City Weekend

Hongkonger jailed 12 times seizes opportunity to reinvent himself as a baker

Convicted of everything from robbery to substance abuse, man admits to poor life choices and cherishes steady job given by employer who believes in second chances

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 9:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 10:24am

Since his teenage years, Tang Wai-man has been in and out of jail 12 times. Having been convicted of everything from robbery to substance abuse, the 38-year-old Hongkonger once served 12 ½ years in Stanley Prison – his longest spell behind bars.

In that case, Tang was caught smuggling 13kg of cocaine from Canada into Hong Kong. After serving out his time, just months later he was arrested on fresh substance abuse charges, leading to eight more months in jail.

When he left prison after his lengthiest stretch, he recalls wearing a plain T-shirt and shorts, clutching a bag of his humble possessions: some personal valuables and an old flip phone no longer supported in the age of smartphones.

Just like his outdated mobile device, Tang soon found himself out of place as he struggled to find work.

He isn’t alone. Data from the Correctional Services Department (CSD) indicates it is becoming tougher for people like Tang to find work after serving time in prison.

About 85.1 per cent of those released in 2017 had obtained steady work within six months of their release, after having completed vocational training while in custody, according to the CSD.

If society is unaccepting of ex-prisoners, there will always be another community that welcomes them: gangs and triads
Tang Wai-man, former inmate

The number marks a slight dip from 2013’s 89.5 per cent.

But willing and ready as Tang is, people cannot seem to get past the decade-long sentence he served.

“As soon as people realise I’ve been in jail before, they take a step back,” he says.

No matter how hard people like Tang try, many feel adrift, consistently frustrated in their efforts to become productive members of the community.

According to a survey by the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, one of Hong Kong’s largest NGOs providing inmate support services, nearly 40 per cent of former prisoners have been labelled “the bad guy” by their peers, colleagues or family members.

The study interviewed 176 ex-convicts between November last year and April this year, and found that 36.9 per cent said they had been called at one point or another “a criminal for life”.

“The more difficulties there are to reinvest in the society, the greater the chances of them to reoffend,” the report states.

In 2017, the CSD said the latest reoffending rates in Hong Kong stood at 25.9 per cent, marking a gradual decline from 2004’s 36.5 per cent. But insiders helping former convicts say they believe the situation is more dire than it appears.

The NGO’s analysis has concluded a correlation exists between the obstacles, negative labels and recidivism.

Oliver Chan Heng-choon, an associate professor of criminology at City University, believes if there were sufficient support to help former inmates rebuild their life and integrate into society, the chance of their reoffending would be reduced, thus bringing Hong Kong’s already low crime rate even further down.

Tang agrees. “If society is unaccepting of ex-prisoners, there will always be another community that welcomes them: gangs and triads,” he says. “It’s sad but true.”

An unaccepting society

In recalling his darkest days behind bars, Tang reveals: “The hardest part about serving time is not the jail term but figuring out what to do once done.”

“I was locked up for more than a decade. I was completely out of touch with the rest of the world,” he says as he wipes tears off his face. “I didn’t even know how to use a touch screen phone at the time.”

Every time he found himself out of jail, he was immediately plunged into poverty and an unaccepting society.

Broke, jobless and scared, employers often spurned him, seeing his criminal record and Form Three education. And when he did secure work, none of his jobs lasted more than two months because he always felt isolated.

Unable to support himself, the stress of striving to fit in society would push him over the edge and lead him to reoffend.

“I was only living with my grandfather. We rarely talked and he didn’t teach me much,” explains Tang, who grew up in public housing. “Because I didn’t feel like I belonged at that house, I stupidly went back to old friends, back to square one, doing what got me in trouble in the first place.”

His release after 12½ years, he says, amounted to a wake-up call to turn his life around.

But it would not have been possible without the help of his employer, who gave him a chance to support himself and put his life back together.

Rebekah Chan Mi-ki, the managing director of the bakery L’Artisan, describes her strong faith in Tang and people in his situation.

“All they need is a second chance,” she says. “Once you offer them that, they will give you their all.”

More prisoners nowadays are educated and possess a higher ability to contribute to society once released if they put their illegal ways behind them, according to Chan of CityU.

This is because of a rising trend in Hong Kong of a greater number of white-collar crimes relative to violent ones, with financial misdeeds often committed in a professional capacity.

A decade or two ago, armed robberies in the city were more commonplace. Gangsters such as Yip Kai-foon, who wielded an AK-47 when he held up local jewellery stores in the 1980s, gained notoriety.

In contrast, crimes committed today are less dramatic, the CityU academic notes. Those who break the law are more skilful and organised, tending to cheat others out of their money with nothing more than a few clicks of a computer mouse.

“If such former criminals can really put their illegal life behind them, they can contribute again to society with their high skill in areas such as technology,” he says.

Giving a second chance

In reality, Hong Kong society is not very forgiving of former prisoners, according to Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a community organiser with the Society for Community Organisation.

“Many of them can only resort to temporary or part-time jobs that require low skills such as working at a construction site,” he says. “Companies almost always do background checks and are likely to reject someone who has a criminal background.”

Tsoi, who has worked extensively in the field, urges local officials and the Law Reform Commission to regulate employers’ rights to request criminal records, reduce employment discrimination against ex-offenders, and educate the public on how to better support this population.

“Although reintegration and rehabilitation depends on a person’s determination, it is our job as a community to provide the sufficient support and help they need during the process,” he says.

“They made a mistake and they have got the punishment they deserved by serving their time behind bars. We cannot forever label them for their wrongdoing.”

Few books for inmates who read neither Chinese nor English

A look at recidivism rates in Singapore shows a lower number of reoffenders there than in Hong Kong. In 2013, Singapore tallied a 25.9 per cent rate, while it was 27.1 per cent locally. In addition, between 2004 and 2013, the city state had fewer reoffenders than Hong Kong did overall.

However, the CSD stresses that a direct comparison between the two cities is not accurate, citing different definitions and calculation methods.

In Singapore, information is gathered based on the number of local inmates who are detained or convicted and imprisoned again for any new offence following their release.

Meanwhile, recidivism in Hong Kong is defined as the percentage of readmitted local persons in custody to correctional institutions following conviction of a new offence within two years after discharge.

Regardless, both Tsoi and Oliver Chan lament a local culture they characterise as unforgiving and conservative, essentially stripping former inmates of second chances.

As Hong Kong prison population falls, elderly inmates almost double 

“When we talk about someone who has been in jail, people instantly associate that with something negative,” Tsoi says. “Everyone deserves second chances. Why are they not given the opportunity to show that they have mended their ways?”

Chan adds that the government and publicly funded organisations should take the lead in employing former convicts, thereby encouraging the private sector to follow suit.

“Once an ex-prisoner returns to society, of course they will face the temptation of recommitting crime,” he notes. “For them to quit, there must be a very successful rehabilitation programme. There must be someone willing to take the first step to offer them a chance to prove themselves.”

For small private firms seeking to promote a more accepting culture, employing ex-inmates requires a steely determination to counter the prevailing stigma.

Rebekah Chan, the 40-something bakery boss who gave Tang his chance, says her decisions have caused grumbling among some of her staff. But she has adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach towards any form of discrimination against anyone’s background.

How psychological help spurred prisoner to turn her life around

In one instance, a senior chef who demanded Chan fire a colleague who was an ex-convict was himself eventually let go. At present, three of L’Artisan’s 15 chefs are former inmates.

Chan began visiting prisoners in 2009, both curious and eager to help. Her first impressions left her sympathetic.

“I thought to myself, ‘wow these are some smart, talented people but they just happened to have made mistakes when the were younger’.”

Yet her business is not without its challenges.

“Other bakeries produce about 10,000 buns per morning with the help of machines,” Chan says. “My staff of 15 staff can make 1,500 by hand over the same period.”

Independent council to monitor Hong Kong prisons needed, group says

Nevertheless, she speaks cheerfully of her acceptance paying off in other ways.

Tang secured himself a full-time job as a baker after finishing a year of training with Paul Chung, the head chef of another kitchen. Chung was once sentenced to 14 years in prison for drug trafficking in Thailand.

“People think they have no skills and are slow learners but really, what they need is love and patience,” Chan adds. “They will blossom where they’re planted.”

As difficult as it has been personally training and guiding the ex-inmates, she says they have taught her more than she will ever teach them. “They’ve taught me to be patient and that we’re all flawed.”

And despite the struggles and conflicts within the bakery, Chan remains thankful for all that she’s been through.

“The improvements I see in them makes everything worthwhile.”

Additional reporting by David Vetter