Updated: Jun 18, 2018
I learned about the Freedom Swimmers at Elva Lai’s exhibition at 1A Space in Kowloon. Prompted by a famine that began in Mainland China in1959, ambitious men and women swam the 1-3 miles to Hong Kong. This exodus continued into the 1970s. Many did not survive the waters. For the Swimmers Hong Kong meant freedom, food and a future. These same people later forged the backbone of the working class in Hong Kong, creating the Pearl of the Orient and an economic power in Asia.
I heard some remarkable Freedom Swimmer stories. Apparently for part of this period the “one child policy” was enforced in China, and condoms were freely available. Some swimmers used condoms as floatation devices on the journey.
Roger the car service driver told me that his father was a Freedom Swimmer. He said that he was not a very good swimmer. He told me how the family returned to their Mainland China village for a visit when he was about 5-6 years old. He said that on the trip his Mother and Father each wore 3-4 pairs of clothes, and gave them away to family and friends in the home-village.
Freedom Swimmers remind me of the term Wetback, a cruel and derogatory word used in the past to describe Mexicans that crossed the Rio Grande River into the USA. This fluid border remains an entry point for Mexicans, Central and South Americans coming north without legal entry documents. Throughout history people have left their homes for security and better opportunities. Displaced Syrians, Mexican migrants, asylum seekers throughout the planet are the Freedom Swimmers of today.