An interview with journalist and author Hsiao-Hung Pai

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Hsiao-Hung Pai is an investigative journalist and author of books such as Chinese Whispers: Hidden Army of Labour and Invisible, an undercover exposé of the migrant sex industry in the UK.

contributor to The Guardian newspaper as well as Chinese media outlets, Hsiao-Hung talks about her work, issues regarding labour, immigration and her coverage on the Chinatown “fishing raids” protests in this interview for Nee Hao Magazine 

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You have dedicated much of your time investigating the undocumented stories of Chinese migrants to Britain. What pushed you to write Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour, and what challenges did you face when going undercover?

One of the first things that got me writing about Chinese migrants in Britain was the social response to the two tragedies involving them. The first was the Dover tragedy, where 58 Chinese were suffocated to death at the back of a lorry coming into Britain. The second was the Morecambe Bay disaster, where 23 Chinese migrants drowned while picking cockles in Lancashire. People were shocked, of course, but generally, mainstream British society and media displayed misconception about these migrants’ backgrounds and their work-seeking journeys. Social prejudices about ethnic minority communities were amplified through the media, shaping and reinforcing the view that the causes of these tragedies were simply the human smuggling trade and the criminal organisations that enabled border crossing. Even a large part of the Chinese communities in Britain were silent, and sadly, displayed an attitude of indifference based on class distinction and elitism.

I worked undercover as part of my research to portray the working life of Chinese migrant workers. I worked as a meat processor, a lettuce picker, a book factory worker, a restaurant waitress, and a brothel housekeeper. One of the main challenges for me was to remain reasonably detached – I had found it difficult not to internalise my experience during undercover. As I became a participant (and no longer just an observer), I established genuine friendships with people and was much affected by what I saw and experienced. At times, this emotional attachment began to depress me during undercover work. This was something I didn’t expect and had learned a lot from.

From your experiences living the UK, what are your thoughts on the relationship between national identity and migration among migrant communities?

I’ve had experienced a lot of that…The older generation of Chinese immigrants, for instance, have a different relationship with their home country than the new generation of Chinese migrants. For the latter, national identities seem to shift and evolve much more – I think mainly to do with their class position as workers in their own communities in a host country. The new migrants’ national identities and sentiments can often be challenged when faced with economic exploitation by their “compatriots”, i.e. the older generation of immigrants who are their employers.

Being shortlisted for the Orwell Book Prize 2009 and winning the Bread and Roses Award 2013 must have been highlights in your career. What are your thoughts on being recognised for your writing, and what work are you most proud of? 

As an ethnic minority writer, recognition is probably more important because it’s doubly hard (even if you have degrees and work hard!) to be recognised. When my work is recognised, I feel that the issues I’m writing about have been recognised. Fundamentally you want to feel that what you do can make a difference. I hope that my work has made a difference, even it is simply making people more aware of issues.

Was it challenging moving into writing fiction? Can you tell us more about Hidden Army of Labour. Did your experiences in investigative journalism assist you in developing the work? 

A Hidden Army of Labour is a Chinese-language fiction, based on my research in mainly Chinese Whispers and Invisible. The reason to fictionalise it is purely practical: it gives more scope and flexibility to the writing and frees me of the legal responsibilities that I always have to worry about when writing non-fiction. It also allows me to construct a history of Chinese migration into the UK since 2000 and present it as personal stories and make it accessible to readers. Some of the research for this book comes from undercover work.

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A picture of Hsiao-Hung on an undercover job

What are your thoughts on the Royal Charter on press regulation? 

Obviously the press need to be regulated so that basic ethics and rules will be set in place. But I feel that the Royal Charter will be likely to allow those in power to encroach on press freedom which is central to a democracy. It will most likely limit the ability of the press to expose wrongdoing.

What author or work has had the most influence on your career and/or writing style? 

I like particularly the work of German undercover reporter Gunter Walraff and John Berger’s work on migration, titled A Seventh Man. I like the clear and concise way of writing by both authors.

What do you think needs to be done about working conditions for immigrant labourers? Can you comment on your perspective on British attitudes and/or awareness to immigration? 

My personal view is that undocumented Chinese migrant workers should be legalised and given the opportunity to live and work in the open. They have contributed a great deal to the wealth of this country, and they should be granted the status that will give them the basic rights. Mainstream British attitudes to immigration need to change, or it will continue to lead to the growth of the far right (this is the subject of my new book that I’m working on now).

How does the experience shifting in between languages and cultures (Chinese and English) affect your perspective and processes as a journalist and writer?

The experience helps to enrich my perspective…The ability to travel between languages and cultures enables me to cross boundaries and think more freely.

Your coverage of the Chinatown protests in light of the immigration “fishing” raids exposed the prejudice that Chinese workers face. Britain is making attempts to draw in rich, influential Chinese investors, but much less can be said for its efforts to integrate the local British Chinese community. Can you comment further?

There’s a lot of hypocrisy when you look at how the government is trying to pull in Chinese capital while keeping out Chinese labour. In the forthcoming few years we will be seeing a huge amount of Chinese investment coming into Britain. The plan for the Chinese business park in Royal Docks in east London (near where I live) has already been announced and that will become the centre of Chinese investment in Europe. Capital is allowed to enter freely, but labour isn’t. The survival of the British Chinese communities depends on this labour. Instead of opening borders to Chinese workers and making this labour available to the communities here, the government is putting an end to it – the intensifying immigration raids have already sent many home and making life hell for the workers still living here. Surely this is not the way to build “social cohesion” and good “race relations”?!

Do you have any advice for young local British Chinese looking to pursue a career in writing or journalism?

I’m not senior enough to give advice to other journalists. But from my experience as an ethnic minority journalist, I’d say that a young British Chinese journalist can turn “disadvantages” into “advantages” – as ethnic minority journalists, we are in a position to make good use of our cultural and linguistic capabilities. Instead of “fitting in”, one of the ways to overcome prejudices and barriers when trying to build a career in journalism is to focus and write about things that we’re truly passionate about. Only passion can last us through difficulties… Then we will find our own space and hopefully audience.

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