|Image Credit: Borders|
Having spent a few years in China and interacted with many of today's young Chinese, I know that one overarching ambition for many of them is to make money. Yes, who wouldn't want to? But in the world's fastest growing economy, despite the grand GDP figures that might make Greece or Italy hang its head in shame, there is a virulent undercurrent of resentment. The rich are getting richer, but the poor are getting poorer. Jobs are scarce - and competition is fierce. To many of them, the U.S. or the U.K or anywhere else represents the ultimate materialistic dream. Surely, one thinks, a few years of working there, bringing in the pounds or dollars, might be worth 40 years of slaving here? That's what draws many an illegal immigrant to these countries. And it is this statusless community which Hsiao-Hung Pai investigates. Chinese Whispers is investigative journalism at its very best. Think about the waiter who serves you in your favorite Chinatown restaurant, Pai asks. Have you ever thought of them? Many of them are without working status in that country; many of them are deeply in debt, having paid hundreds of thousands of RMB to pay their way to these promised land. And now they are trapped. The government wants nothing to do with them. And at home, they have mouths to feed. It's this stark uneasy world that Hsiao-Hung Pai presents.
This is not an easy read. I learned how Chinese migrants are systematically exploited, forced to work long hours for wages less than the prescribed minimum wage. Many of them suffer from a system that keeps them faceless. They have no access to medical care, and lead lives of unimaginable struggle with their only wish being to keep their families back in China happy. We all hear stories of sweatshops and inhuman working conditions regularly appearing in Western media - these sweatshops of course, are in China. What though about Britain's own secret underbelly? Who would think that a supposed First World country allows "massage parlors" to flourish? Who would think that it turns a blind eye to people who work in the freezing cold picking lettuces for less than 2 pounds an hour? I admire Hsiao-Hung Pai who many times went undercover to research this book. Chinese Whispers is a powerful read. It deserves to be read for really, we owe to these people. It's the very least we can do.
Verdict: A must read. Powerful and haunting.