Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Chinese expoiting Chinese

I don't know how you felt when you read about the conviction and jailing of the Chinese gangmaster found responsible for the death of his fellow Chinese cockle-pickers at Morecambe Bay.

I do not understand how an immigrant can exploit fellow immigrants the way that this callous young man did.

My father also emigrated from south China to Singapore many years ago. Famine and poverty where he lived drove him to take that long arduous and dangerous journey to Singapore. I think his elder sister had already arrived in Singapore then.

He was young and strong then and worked in all kinds of jobs so long as they paid for his sustenance and a little bit more which he remitted back to his family still left in China. This is the pattern of most economic migrants.

There was, and is, no welfare system in place in Singapore and there were no handouts. But he did have a supportive network of 'family' from the same vicinity of his origin.

There were what is known as tongxianghui (village associations) and other huiguan (associations based on various common traits like dialect groups, occupation, etc). My father was particularly active in the Sai Chiew tongxianghui and the Poh Fook huiguan, which according to my mother was an association for stage performers.

Mother could not understand how father got involved with Poh Fook as he neither sang Chinese opera nor acted. But what I remember of the annual Poh Fook dinners was Cantonese opera. Lots and lots of it. Father was Chairman of this association for many years until just before he died.

My point is, these mutual-help organizations functioned as a support network for new immigrants, helping them to settle in, sometimes providing temporary accommodation for new arrivals, references for job-seekers and very importantly, a place of worship for these displaced migrants.

In their old age these associations continued to play an important part for migrants in providing a space for them to chat, to play mahjong, to raise funds together, and to support one another even in funeral arrangements.

In fact part of the duty of membership is to pay subscription fees to help defray funeral costs of fellow members. They are also obliged to attend funeral wakes as the deceased must be given good 'face' by having lots and lots of people showing up at the wakes.

So these huiguan took care of migrants until they die, literally.

Modern immigration is a totally different story. Instead of providing help to fellow countrymen, I've seen migrants exploiting migrants. First-hand.

In Amsterdam it was not uncommon to have new (African) migrants arrive at our hostel after being cheated of all their life-savings almost as soon as they arrived at Centraal Station.

'Hey, brother,' they are greeted with friendly smile and handshake, 'Let me help you to find accommodation.'

And as this 'brother' was speaking his own mother tongue, the new migrant is immediately put at ease. He soon parts with all his money and where is 'brother'? 'Brother' disappears.

Stranded, these migrants come to us for help. They normally try to stay on the straight and narrow for as long as they can. For most it is easiest to turn to crime, working illegally, etc. And soon, they are the ones who exploit the new arrivals. If ever there was a vicious circle, this was it.

The saddest thing is every time a migrant seems to make some progress, someone would come along to con them out of what he has made. A chap at church paid advance rent to a 'landlady' in good faith, and was then told by the 'landlord' he was not having another man in the house. But he could not get his money back.

He loaned his expensive bike to a friend and it was quickly 'stolen'. Poor chap could not even claim on the insurance as the insurance people needed a police report and this chap was not going any where near a police station.

So you see, because of their questionable status in the country, they live in constant fear and threat of being deported and exploited. What sort of life is that?

What about MY fellow Chinese in the UK?

I feel sad every time I walk past them at the town centre and they are selling pirated DVDs. Sometimes I make eye contact with them, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I hear a loud shout from the guy who keeps a watch out for the police and I see these vendors calmly pack up their wares and walk away as calmly as possible on a designated route to somewhere.

They do not bunch up or walk together. They simply walk calmly away.

On one occasion I saw a couple of them being rounded up by uniformed police. I approached to offer my help to the police (just in case they needed an interpreter) but was told that my help was not required.

I feel sad. I know that behind this team of a dozen vendors selling DVDs in the freezing cold is a gangmaster or snakehead who controls every aspect of their lives. A gangmaster who is living a life of luxury while these people here slave for him. But what can I do?

What can I do to help? Is it better for me to work with the police? What sort of 'strong-arm support' have their gangmasters got access to? Dare I approach any of these vendors individually to offer help? Of what kind?

I quote from a book review I wrote for an academic journal:

"The latter is a fascinating exposé of how illegal migrants could make their exit and/or entry legal through some quite ingenious schemes, and of an established underground remittance network for migrants who do not wish to engage with regular banks. What would politicians make of the statement that ‘ordinary people in the [Fujian] countryside all support and protect snakeheads’ (p 252)?"

To the non-Chinese, I am of the same stock as the DVD-sellers. In reality we cannot be more different. They even speak a different language from me, although they would understand the same Mandarin that I learned at school.

While preparing for my PhD exam (viva) years ago I sat at my university refectory and a group of Chinese girls started talking (in Mandarin) about my infant son whom I was feeding. I waited to see what they would say to me. When they spoke, it was English they used.

I was curious. Why did they not speak Mandarin to me, I asked in Mandarin.

They replied, in English, 'O, we thought you were a different kind of Chinese.'

There are 'different kinds of Chinese'. There are the exploiters and the exploited and many others besides who do not know how to help change this situation.

Does anyone have any idea/suggestion?

Links to news reports on cockle-pickers:

Gangmaster guilty of 21 cockle picker deaths

Profile: cocklers gangmaster

Boss's Lavish Lifestyle as workers lived in squalor

Back to Organic-Ally.

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