on 5 May 2008
This book is something very special for me. I am a UK resident of Chinese origin. Those people and their stories in Pai's book reminded me of my friends from that 'status-less' part of the world in UK, my hairdressers, porters at Chinese grocery stores I've visited etc. They give their blood to this country's economy every day. They've been treated hostily in return. I've heard so many times that my local (UK) friends and colleagues complainting about these people wasting NHS money. Do you have any idea that out of the 170k to 200k Chinese illeagal immigrants probably less than 0.01% of them would ever dare to come into light and expose themselves in the NHS system in fear of deportation. (I know this for a fact because I work as a freelance interpreter in the public sector.) Majority of them are forced to be invisible. They work commonly around 12 hours a day and 6 to 7 days a week with no holiday pays. My friend Mrs Zou's husband was not even allowed to take a day off when she was delivering a baby. They actually have work permit but UK government's plicy about work permit means they are equally open to be exploited by their employer. (The reasons are explained very clearly in Pai's extrodinary book.)
The common view about human rights in China has always been that when the American's talk about human rights they are using it against China but when the Europeans (especially the British) talk about human rights with China they mean it. But I am a bit disillusioned now. What I see here is that we have double standands. We only respect the basic human rights if the people in question have proper documents.
Why does it take 5 or even 10 years to consider someone's asylum seeking case? Is the government conveniently slowing down the process to ensure Britain having a steady pool of cheap labour whose lives are cheaper than ours and whose rights can be ignored. The thought of this is frightening!
If you have ever bought a pack of salad at supermarket then you owe these people to read this book. If you care about justice and lives of others you need to read this book. You will get angry about what you are about to discover and you might even want to do something. You definitely will from now on look at these odd and peasant-behaved people on the street in the shops with different eyes.
A big thank you to the author Hsiao-Hung Pai.
on 15 January 2009
I know a great restaurant in Chinatown that does great squid with chilli and salt, the sort of place you can drop in to before a movie in town; the meal will cost less than the movie. Thinking about this place again after reading this book, i was forced to confront how modern life manages to be so cheap. Someone is paying and it isn't me, it's the waiter, the cook or the porter.
This book is timely antidote to the depressing hysteria over illegal immigrantion and thoughtfully humanises the victims of our demand for ever cheaper goods and services and the Westminster consensus on the need for an ever more 'flexible' labour force. The moving life stories and experiences Hsiao-Hung Pai retells for us of illegal chinese migrant workers, illuminate some the dark recesses of British life: from the nightmarish salad picking in Sussex to a terrifying trip to the seaside in Morcambe Bay in search of cockles. The people are revealed with warmth but without mawkishness or sentimentality, the villains and heroes are not always predictable and no one escapes complicity as these people have become an important but shamefully ignored part of our modern economy. The author also brings us personal accounts of the real costs of the huge social upheaval and human catastrophe that underpins the Chinese economic miracle.
This is a great piece of investigative research and a good read.
on 13 November 2008
An eye-opener. What kind of country do we live in- a shiny one of shopkeeps and suits and bureaucrats- a capitalist success that somehow runs without much in the way of labour? Or a country whose very bedrock is exploitation, that we all take advantage of?
I had previously thought that such exploitation was confined to western companies- our Nestles and Mars bars etc- going abroad for cheap slave labour- which is of course an abomination. Before reading this book I hadn't given a thought to the exploitative work that goes on just out of eyesight- in kitchens and industrial estates we drive past to get to our office jobs. It seems staggering after reading this- did I ever really believe that our food/clothes/electronics/*everything* just came from nowhere? I can't help but look at the country and New Labour differently- and I also can't help but feel that if there was a God, we'd have been Great Flooded by now.
Fantastically effective. I'd recommend to anyone, this isn't a preaching to the choir book for Marxists. It's for everyone- should be required reading in school! All you wanting legitimate reasons to hate New Labour- right here (not that the Tories or the Libs are at all different)!
on 30 April 2008
In 2004, John Pilger edited a book of articles by investigative journalists Gellhorn, Fisk, Hersh and Foot, written over recent decades. Pilger's underlying point is that there are very few people determined to report the world according to facts rather than shoring up the mendacity of the status quo. Instead, most of our news is written and presented as episodic entertainment ensuring confusion and support for those who are determined to control our lives.
Penguin Books has just published `Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour' a book by Hsiao-Hung Pai, and now we all can become aware of another writer determined to expose what passes for civilisation in our voracious people-consuming world.
Wars certainly define our time, but the vast movement of people from rural areas of the world to towns and cities is also profound. According to the United Nations, for the first time in all history, there are now more people in the world living in towns than in the countryside. Why has this happened and who are the people migrating in this epoch?
In Britain, one of the world's economic heartlands, Pai relentlessly tracks down those responsible for and vividly writes about a world occupied by victims of a vicious system. It is a system that requires the degradation, often the death, of people to further enrich that extraordinarily narrow slice of wealthy humanity.
Pai exposes a decaying economic system that requires people to leave familiar homes and villages, and be shunted, at great personal expense, thousands of kilometers to foreign Britain. These undocumented workers never see the statutory minimum wage. In fact, their super-exploitation is nurtured by the very laws that many outside the agency system of supplying labour think are just and protective. Many migrant people expect the stereotypical land of opportunity, but they quickly see for themselves the lies perpetrated to ensure money is accumulated, not for them, but for all those around them who prosper because of their devastating exploitation.
Hsiao-Hung Pai is certainly among that small band of journalists who say: no further will I go down the same road of all those angst-ridden journalists who wearily acquiesce, who willfully obey all that's required of them to sustain the status quo. Hsiao-Hung Pai comes from the other side, from a different and laudable tradition.
on 28 June 2009
This seems to be a well researched and very human book on the plight of Chinese illegal immigrants in Britain (predominantly England). The author is a journalist who is a legal immigrant to the UK but whose background allowed her to go undercover for short periods of time into the dark world of the undocumented worker.
She focuses on a few individuals in different parts of Britain and in different work areas - catering, agriculture, factory work, sex trade, domestic work, street selling of DVDs. This allows you to relate and have some empathy for different people rather than it being anonymous statistics. There is also information about some of the people's lives in China and what drove them to the UK and what forces them to stay - often fear, lack of choice and huge debts to the "snakeheads" who brought them here in the first place. Tha author seems to try and give opportunity to the organisations benefitting from this cheap, disposible labour to defend themselves.
As a native Brit I am continually horrifed by the alarming way politically and media mileage is made from immigration issues and the way the racist fires are stoked. Having lived in countries where migration is seen as the main option to build a reasonable life and yet well aware of the difficulties that will be faced so far from home in a foreign culture (even if you are legally there) I hate the way immigration is treated in mainstream UK culture. Perhaps therefore I did not find this book as shocking as I could have done.
What struck me about the author was she seemed very fair minded about where she saw the responsibility for the dreadful situation. The migrants were willing to take huge risks to come to the UK because they were fooled into what they thought it would be like and their situation in China was already so bad and they saw no way of it improving. Hsiao-hung Pai documents some of the terrible situations in China. There are the Chinese who make profits from their own - either through gangs keeping people in order and charging fees to get jobs which they only keep for sort periods before they have to pay another introduction fee, the snakeheads, the gangmasters, the established, legal Chinese community who abuse the undocumented workers. Then there are the companies (and big famous companies) who want to keep prices down so turn a blind eye at how the work gets done and the Chinese and other workers who work outside of necesary health and safety or basic working conditions because profits are what matters. The politicians who gain popularity from the hard on illegal immigrants stance even when the repercussions of that have not been discussed or thought through - what happens when someone is undocumented and so their "home" country refuses to accept them back. Finally of course the average person in the street who has been led to believe immigrants are the problem and even if they don't we want the low prices that the illegals let us pay for things.
I was impressed with how clearly Hsiao-hung Pai was willing to show the abuse and lack of support that comes from the established Chinese community in the UK.
I finished the book feeling somewhat confused mainly because I could see how Hsiao-hung Pai clearly explained the factors contributing to the distressing situation of the undocumented worker, but I couldn't see what was being proposed as a workable solution to avoid this situation, which was frustrating. I do not think that was a fault of the book, it is a complex situation and it would have been naive to be proposing some changes that would alter it.
I believe the UK should be more pro-immigration and more fair in investigating those who knowingly benefit from the abuse of labour. However ultimately the solution seemed to be an improvement in the situation in China and people being willing to speak openly about how illegal immigration is not the dream they hope for, but understandably illegals don't want their families to worry so do not tell the truth.
Hsiao-hung Pai has a chapter towards the end of the book where she updates on the situation of some of the main characters. One has returned to China, a couple are hoping to do so in the next couple of years, but the majority seem to have accepted life and tried to make things work for them. I couldn't help wondering if you asked all these people if they had known what would face them in coming illegally to the UK would they have still come. Amazingly I suspected perhaps 50% would still say yes.
Most of the immigrants were trying to support children and families back in China and I couldn't help wondering if the material gain of their mother or father being away really outweighed the disadvantages of their being away. This was perhaps made clear in the observation that the most prized possession of most undocumented workers was their mobile phone as they could communicate with home.
on 17 May 2008
"Chinese Whispers" broadens your horizons: not by whisking you off to some far flung place but by opening your eyes to Britain. It exposes the terror our society inflicts on those people who desperately turn to us for a better life. It tells a story of Britain through the eyes of "illegal" workers and Hsiao-Hung Pai, an ex-Guardian reporter.
Hsiao-Hung, who has been classed as equal enough to live in Britain legally, has documented the lives of those immigrants we class as sub-human, sub-Britain and therefore "illegal". The resulting stories show the injustice, near slavery, extreme poverty and cruelty that would be classed as human rights violations worthy of war if they happened anywhere but Britain.
Hsiao-Hung worked undercover in massage parlours, factories and on farms as an "illegal" worker. She recorded the exploitation and abuse that followed. An "illegal" who she lived with in Norfolk said: "The first few nights I was just crying in bed. Working like a machine, getting bullied by the agency people, the factory supervisors, coming home every day just to sleep and get ready for the next day's work... It's like being a robot. I ask myself, what will all this bring?"
It sounds like the maltreatment of a time long gone in Europe or the experiences of a worker in a less "developed" country than today's left-wing Britain. In fact, this is the story of a man who's sought refuge in our rich, "civilised" country, paid a heavy penalty to get here, and works to support our economy suffering back-breaking pain and finally gets nothing from us Brits except exploitation.
The book shows the life, dignity and resilience of the people who we classify using the dehumanising term: "illegal" and it forces us to remember that the "illegals" are illegal second and human first.
It is a relief and a pleasure to read a book that refuses to bow to the majority rule that economic considerations take precedence. Instead the author treats humans as primary and economics as secondary.
This way of working fosters a depth of feeling and understanding that news reporting aims to cut out of each of us.
on 4 May 2008
Well researched and deeply moving.
I hope some change in government legislation can become of this.
My hat goes off to the Hsiao-Hung Pai for not only the undercover work but the voice she has given these people who live beneath our noses and are in so much need. We are listening...
on 9 February 2016
Loved reading this book, which was recommend to me. Its the story of a Chinese girl under cover in England, who uncovers some of the bid super market chains who are aware of Chinese immigrants who are working in the large distribution wharehouse but turn blond eye to the growing problem, it about exploitation. The account of the cockel pickers is part of this narrative. A worthy read.
on 14 July 2010
...but the content was truly insightful. The writer does an excellent job of providing a window into this parallel world that exists in our own backyards. Not only is this a good piece of journalism about the illegal labour trade, but is also a revealing piece on the desperation, cruelty, kindness and sorrow that exists within our world.
on 8 April 2016
These stories behind your Smartphone, Chinese takeaway or strawberries are really moving, and very important fodder for thought. Migration (both legal and illegal is going to be a growing phenomenon), and I fear the problems described here are going to worsen.