Five years ago Martin Jacques and his family moved to Hong Kong to start a new life which all too soon ended in tragedy. Finally, an anti-racist law that might have saved his wife’s life is to be introduced
Hong Kong has been shaken over the past few months by a series of crises: the Sars epidemic, continuing economic difficulties and huge opposition to new security legislation. No doubt Tony Blair, during his brief visit last week, will have discussed each of these, together with another, less-publicised affair: the long-running debate about the need for anti-racist legislation.
When my wife Hari and I arrived in Hong Kong on November 2, 1998, accompanied by our little boy Ravi, just nine weeks old, we were borne on a wave of optimism and expectation. We planned to spend three years in Hong Kong: Hari working for her international law firm, me to write a book and make a television series. It was familiar territory to us: our relationship had started there during a whirlwind week back in 1993.
For me, never having lived outside England, it was a step into the unknown. Hari, on the other hand, had spent the first 26 years of her life in Malaysia, only coming to live with me in London in 1994. East Asia was her region, and although an ethnic Indian, she was very much at home with the Chinese, having been brought up in a Chinese neighbourhood and speaking Cantonese. It felt as if we were going to live in Hari’s world.
It was to be a rude awakening. I watched Hari in awe as her Cantonese, combined with her natural warmth and humanity, seemed to translate effortlessly into a winning way, a disarming charm, in Hong Kong as much as it had in England. Or so it seemed. It is easy for a white person to forget — or be unaware of just how privileged we are — how everywhere we are accorded a special respect.
And if you don’t speak the local language — and I didn’t speak Cantonese — you never really know what is going on. Somehow I assumed that Hari was being treated like me — or perhaps rather better, because she spoke the language and knew the Chinese. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hari was not in the habit of finding fault. She had had a very tough life: she lost her mother when she was six, her father was rarely at home, and money, even for food, was a desperately scarce commodity. Extraordinarily, though, she managed not only to transcend such enormous adversity but somehow, magically, to turn it into a strength: she was possessed of a compassion and generosity the like of which I had never witnessed before. She had learnt to savour life in all its beauty, as if all the pain and suffering of her childhood and adolescence had given her a deep insight into what mattered and what didn’t matter.
During the four or so years Hari was in England, I can only remember her telling me about four incidents of racial prejudice. I am sure there were others, but it was not in her nature 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. In the face of prejudice, she would take pity and seek to help the other person overcome their affliction. That was Hari.
But Hong Kong was different. The racism was endemic, ignorant, nasty, primitive and in her face. One evening we had some people round for dinner and were discussing a difficult situation Hari found herself in. Someone asked whether it happened much.
“Everywhere,” she replied instantly.
I was stunned. “What do you mean, Hari, everywhere?” “People ignore me in shops. They are rude to me in restaurants. They mutter ‘black bean shit’ in Cantonese when they walk past me in the street.”
Until that moment I had not realised the full extent of Hari’s anguish. My white skin had inured me to her experience: I was at the top of the racial hierarchy and she was at the bottom. When we were together, Hari seemed to be treated the same as me: she was given honorary white status. There was barely ever a mention of racism in the papers. None of our white friends ever spoke about it. The British colonial administrations had maintained a deafening silence. I was totally unprepared.
The only way I learnt about this secret world of rampant prejudice was through Hari — and she was reluctant to bear witness.
Not least, it is demeaning to admit that other people think you are inferior because of the colour of your skin. Now, though, I understood. I was very worried for Hari. I could see that racism threatened to blight her life in Hong Kong.
On December 31, 1999 — Hari’s 33rd birthday — we were out celebrating the millennium with some friends over from England when, at 1am, Hari suffered an epileptic fit, only the second of her life. She was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital and kept overnight. When I visited her with Ravi later that morning I was concerned she might suffer discrimination in hospital: after all, it was ubiquitous in Hong Kong, so why should a hospital be any different.
I consoled myself with the thought that she would be discharged later in the day and in the meantime they could do her little harm. But I made a point of talking to the doctor and nurses so they were aware that Hari’s husband was white: I thought it might help.
Late that afternoon I returned to the hospital. During the evening Hari’s Chinese doctor came to see her during his rounds. When I questioned him about her treatment, he was unbelievably evasive. I turned to Hari and said: “A fat lot of use that was.”
“I am bottom of the pile here,” she said. It was like a thunderbolt. I had never known Hari say anything as blunt before about racism.
“I am Indian, everyone else here is Chinese.” Her words were totally out of character. It was obvious she had been suffering discrimination all day.
“Hari, I am going to get you discharged.”
By this time the doctor had disappeared and I spoke to the nurses. I was unsure, angry and upset. Hari wasn’t well. Should I take her home? To another hospital? In England it would have been easy, but now everything was unfamiliar. I told the nurses I would collect Hari at 10am the following day.
As I was getting ready to take Ravi to the hospital to fetch his mother the next day, the phone rang. “Your wife has had another fit. You must come to the hospital immediately.”
Suddenly the world was out of control. I flew out of the flat and arrived at Hari’s bedside to find her unconscious, with two nurses at her bedside and no sign of a doctor. Very soon afterwards Hari had a respiratory arrest. A little later she had a cardiac arrest. Shortly after, she died.
The following days are a blur. Resilient as I had always been, the one and only thing that I could never cope with was Hari’s death. Through the layers of immobilising grief, I sensed it then. Three and a half years later, I know it is true. Hari was a gift from heaven. I loved her to pieces. She was the most beautiful, the most magnificent person I had ever known.
I flew with Ravi — now just 16 months — to Kuala Lumpur for a family funeral and then on to London for another funeral, followed by Hari’s burial in Highgate cemetery.
I struggled to stay on the right side of life in the face of the most fearful catastrophe. It felt as if I had died too: the only difference was that I could still see and hear, though the world was devoid of colour and bereft of all emotion except the most terrible pain. Seven weeks after Hari died I flew back to Hong Kong with Ravi.
I had to return because it felt as if Hari was still there. I also needed to find out why she had died. Her death was a mystery to me. I thought that perhaps she had suffered some kind of force majeure, a brain haemorrhage even. I rang the coroner’s office and got a copy of the autopsy. It was unrevealing. It found nothing untoward: cause of death unknown.
For the first time I began to suspect negligence. I applied to the police for the hospital records and then sent copies to my consultant friends in Britain. Their response was disturbing. Hari’s death had been avoidable. I asked for an inquest, which later that summer was finally agreed to.
I gave evidence on the first morning. The court was packed with friends, journalists and staff from the Ruttonjee hospital. Until this moment Hari’s death had been a private affair: hardly anyone in Hong Kong knew about it. My evidence lasted the whole morning. It dealt with Hari’s background, life, the days leading up to her death and her time in hospital.
I quoted what she had told me: “I am bottom of the pile here” and “I am Indian and everyone else here is Chinese.” I added that Hari spoke Cantonese, was brought up in a Chinese area in Malaysia and had many Chinese friends. I didn’t want to give the impression that she was anti-Chinese. Altogether these words took less than a minute in more than two hours of evidence.
The following day the story was everywhere. And it was Hari’s words that dominated the coverage. The South China Morning Post ran the headline: “Hospital staff accused of racial bias”. The inquest lasted six days and was widely reported.
On the second day a Hong Kong-born Indian, a complete stranger, rang and thanked me for my words in court and told me how he had been discriminated against. Every evening more people phoned, mainly ethnic Indians, with the same message: heartfelt condolence, then gratitude, followed by their own story.
The coroner was unsympathetic. I guess Hari’s words did not help. He claimed she had died from natural causes, contrary to all the medical opinion from the UK. I was dismayed. I resolved that day to return to London with Ravi. With the inquest over, I expected the publicity to die down. I’d never intended to launch a campaign. I was in no condition to. I was in unbelievable pain and distress. I just wanted Hari’s words to be heard, to bear witness. I was her messenger to the world.
But the story refused to die. I was interviewed by newspapers and on television. In response to Hari’s case the South China Morning Post called for legislation outlawing racial discrimination. In the weeks that followed, articles and letters kept appearing. Hari’s words — “I am bottom of the pile” — had given them strength and touched the conscience of Hong Kong.
A month after the inquest Christine Loh, a former member of the legislative council, asked me if I would be willing to help organise a meeting in Hari’s memory to launch a campaign for anti-racist legislation.
She lived in the next apartment block to ours and told me she had often seen Hari, a striking figure of grace and beauty, walking across the courtyard.
As I returned with Ravi to England that Christmas 2000 to try and survive the first anniversary of Hari’s death, my stay was interrupted by e-mails and calls from Hong Kong telling me about more articles or letters that had appeared. The story, meanwhile, had begun to reverberate further afield — in India and Pakistan, in countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and, of course, in Britain. CNN made a television programme about Hari.
After Christmas we returned to Hong Kong to find the story still running. Two months after the inquest it was clear something extraordinary was happening. Until Hari’s inquest, Hong Kong was in denial of its own racism. The government had always insisted it was a minor problem, citing polls that suggested 96% of the population did not think racism was a problem — hardly surprising given that the Chinese, the perpetrators, accounted for exactly that proportion. The victims, those of darker skin, suffered silently, afraid that by raising their voices they might worsen their situation. The government refused to listen to them. There was a conspiracy of silence.
Hari’s case broke that silence. The fact I was white certainly helped. If I had been Indian or Filipino I would have been ignored. And because Hari could not be dismissed as a poor person of darker skin — which is how Hong Kong views people of colour — but a high-flying professional expatriate and exactly the kind of person Hong Kong covets, except they are almost invariably white, lent added weight to our story.
Of course, people still thought I was exaggerating. When I tried to explain Hari’s experience to my white friends, I could see their disbelief. It helped me to understand just a little of what Hari must have gone through.
As the voices mounted, the government felt obliged to enjoin the debate. An official wrote to the press denying legislation was needed, arguing that “racial discrimination is not a significant problem here”; in effect he defined racism as what happened to the Chinese in white societies (implying it could not be happening in Hong Kong).
He pointed out that Hong Kong did not have parties of the far right nor did racial violence scar public life, both of which were true. There is, however, widespread racial violence in Hong Kong: it takes place in the privacy of the home and is meted out to foreign maids, primarily Filipinas and Indonesians.
Chinese racism is subtly different from white racism, reflecting the different culture of the Chinese. It is also pervasive and deeply rooted, going back hundreds if not thousands of years, to the Middle Kingdom and the belief in the innate superiority of Chinese civilisation.
Once back in Hong Kong I met up with Christine Loh and her colleagues from Hong Kong Against Racial Discrimination. It emerged they had been campaigning for legislation on and off for some years. Hardly surprisingly, they were demoralised. As Hari’s memorial meeting drew closer, most were very pessimistic. They anticipated about 20 people, 50 at the most — in the event 250 turned up, plus journalists and television cameras.
Person after person told their story of prejudice; before they had been silent. In the weeks and months that followed, the press was filled with stories of discrimination: the taboo had been broken, racism had been outed. The small band of able campaigners found new resolve. For me, it was unspeakably sad. Hari, Ravi and I had arrived in Hong Kong 2½ years earlier with such high hopes. As we prepared to leave, our dreams had turned into the ashes of a meeting in her memory.
Two weeks later, while Ravi and I were staying with Hari’s family in Kuala Lumpur, a reporter from the South China Morning Post called and told me it was running a front-page story saying the government was reconsidering its opposition to legislation.
There followed a long process of consultation with interested bodies, including the various foreign chambers of commerce. Overwhelmingly they came out in favour of legislation.
In October 2001, long after our return to Britain, I attended the World Economic Forum east Asia conference in Hong Kong. One evening there was a banquet at which the guest speaker was Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s chief executive, who was on record as being opposed to legislation. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to put him on the spot and I asked him the first question.
In reply he was non-committal, which was at least an advance on his previous opposition. Moreover, the problem of racism in Hong Kong — its failure to provide any legal protection for ethnic minorities — was drawn to the attention of an influential gathering of business, political and media figures.
Over the next year or so I kept hearing that legislation was imminent. Then in March this year the legislative council unanimously voted in favour of a resolution urging the government to introduce legislation. Finally, last month the government announced its intention to introduce legislation. It is a huge breakthrough.
During yet another interview, a reporter asked me if I regarded it as a fitting memorial to my wife.
“Of course not,” I replied. “Hari lost her life, Ravi was deprived of his mother and my life has been destroyed. Alongside that, legislation means nothing. But, of course, if it helps people of darker skin to be accepted in Hong Kong then it is a very good thing.”
In the end mere legislation, however important, cannot right a terrible injustice. In the face of a senseless death, I cannot rest until I find justice for Hari. That is why I am suing the Ruttonjee hospital for negligence.