it all. If I’m lucky. In the meantime a few photos of paintings/works that moved and confused me.