exposing the dark side of adoption
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Tam Nga-yin: Adoptions Snared in Bitter Tug of War


Adoptions Snared in Bitter Tug of War

Asia: A Hong Kong family struggled for nearly 15 years to win legal residency for their daughter, but many aren't even that fortunate.


HONG KONG — When Man Yuet-kwai first held the month-old baby in her arms in a desolate farm hut, she wasn't thinking of high policy or Hong Kong's relationship with the Chinese motherland.

All she knew was, she had at last found a child to adopt.

Her case was to set off a bureaucratic battle that would rage for 14 years, reach Hong Kong's highest court, and touch off a groundswell of public emotion that overrode the letter of the law to produce a happy ending for one family.

It would also reveal some of the limits to Hong Kong's absorption into the Chinese mainstream nearly five years after the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty.

But none of that mattered to Man and her husband, Tam Ching-luk, as they made the 100-mile journey by train, bus and pedicab to the village of Qingwen in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

They had heard from a friend that a baby was available for adoption from a poor farming family. When the couple stood in the hut on a chilly December day in 1986, and Man held the squalling baby in her arms, the child instantly calmed down, stuck out her tongue and smiled at Man. The couple knew they had found what they wanted.

"If you don't take her, we'll throw her away," the mother said when Man asked for time to start the necessary adoption procedures. "She's a nuisance. She cries whenever it's dark. She has to stay in the sun. Our family doesn't like her."

She. Her. A girl. In a country overflowing with people, there are children in abundance available for adoption, especially female ones. Still, the biological parents were happy their child had found a home.

The next stop was the justice bureau in Heshan county, where Man and Tam were assured they would have no problem adopting the child. They decided to name her Nga-yin, which means "natural elegance."

Then they returned to Hong Kong to do the paperwork. Two months later, they came back to China and the girl's parents officially gave her up. Man offered them a gift of money, sealed in a customary red packet. They turned it down.

"There's no need," was the reply. "It's already great that you can raise her for us."

So far, so good. But the nightmare was about to begin.

Man and Tam have been married for more than 30 years. She is 47, he is 23 years her senior. Though she smiles often and her youthful voice lilts with optimism, the fine lines across her face betray the fatigue of her struggle.

Tam is a taciturn man who speaks with a slight slur due to a stroke. Born in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, he fled to Hong Kong half a century ago as China was falling to communist rule. He worked at factories making silk flowers and built advertising signboards, and retired seven years ago.

Back in 1987, when the couple adopted the baby, Hong Kong was still British, and tight border controls were in place. They could not bring Nga-yin into the colony. So they did the next best thing: They moved her into a tiny apartment in Shenzhen, the nearest Chinese city to Hong Kong, and hired a mainland woman to look after her. They would visit their child on weekends.

A mainland justice official told them Nga-yin could move to Hong Kong in a year or two. But two years passed and they heard nothing.

The visits came to an abrupt end when Nga-yin was 3, old enough to speak, and begged her mother not to leave.

"All moms pick up their children after school," she wailed. "Why am I the only one left out?"

Man phoned her husband in Hong Kong. Stay, he said. She needs you. It was a tough decision. Man had a small garment factory in Hong Kong. She sold it and moved in with her daughter in Shenzhen.

Six years passed. Nga-yin was 9 now, a bright student, musically gifted. She played electronic piano and a lute-like Chinese instrument called the pipa. But she was caught in a loop of red tape. Chinese officials said the problem was in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong said it was in China. Man considered smuggling Nga-yin to Hong Kong. She even lined up two fake Venezuelan passports. But she was too afraid to use them.

Finally, a visa came through. But it was good for only three months. Once it expired, new problems arose. As an illegal resident, Nga-yin couldn't attend school. So Man hired private tutors. Meanwhile she continued to travel to China, seeking a solution.

One night she came home to discover that her husband had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on the right side, unable to move or speak. The family moved in with Tam's brother and rented out their own flat. Man would spend the day nursing her husband and rearing their daughter.

At night, when everyone else was asleep, she would write letters by the dim light of a lamp to the then-British governor, Chris Patten, to the immigration director, legislators, Chinese officials. She would deliver the letters to their offices personally, not trusting the mail. She pleaded for a humanitarian gesture, but all she got was a six-month extension of Nga-yin's visa.

So 1997 arrived. Hong Kong was about to return to Chinese rule, and Nga-yin was turning 11. Tam slowly recovered from his stroke, but could not work. The family lived on savings until Man got hired as a kindergarten caretaker.

The best news for Nga-yin was that she got permission to attend school. She did so well that she skipped a grade.

'One Country, Two Systems'

China took over Hong Kong, but the border remained in place, and with it the tight immigration laws. Neither the communist government in Beijing nor Hong Kong's semiautonomous administration wanted to see the wealthy city impoverished by a tidal wave of job-seekers.

It is called "one country, two systems," whereby China is the sovereign but Hong Kong is run separately by its own administration. That means even children adopted by Hong Kong parents, or the children of mainland parents who move to Hong Kong, have to wait in the immigration line, often for years.

In 1998, the Tams went to court and won. But the government got the ruling reversed on appeal. Eventually, the case reached the top--Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal.

As the five red-robed justices filed into the court's chamber on an overcast Friday last July to give a final verdict, Man was nearly sick with anxiety. So was 14-year-old Nga-yin.

Hong Kong has kept its English common-law system, so Chief Justice Andrew Li delivered the ruling in English. The Tams don't speak English, and had to wait for their lawyers to give them the news. It wasn't good.

Man emerged from the courthouse wailing hysterically to a throng of reporters and cameras.

"The Hong Kong government has cheated me," she yelled. "If they try to separate me from my daughter, I won't let them."

The family drama struck a chord. The story dominated TV screens and front pages. Petitions went out, including one from the school Nga-yin had attended, signed by the principal and hundreds of classmates. The news coverage continued. The government said it would reconsider the case on humanitarian grounds.

And in October, a month short of her 15th birthday, Nga-yin's residency permit came through. But more than 20 other families in similar circumstances have not won a reprieve, and in recent days a court ruling has dealt another setback to almost 5,000 mainland migrants seeking permanent residency here, ruling that they have no right to stay.

Government's Power Cause for Concern

One mother, May Mak, adopted her 5-year-old daughter, Melody, from an orphanage in Heshan when she was less than a month old, and is terrified that the girl may be expelled.

"It's so unfair. Adopted children are no different from one's natural children," Mak said.

Some are disturbed that the government has the power to make exceptions to its own rules.

"It's very troubling," said political analyst Michael DeGolyer of Baptist University in Hong Kong. "I don't like discretionary powers in the hand of unelected bureaucrats. If you're going to have fairness and equity, you have to have rules that apply to all."

The unwanted farmer's daughter is a lively teenager now, with a computer in her room, stuffed toys and cheerful, flowery curtains. And her parents feel the struggle has been worth it.

"Whenever my daughter smiles at me, I think she's worth all the pain and hardship," says Man. "She's brought us so much laughter and happiness."

2002 Jan 27