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Tuesday, May 24, 2016, 23:58

Refugees are an untapped source of creative energy

By Jon Lowe

Jon Lowe writes that Hong Kong’s tendency to marginalize refugees is a waste of human energy that could be rectified by nurturing their potential to contribute to society.

According to a new Amnesty International poll, China is the most warm-hearted country in the world when it comes to refugees. Nearly everybody in the country thinks more should be done to help those fleeing turmoil, with a staggering 46 percent saying they would be willing to welcome a refugee into their own homes. Hong Kong can hardly share the credit for this compassion with the mainland and Macao though, as it is a non-signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention — to say nothing of the belligerent streak of xenophobia displayed by some of the city’s “localists”. It is not my intention to argue the pros and cons of signing any UN treaty, but to suggest ways in which Hong Kong’s generally hard-line attitude toward refugees could be attenuated.

In a century in which famine, war and persecution are likely to keep increasing, it can seem natural, even prudent, for a society to retreat into atavistic self-interest. I shared this mindset until I had a change of heart which came, as often, not through argument but through art, in the form of a film titled The Man Without a Past by the singular Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismaeki. In it, a well-to-do provincial businessman travels to Helsinki, is violently mugged and suffers total amnesia. At this point I worried the film was about to portray a series of indignities for the poor man. But instead it takes a brighter turn when he is befriended and looked after by a community of refugees. While some cynics would no doubt label it an “exploitative” drama with a liberal agenda, to me it is a humanist masterpiece.

I try to put myself in the shoes of its protagonist, a man without an identity forced to live like an undocumented immigrant in his own country. How would such an experience play out in Hong Kong? Would I find, as in the film, that those with the least are often the most generous to others? This thought experiment has allowed me to stop thinking about refugees in terms of “a problem” but as people who have some problems. Hong Kong takes asylum seekers in under the UN Convention against Torture, to which it is a signatory. The success rate for asylum claimants is about 0.5 percent, with these fortunate few then handed to a third country (or the mainland) for resettlement. The other 99.5 percent are deported as fast as bureaucracy allows — though it can take some years. This all gives the impression handling asylum claims is an unpleasant chore. But viewed another way, refugees give us the opportunity to extend compassion, and should be seen as a kind of blessing.

In the film, many of the migrants living in their twilight world are compelled to engage in black market activities in order to survive. However, the story takes an interesting turn when the protagonist joins the Salvation Army, whose dowdy, hymn-spouting band he rapidly reorganizes into a rock and roll combo. Soon, the sexed-up Sally Army band is the focal point of the refugee community, earning concert fees as well as donations, with other asylum seekers able to create a little economy around it selling snacks, handicrafts and so on.

I think the idea of the Salvation Army band-turned-beat combo in the film is a reflection of reality, since religious groups are often the only ones offering succor to such people. But it is also a metaphor suggesting salvation may lie in giving people a community focus — especially one they can tailor themselves — and an outlet for their creativity. In my view, black market activity all too often becomes a focus of refugees’ lives not only because they are denied the right to work and must live on food stamps, but also because there is no other locus, or social club — especially for the many with little interest in churchgoing. Refugee community centers of a religious stripe do exist here, but not secular ones. With all the civic buildings and schools lying empty about the place, Hong Kong could surely spare a bit of space for a community center. The fruits of such an endeavor would undoubtedly be to the cultural enrichment of society, and may even fire up the spirit of internationalism that sadly has been dampened down of late amid the spate of “localist” activism.

This is an era in which the nation is drawing together with people from Africa and South Asia, among other regions, in an ambitious regional development plan, the Belt and Road Initiative. It seems rather short-sighted of Hong Kong not to attempt to tap the energy and potential of refugees from those regions right here now. While most of them are probably as poor as church mice, they are rich in cultural resources and talent. This may include everything from gastronomy to gardening, art to academia, music to millinery — we just don’t know because in Hong Kong they are, like the protagonist of the aforementioned film, men (and women) without a past.

It’s time we realized refugees are a treasure trove of cultural distinctions that could, with a little help, be brought to the fore for the duration of their stay — to the mutual benefit of all.

The author is a seasoned journalist who has worked in many places in the world.

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