Abandoned as babies and adopted by Western parents, the women searching for answers in Hong Kong

A tide of emotion swept over Claire Martin as she stood alone in the concrete stairwell of a bland residential block off a busy Kowloon intersection. Then, just as she did almost 60 years earlier, when she had been left there by her mother as a newborn, she burst into tears.

“Being on that staircase was an extraordinary moment,” she says. “I thought of my adoptive father. He always wanted to help me find my birth family but he couldn’t, and it would have been wonderful if he had been there with me.”

After a lifetime of wondering, Martin had finally found the place where she’d last felt her mother’s touch. The discovery that she had been left on the first-floor landing of a block of flats gave her a measure of comfort.

“Some babies were found in graveyards,” she says, “but my mother was expecting me to be found quickly.”

Claire Martin in the stairwell of a building in Kowloon’s Berwick Street, next to the one where she was left as an infant. Photo: Claire Martin / Red Door News

Martin considers herself one of the lucky ones, and with good reason. Hundreds of babies, most of them girls, were abandoned in Hong Kong as mothers, desperate and starving, fled across the border from China to escape the Great Famine that killed tens of millions of people between 1959 and 1961.

Some babies were abandoned out of sight, others were thrown to their deaths in Aberdeen Harbour. While the fortunate were rescued, many more spent their childhoods clinging to the thinly spread scraps of affection offered by Hong Kong children’s homes.

The luckiest were chosen for adoption and flown away to new lives with families in wealthy countries, transplanted into lives of privilege, and loved and cherished. The pain of their abandonment was forgotten and often left unspoken as they grew up in middle-class environments that would have been unrecognisable to their birth families caught in the deadliest famine in history.

Decades later came the internet, a new millennium, and the foundlings – by now Westernised, middle-aged women – began to reconnect with those with whom they once shared noisy, cot-filled dormitories in places such as the Fanling Babies Home and the Po Leung Kuk children’s home.

The women began holding reunions and exchanging information as they set out to find their birth parents, sharing what, until then, they believed to be their own unique experiences.

One Saturday evening in February, 62 foundlings, mostly from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States – all of them discovered in Hong Kong and piecing together the puzzles of their past – logged into a Zoom call that lasted three hours.

“It is a sisterhood,” says Debbie Cook, founder of the UK Hong Kong Adoptees Network. “We don’t have to explain to each other. Until we came together, we had never had the opportunity to talk about these things, or hear other people describing how it has been for them.

“If we do find any birth family at all it will be a bonus, but a lot of us are in our 60s and 70s now so the chances of finding birth parents are pretty slim. I’m reconciled to that now.”

Debbie Cook (right) in a South China Morning Post story at the time of her adoption. Photo: Debbie Cook / Red Door News

For Martin, now a human resources executive based in London, the journey back to that Kowloon stairwell, via a contented family life in Britain, involved early detours to Hong Kong, and frustrating cul-de-sacs as her adoptive father helped her try to trace her birth family.

“I always wanted to know my real background,” she says. “Because my adoptive father was Chinese and my [adoptive] mother was English, it was a bigger stigma to be [from a] mixed race [family] than it was to be adopted.

“I was unique compared to other [Chinese] adoptees, who went into white families and were not told they were adopted. It was meant with good intentions so that adopted children wouldn’t be treated differently from their other children, but it was a bit ridiculous. So, they went through a higher level of confusion than I did.”

Martin grew up in the Wirral, in northwest England, and went to a private school in Cheshire. Her father apart, she was the only person of colour in her community and school, at a time when race relations in Britain were rudimentary.

“When I was six, I went to sleep and prayed to God I would wake up white,” she recalls. “I was very disappointed when I woke up and I was still Chinese.”

Martin (front row, third from left) as a schoolgirl in Britain. Photo: Claire Martin / Red Door News

Struggling with her identity, and embarrassed at not being able to speak Chinese, Martin went to Durham University to study Mandarin. She first revisited Hong Kong as a 19-year-old, on her way to Taiwan as part of her degree course. Her father, who had been to visit his brother in Singapore, met her in Hong Kong, and together they tried to find her birthplace.

“Dad didn’t know that much,” she says. “He thought I had been left on the steps of a Methodist church on Waterloo Road. So we took pictures of all the Methodist churches we could find on Waterloo Road – and it’s a very long road.”

She searched the area again with her husband, on a visit to China and Hong Kong in 1997, but no luck. Once back home, however, she obtained her records and birth certificate from the British central registry in Horsham, and discovered she had, in fact, been found in a stair­well in Berwick Street, situated today between the Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei MTR stations.

She believes her mother must have been staying nearby, because “most of the time the babies were left, it happened at nighttime”, she says. “They couldn’t abandon children much further from where they lived because they were on foot. If it was the mother who left the baby, it was even closer because she had just given birth and couldn’t walk far.”

Martin visits the Po Leung Kuk orphanage where she was taken as a baby. Photo: Long Lost Family / Red Door News.

With a daughter of her own to raise and a career to pursue, Martin returned to her busy life in Britain, but as the foundling groups began to emerge, her thoughts increasingly turned back to Hong Kong.

She eventually contacted a British television show called Long Lost Family and returned to Hong Kong in 2019 to find not only the place where she had been left by her mother as a baby, but also to meet a shopkeeper’s son who, aged 10, had seen her as an abandoned baby on the steps.

In the programme, produced by Wall to Wall and broadcast on Britain’s ITV channel in February, just before Lunar New Year, Martin meets that boy, now a man of 70, and learns how he had heard her crying and ran down to see her before the police arrived to take her away.

“He told me there were thousands of babies left in Hong Kong but there was only ever one left on their property,” Martin recalls. “I’m convinced he is the single living person who saw me after I’d been left.”

A screen grab from TV show Long Lost Family shows Martin with the man who heard her crying in •a• stairwell as a baby. Photo : Long Lost Family / Red Door News

Despite making appeals through newspaper and radio interviews while she was in Hong Kong, Martin was unable to trace any members of her birth family. As part of the programme, however, she undertook DNA tests that traced a fourth cousin and other more distant relatives now living in Britain. On her return, she was taken by TV producers to meet them.

The groups set up by Cook and others encourage anyone who thinks they may be connected to the foundlings to undergo a DNA test. Martin’s results indicate her family is originally from Guangdong province, and she believes members of her birth family may still be living in Hong Kong.

Researchers for the Hong Kong Adoptees Network are continuing their investigations into Martin’s DNA as part of a broader, ongoing project to reconnect as many of the foundlings as possible with their birth families.

“They think my parents are first-generation Hong Kong migrants,” she says. “They came across the border and had children in Hong Kong and then they’ve had more children because that was very common.

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“While I was in Hong Kong, I met a woman who grew up in a family whose parents were refugees, and there were 10 of them living in a single room, which was the size of an average UK living room. She told me the men and boys slept outside on park benches. The women slept in the room. They cooked in the corridor and they all bathed in public facilities. All of them worked in factories.

“Anyone in Hong Kong who has parents or grand­parents who came across from China as a result of the Great Famine, and if they are interested in helping, the best way is to get their DNA registered with the Hong Kong Adoptees Network. I’m much likelier to find a closer family member that way.”

The enormity of her mother’s sacrifice really hit home when Martin became a mother herself. “One of the most poignant things for me was when my own daughter was born and she was two days old, in King’s College Hospital,” she says. “She was in the crook of my arm and I looked at her and I thought, ‘You’re the age I was when my mother had to leave me.’ What circumstances must she have been in to do that?”

Cook in the doorway of a building in Kowloon’s Pratas Street, where she was abandoned at 10 days old. Photo: Debbie Cook / Red Door News

As the Zoom conference in February demonstrated, creating a community of foundlings has had benefits far beyond simply attempting to trace parents and other family members.

“It has made a huge difference to us,” Martin says. “Right up to the year 2000, we simply didn’t know about each other. We were like yellow polka dots in a white sea until we came together. We didn’t realise how many of us there were. Now, when we meet, our communication is almost like sign language. It’s almost like telepathy. There’s an unspoken understanding between adoptees over what it’s like to be us.”

Cook, who was 26 months old when she was taken to Britain, returned to Hong Kong for the first time in 2010, accompanied by three other foundlings. She recalls it being “really odd because all the time I was looking around and thinking, ‘I wonder if any of these people are my mother or my father, or uncles, or sisters, or brothers’”.

The starkest and most haunting discovery, perhaps, was the plight of some foundlings left behind, who told of being rejected by their birth mothers and families when they tracked them down, and being warned not to talk about being abandoned because of the stigma it brought on surviving families.

If we hadn’t been adopted overseas, we wouldn’t have had the standard of living and the opportunities we’ve had
Debbie Cook

“It’s very much a closed book,” says Cook, who now lives in Carlisle, in northwest England, and has been married for more than 40 years. “They are very fearful even now.”

In 2015, Cook and other foundlings returned to Hong Kong to meet foundlings who had not been adopted. At a meeting in a Fanling village hall, the women who had stayed told Cook they “always assumed they were the ugly ones and that’s why they weren’t adopted”, she says. “[They] couldn’t understand why we were all coming back and looking for our birth families.”

Being uprooted from their place of birth and transplanted to a foreign country has left a deep and understandable sense of dislocation. But Cook maintains, “We aren’t angry, and if we met them we would just want to say, ‘Thank you for leaving us somewhere safe.’ If we hadn’t been adopted overseas, we wouldn’t have had the standard of living and the opportunities we’ve had.”

Martin’s visits to Hong Kong may not have reunited her with her birth family, but they have yielded tantalising clues. These may finally, 60 years after she was found, put flesh on the ghosts of her distant past.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a big breakthrough soon. I really do
Claire Martin

A fellow adoptee who saw the ITV programme sent her a black-and-white photograph taken at the Po Leung Kuk children’s home in October 1961, which shows a group of toddlers sitting in feeding chairs, including, Martin believes, herself, bawling heartily.

“I am very positive about it now,” she says. “I have a feeling I’m going to get a big breakthrough soon. I really do.”

At one stage, Cook and a group of fellow adoptees attempted to obtain Hong Kong identity cards, but bureaucracy triumphed over compassion when an immigration officer found two pieces of paperwork with different versions of the name given to Cook in the orphanage – one reading Tin Sui-fan and another just Sui-fan.

“To my utter astonishment, he said, ‘How do I know you are the same person?’” recalls Cook, who believes she was given a family name on one of the documents simply so she could obtain a passport. “He actually said to all of us adoptees, ‘You have no names of the birth family, so how do I know you are Chinese?’

Cook as a child in Britain. Photo: Debbie Cook / Red Door News

“It really was exasperating. All my life I have looked Chinese, even when as a child I tried to scrub myself to be white like my sisters. And yet, in Hong Kong, we were being questioned as to whether we were really Chinese.

“We may have lost our ability to talk in our native tongue, and we may dress like Europeans, but for heaven’s sake, we can’t disguise looking Chinese. It’s ironic that he was able to look us in the eye and question it.”

Other adoptees persisted in their quest for Hong Kong identity cards and eventually succeeded despite the antipathy of officials, but Cook gave up.

“My desire was totally destroyed by that immigration officer,” she says. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t matter to me any more. I am Chinese, but I’m English as well.”