Journey of a Thousand Li – by Claire Ling Chi Martin
I’ve managed to lose three families. I think Oscar Wilde would describe me as careless.
I lost my birth family when I was left on the doorstep of either 42 or 61 Berwick Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong a few days before Christmas 1960. My social report in my adoption records suggests the former and my Chinese birth certificate states the latter. I was found by the police and estimated to be about two days’ old. My birth certificate was signed by the Matron of Po Leung Kuk, a refuge and orphanage, and my name is registered as Lam Ling Chi (in Chinese, the surname is first). I was then possibly moved to another orphanage. The contradictory social report describes “a Protestant children’s home” which is vague in the extreme and as useful as a chocolate teapot to an adoptee desperately seeking answers.
Hong Kong was in a bit of a mess in the fifties and sixties. During the Japanese occupation, war time abuses, food shortages and unemployment led to much suffering, abandoned babies and even death from starvation. The population swelled again when thousands of destitute refugees fled to the tiny island after the Communists took control of mainland China in 1949. Many settled in Fanling, a small village 4 km from the border in the New Territories. Some found themselves unable to care for their children. According to reports in 1949 and 1950, between ten and fifteen thousand babies per year were abandoned in Hong Kong with 80% doomed to die.
This fascinating detail is nicked wholesale from the Fanling Babies’ Home website at http://www.fanlingbabies.com/ more of which later…
In the 1950s and 1960s International Social Services (ISS) joined forces with Barnardo’s and the National Children’s Home to arrange the first overseas adoptions ever to the UK. A hundred babies were flown over in batches to the UK, mostly at Christmas so that expats returning home for the festivities could be asked to look after us on the flight. No child protection rules in those days, no sir. Could you imagine being handed a mewling bundle with your boarding pass? The photo is of us lined up and ready to go to London Airport (now Heathrow) on Friday 20th December 1962. It was re-produced in the ISS Newletter for 1963 and, if anyone knows where it was taken or who the carers are, it may pin down which home I was in. Mmm, I feel a trip coming on to Children and Families Across Borders in Sarf London which is what ISS morphed into. By the way, I’m the one with the curly hair behaving like the Human Resources professional I was to become. Change Management was ever thus.
Our parents came to the airport to collect us. My father, Bo Chin, was ethnically Chinese, born in Cardiff in 1922. He met my mother, Doris Hall, at Shell’s Stanlow Oil Refinery in Ellesmere Port (just up the Mersey from Liverpool) and married in 1951. Now here’s the amazing thing: Dad was adopted too. His birth parents walked from central China, up through Harbin in the North (we assume), through Russia and right across Europe. Eventually they made it to the UK. They really wanted to get to America but failed their medicals. Dad was the 3rd child, well possibly 4th. There was a child born in Cologne but nobody knows anything about it – male, female, alive, dead – really, I need a metaphorical sheep dog to sniff out my increasing number of stray relatives. The point is, my adopted father’s parents couldn’t afford to keep all the kids so they exchanged Dad for a laundry in Liverpool. That’s how he acquired the name Chin when the rest of the family is called Yih. Chin (that’s all I know, folks) fell on hard times and disappeared. Dad was left with Chin’s common law wife (white English woman) who, in fairness, may have consented to marry if she’d been allowed to keep her British citizenship. Yep, unbelievably, if you married a foreigner in those days, tough titty.
Are you still with me? It’s getting complicated, isn’t it? This happens every time I meet someone new. Believe me, it’s easier to lie than relate all this. So Dad was dragged from laundry to laundry, city to city one step ahead of the creditors, possessions in a bucket, street urchin by day, child labourer by night. Truth to tell, his story’s a lot more interesting than mine really. If you’d ever met him, you’d never know. Urbane, educated (self-taught – school and urchinning didn’t meld too well), the type who bettered himself at night school, the English Speaking Union, Shell Industrial Concerts with the Hope Street Band (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to the uninitiated) and, latterly, sneaking into the rehearsals at the Royal Opera House in London. He found his family again during World War II. Intriguingly, though, he never knew his father. The story goes that Granddad Yih was a bit of a gambler, liked his billiards and had a stack of opium. He was tipped off about a police raid, fled to Holland and never returned. He had a whole new family there so not only do we have a stray child kicking around Cologne in 1910/11ish, we have a whole branch of Yihs lurking undiscovered in the Netherlands.
Mum was white and mixed marriages were very rare just after the war. If you married a foreigner, not only might you lose your citizenship, you were considered a bit of a slag. Consequently, nice girls didn’t. Dad’s family acquired their citizenship in the war. Dad had a letter from the Home Office declaring that he was joint Chinese and British (even though he’d never set foot outside the UK). Granddad Hall wasn’t having it and didn’t attend his daughter’s wedding. I grew up on the Wirral and one day, out playing with friends in Little Sutton village, some white kids approached me claiming to be cousins. My family was extremely tight lipped about it and I never heard anything further. I’m losing count now.
Why does any of this matter anyway? I’m married and have my own family. My daughter is my only blood relative. But do you know what, I’m curious. Not knowing irks me. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) did a survey on the 100 of us who came to the UK and, as a result, many of us have re-united. I’ve now met the babies in that picture above. How cool is that? I’ve always been told, as have many of us, that it would be impossible to find our birth families if we’d been abandoned. Back in 2000, I nonchalantly Googled Fanling Babies’ Home to see what popped up. I discovered, to my horror, that the home my parents were told I was in had closed and the records had been destroyed. But I hooked up with the person running the website (based in San Francisco) who gave me good advice and, some years later, linked me in with another Hong Kong adoptee in the UK. She, in turn, organised UK reunions and had links to “sisters” around the world. Some of them have found relatives (which makes me envious). I met another adoptee recently who had done some digging herself and met the woman police officer who took her to the orphanage from the police station. She told me that families are reluctant to come forward because child abandonment is still against the law. I had a bracelet round my wrist with the name Lam Ling Chi on it. I always imagined that it was my real name. It’s much more likely that this was given to me by one of the orphanages.
The only way to find out anything is to back to Hong Kong. It’s a long haul both in geographical terms but also as a life journey. Still, as we Chinese say, “A journey of a thousand li [Chinese miles] begins with a single step.”
Claire Martin Intro
Claire was left to be found on a doorstep in Hong Kong a few days before Christmas 1960. She went into an orphanage and was adopted to the UK at the age of two together with just over a hundred other abandoned babies. Her mother was white and her father ethnically Chinese born in Cardiff. She grew up on the Wirral, went to school in Chester and went to study Mandarin Chinese at Durham University where she met her husband. She has a young daughter, resides in London and, as a freelance HR Director, advises senior executives in the mysterious art of change management and how to inspire their staff. After years of accepting that she could never find her birth family, she is at last embarking on a journey to discover what she can. Claire is writing a blog to share her search with adoptees around the world in what she hopes is an informative and entertaining way.