Print Version    Email to Friend
Making the invisible visible

HONG KONG (SE): At least from their school days, most people are familiar with going to the library, where a search for topics of interest can be made among the many books packed with information that line the walls and shelves.

Libraries have given people access to enormous tracts of information that have enabled them to learn about almost any topic imaginable.

But in the early 2000s, a group in Denmark came up with a new adaptation on libraries—one that has shelves packed with volumes of human books that can be borrowed and tell the hidden stories of life in a most powerful manner.

In marking International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 12, the Hong Kong non-government organisation, Unison, gathered a group of human books together at the Amphitheatre next to the Central Government Offices in Admiralty for anyone who wished to borrow and read.

Presented in festival atmosphere and replete with some innovative entertainment beginning with Australian actor, Gregory Rivers, singing in Cantonese, and rounded off with a choir made up of Filipino domestic workers singing a composition written especially for them, reflecting their nighttime yearnings for their far off children, I wish I could kiss you goodnight, all up 22 human books were there to be read.

One of the fundamental things that feeds racial discrimination is stereotyping, where people are presumed to have certain attributes which are not based on fact or experience, but rather come out of the imagination, hearsay, fear, prejudice and, in the extreme, hate.

Human books have proven to be one of the most powerful tools available in dispelling stereotypical images, as the books are spoken and read in an atmosphere of respect and trust. Consequently there are rules.

The rules were carefully outlined to the 100 or so people gathered for the day before the 22 human books available for loan began their stories.

“Listening must be respectful,” the emcee explained. “You only ask questions for clarification, not to dispute. You don’t take pictures and you don’t record their words.”

It is an opportunity to get inside the experience of another, whose life experience may be quite different from your own. As the great missionary of the seventh century, St. Columban, once said, “A life unlike your own may be your teacher.”

The Australian actor, Rivers, who came to Hong Kong in 1987 and learned to speak Cantonese from listening to Canto Pop, told his story from the perspective of a Token Caucasian.

Well-known chronicler of life in the streets, Father Franco Mella, told his story under the title, More than a missionary, and high profile Filipino entertainer, Ela Lo, reflected on coming to Hong Kong as a teenager and rising to be the chairperson of the Hong Kong Musicians Union.

Indonesian, Devi Novianti, shared about being a single mother working in a government job under the title, I am contributing—Are you? A Hong Kong-born Nepali woman, spoke of the challenges of being a doctor in a supervisory role over local Chinese staff.

However, most books did not come from the mouths of high profile people. They spoke to issues like what does it matter if I look Thai, identity dilemmas of being Hong Kong-raised, but referred to as a foreigner; derision directed against the practice of religion; labour rights; myths about Halal food, which is not all about pork; atheism in a religious family and access to health care.

Books had a background from India, Nepal, The Philippines, Australia, Italy, Germany, Pakistan, Thailand and Africa. Some were Christian, some Muslim or Hindu, others atheist or non-descript, all featured varying skin colour.

A man spoke to the topic of, I am not lying when I speak of being persecuted as an Ahmadi Muslim in a Muslim country, others of being a refugee or asylum seeker, yet others of growing up in Hong Kong with a native language other than Cantonese.

A Pakistani reflected on the struggle to survive in a local school and an Indian the difficulty of learning Cantonese as a third-generation in a family where no one else did.

Yet another spoke of the feeling of being stereotyped as a terrorist, simply because he is a Muslim, and Reverend Hans Lutz shared the experience of being European and fighting for basic human rights with the grassroots in Hong Kong.

Each in their own way presented the hidden life that they live—the one that is not recognised on the public stage—the difficulties and very often hurts that result from the stereotyping, ignorance and often hostility they face.

Mostly, simply the difficulty of not being understood.

Teachers brought students to read the books. Some of the students described the hostility towards non-Chinese that they witness in the playground and the anger and helplessness they feel at not being able to do anything about it.

Their frustration was echoed by a Filipino design student who was born and grew up in Hong Kong. She titled her book No one spoke up at the time.

The aim of Unison is to bridge the gaps that exist among the various cultures and backgrounds that makeup Hong Kong society, and replace the discomfort of difference with a mutual understanding and appreciation of the beauty of that very same difference.

Human books are a form of peer mentoring, which has been described as the most powerful form of learning that exists.

The reading-listening activity was characterised by great interest and energy, which the emcee could attest to from the difficulty she experienced in bringing the session to a close.

The programme was opened by the Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission, York Chow Yat-ngok, who spoke of the determination of the government to work with the community in bridging the gaps. He also outlined government programmes designed to enhance the status of all who live in the city.

While the outdoor event was titled, IN.VISIBLE, expressing the ambition to make many unseen treasures BE.VISIBLE, the one difficulty that proved hard to overcome was labelling.

Reference was continually made to ethnic minorities, a term used officially to describe anyone who is not Chinese, but no book said they think of themselves as an ethnic minority.

To the books, it simply is not a relatable description, as it is a label applied from the perception of others, rather than a recognition of who people are.

Nevertheless, not everything is problematic and the books also spoke of the warmth acceptance brings.


A photograph exhibition of the lives of some of the books revealed the power of personal resilience, as well as compassion and grace that people can muster within themselves, which can often remain a hidden story of beauty that is only seen when it is brought out into the sunlight.