Sharon Hom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am


IMMIGRANT STORY My mother, brother and I lived in a small room in Tai Hang. The wall didn't quite reach the ceiling, so when people went up the stairs you could see them. We lived like that until [my father] sent for us. He had gone to the United States when I was a baby and I was five when we left Hong Kong, in 1956. We went with nothing. We were working class. It was a different generation. When we arrived, my father said of me, 'Oh, she's so dark' - which in Cantonese is equivalent to ugly. My mother says I angrily replied: 'So this is my father, he's so short.' And the relationship went downhill from there for many years. I was a disappointment to him from the beginning. But we have a very good relationship now. We were the 50s generation, it was very hard for us. I didn't speak any English and I remember how scary the foreigners looked. We lived in the back of a Chinese laundry on the main street of a small town, Babylon, in Long Island. We weren't allowed to play with other children. People would dump their dirty laundry, my mum would sort it and send it for washing. She did some of the ironing. I don't think I appreciated this as a child. I feel very badly now about how hard it must have been for her. When the stores closed, the only thing left open was the movie theatre, hence my lifelong love of film. The manager of the cinema felt sorry for the kids who lived in the laundry and let us in for free. My dad worked in different restaurants and lived with his co-workers in a dormitory in New Jersey, somewhere far away, anyway. He would come home for one day a week. And then we had a Chinese takeout, the Chinese immigrant story.

BEING HUMAN I can clearly remember immigration staff raiding our takeout and checking our documents. It was rush hour, so a lot of customers were waiting for their food. They yelled at my father, basically humiliated and intimidated us. We were treated like animals, which is how a lot of immigrants are treated. This was one event that made me feel very strongly [about human rights]. I just felt it was wrong. My parents were scared. I was a young teenager and I was so angry. I kept saying to the immigration officers, 'Let me see your badge number, I want to see your badge number!' And I chased them out into the car park, still demanding to see their numbers.

GANGS OF NEW YORK My parents deserve a sitcom, The Homs at Home. They've stayed together and my father is very proud. He'll tell strangers at the next table, 'My wife! We've been together for 62 years.' He's a character, and she, true to form, is going, 'Shut up, you stupid man.' They're still together but they had it tough. He's a gambler and regularly goes to Vegas. I wanted to go to college but my father was very traditional. 'Why do you want to go to college? You stay here and look after your baby brother. Why don't you just learn to type?' Even now, I don't type that well. Then Sarah Lawrence [College in New York] gave me a full scholarship. I worked in Chinatown and I danced at night. It seems like a different lifetime now. The two companies I danced with [belonged to] a famous Taiwanese actress. It was all her choreography. But no one in New York can do modern dance without a day job. And my day job was so radically different, it was like whiplash. I worked with [Chinese] gang kids. It was gang warfare at that time. There were the Ghost Shadows fighting the Black Eagles. They controlled different streets in Chinatown. I worked mostly with the Black Eagles, usually with their mothers and their lawyers. I decided initially that I wanted to be a criminal lawyer, because the free lawyers assigned to the gangsters were so bad and didn't care. I helped bury some of these kids and, after a while, I couldn't do it anymore. I got into law school to study public interest law for three years and I hated most of it, being a woman and Asian.

LIVING WITH DIGNITY Between 1986 and 1988 I taught law in Beijing. [As a single mother] I took my young son, James. When I landed, I started to cry. I had never been to Beijing. It might have been jetlag, but something clicked when I landed. At the time, there was hope. There were demonstrations. I was teaching administrative law before it [even existed in China]. My students were involved in drafting the law. When I returned to the US, I watched horrified as the news of Tiananmen unfolded. I was absolutely shocked. Since 2001 I've worked with Human Rights in China. You can't just demand human rights - you have to be comprehensive and work on individual cases. During the past five years or so, we've developed through professional, rigorous research. Our work has been recognised at a very high level. What we're seeing very clearly now in China is the rollback of the rule of law, massive corruption and a lack of accountability. You can't separate economic reform from [human rights and the rule of law]. I remain hopeful because the business community internationally is starting to voice real concerns about the rule of law in China.

I was in Hong Kong recently to show a documentary made by the Tiananmen mothers. They interviewed mothers, fathers, wives of those killed and put this with archival footage of what happened on June 3 and 4, 1989. I was talk- ing to mainland students at the vigil in Victoria Park. They really want to know what happened and talk about it. Human dignity matters.