Hari was born and brought up in Malaysia. She was an ethnic Indian, her family having emigrated from the Punjab almost a century earlier. As a young child she grew up in a Chinese area of Petaling Jaya, where she learnt Cantonese and came to understand and appreciate the Chinese Malaysians. She lost her mother when she was six and her father in her twenties. She grew up in poverty and adversity. Somehow, though, she was untouched by it. Rather than being bowed or scarred, she was ennobled by her background. She learnt how to stand on her own two feet and yet was possessed of an extraordinary compassion born of her experience of hardship.
I met Hari on a jungle trek on Tioman, an island off Malaysia, in 1993. I was on holiday, and she was on a bonding trip with her firm. We fell in love at first sight. Despite the fact that, on the face of it, we had absolutely nothing in common – she was a Hindu and I was an atheist, she was a beautiful dark brown and I was white, she had never left the Malaysian archipelago and I had travelled the world, she was in her late twenties and I was in my late forties – we were, from the instant of meeting, soul-mates. It was a most incredible, and remarkable, accident – a one in a million chance encounter: more like a fairy story than real life. A year later Hari came to live in London. She adapted with the most remarkable speed, verve and élan. Clever, very funny, incredibly quick-witted, warm, irreverent, ambitious, high-flyer, compassionate, extrovert, beautiful, elegant, larger-than-life, possessed of a wisdom about life that only profound adversity can teach, Hari, in her own inimitable way, conquered London. I watched in awe and admiration. She was quite simply the most extraordinary person I have ever met.
After four years in London together, we decided to come to Hong Kong. Hari was seconded by her international law firm and I was commissioned to write a book, and make a TV series for the BBC. Although she loved London, which proved to be the happiest years of her tragically short life, she looked forward to returning to Asia, and thought that her knowledge of Cantonese, and Chinese culture, would prove an advantage. She thought she would be on the inside track. Hong Kong, too, had played a special role in our love: in December 1993 we spent a week here and it was then that we decided to make our future together. But it rapidly became clear that Hari’s hopes were misplaced. Her difficulties first manifested themselves at work, difficulties which, I might add, her firm was in no way responsible for. One or two Chinese colleagues, to Hari’s surprise and deep discomfort, sought by innuendo and nuance, to treat her as less than her equal because of the colour of her skin.
It was not in Hari’s style to complain. She was the opposite of the victim. She was too strong, too independent, too self-confident, too proud, too busy living and enjoying life to the full, to allow such things to get her down. She bore racist behaviour stoically, taking pity on the other person, seeking to rise above such behaviour, trying to help them overcome their own prejudices. Apart from these problems at work, Hari never complained to me about racism in that early period. Several months later, while I was describing to a friend the nature of Hari’s difficulties in the office, Hari suddenly intervened and said: “No, not just at work. I experience racism everywhere, all the time. In shops, people refuse to serve me. In the street they call me blackbean shit, in Cantonese, to my face.”
My experience in Hong Kong and Hari’s were utterly different. As a white person, I have never experienced racism: the odd rudeness, but far more common, a certain deference. For Hari, it was totally different. People of darker skin are treated as inferior. This is a profoundly racist society. Caucasians are ignorant of it because they don’t suffer. The Chinese deny it because they refuse to recognize it. Only those of darker skin understand: but this is a society that refuses to hear them. Hong Kong is not a tolerant, cosmopolitan, multi-racial society: it is a bi-racial society in which Chinese and Caucasians are respected and accepted: those of darker skin are stigmatized, abused, ignored, scorned and excluded. The racism Hari experienced in Hong Kong was far, far worse than anything she suffered in London: systemic, endemic, ignorant, crude, nasty, primitive, in-her-face. I can only recall Hari telling me about four incidents with racist overtones during her four years in London: in Hong Kong it was a daily occurrence. Those from government who say there is no racism in Hong Kong, or that it is a relatively mild problem, are either willfully ignorant of the reality or are simply lying.
I would like to quote from a conversation that Hari had with two friends of ours in England, Janet and Douglas Hague, a few months before she died. This is their record of the conversation:
“Janet: Do you enjoy being in Hong Kong?
Hari: Yes, but I find it easier being in London and look forward to returning.
J: Why do you feel that?
H: Because there is so much racial discrimination in Hong Kong.
J: Surely that couldn’t apply to you. You are obviously bright, with a good job, and you are more than presentable.
H: No. I am aware on public transport, in the street, in my place of work, that I am looked down on, regarded as being of less worth. People resent the fact that I am well dressed and clearly have a good job. This is something I never experienced in London, where no one bothers about who you are or where you are from.
J: I find that surprising and shocking.
H: I think I do present a problem in Hong Kong in that my skin is dark and therefore not acceptable, yet I am married to Martin who is acceptable.”
When Hari was admitted to the Ruttonjee hospital after her fit in the early hours of the first day of the new millennium, I was worried that she might receive less than professional treatment because of her colour. A little over a year since we first arrived, I had no illusions about the ubiquity of racial prejudice in Hong Kong. I remember going out of my way to make sure that the doctors and nurses knew that I, a white man, was Hari’s husband: I thought it would ensure she was treated properly. On her first and only evening in that hospital, about 17 hours after her admission, I tried to find out from a doctor just what they were doing for Hari: it was like talking to a brick wall. I turned to Hari and said: “Fat lot of use that was”. She replied: “I am bottom of the pile here.” I was shocked. Hari was not given to complaining and the bluntness of her words was totally out of character. I asked her what she meant. “I am Indian, everyone else here is Chinese.” I knew that what she was saying was true. I knew, knowing Hari as I did, that her words could only be an under-statement. I was immediately aware of the gravity of the situation. I had to get her out of the hospital. I said I would get her discharged. I arranged, there and then, for her to be discharged the following morning at 10am. It was too late. By then she was effectively dead.
The hospital refuses to investigate Hari’s words. The government refuses to admit there is a problem. No-one will listen to the people who suffer. They are ignored and humiliated. This is a society in denial of its own racism.
As a white person, an Englishman, I speak with humility. Part of the reason for the rampant racism is that under colonialism, racism was part of the accepted currency of society. The British could hardly have legislated against it: to do so, they would have had to abolish their own rule. But it is not enough to blame colonial rule. Racist attitudes lie deep in Chinese culture. The problem of Chinese racism remains unexplored and unrecognised, condoned and tolerated, ugly and endemic. One could perhaps understand if it was directed against their former colonial rulers, but bizarrely it is reserved for those who are blameless, who have never done any harm to them, for those of darker skin. Enough is enough. It is time for Hong Kong to take responsibility for these barbaric attitudes. The government should set an example to society by introducing legislation outlawing racial discrimination.
It is too late for Hari. It is no consolation to me. I have lost the most precious thing I ever had, a woman I adored, a love that lit the world. It is too late for Ravi who has lost a magnificent mother and been deprived of a remarkable happiness. But it will surely help others. Please do it for Hari. May her death not be in vain.