Girl power takes the stage at TEDxHongKongED

Girl power takes the stage at TEDxHongKongED

Last month's TEDx event covered a range of Hong Kong experiences by women making a difference

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Julie Borth has been reaching out to women and mama-sans in red-light districts.
Julie Borth has been reaching out to women and mama-sans in red-light districts.
Photo: TEDXHongKongED

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Mariko Sanchanta talked about intercultural relationships.
Mariko Sanchanta talked about intercultural relationships.
Photo: TEDXHongKongED

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Former domestic helper Xyza Cruz Bacani is now an award-winning photographer.
Former domestic helper Xyza Cruz Bacani is now an award-winning photographer.
Photo: TEDXHongKongED

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Mui Thomas is thought to be the fourth oldest person alive with harlequin ichthyosis.
Mui Thomas is thought to be the fourth oldest person alive with harlequin ichthyosis.
Photo: TEDXHongKongED

Never Stop! That was the theme for TEDxHongKongED's latest talk on April 18, which featured inspirational speakers like former domestic helper Xyza Cruz Bacani, who is now an award-winning photographer, and ex-KGV School student Mui Thomas, who is thought to be the fourth oldest person alive with harlequin ichthyosis, a severe genetic skin disease.

Young Post's junior reporters were invited to the event; here are their favourite talks ...

Speaking out for the silent

Julie Borth is a primary school teacher, and also an anti-sex-trafficking activist.

A few years ago, Borth moved to Wan Chai, and it was there she was exposed to Hong Kong's sex trafficking scene. She began to hear about the plight of female sex workers in Hong Kong, and shared one story.

Borth spoke of a young girl named "Katy". "Originally a waitress, Katy was experiencing financial difficulties in her early years, until she was offered, supposedly, a well-paying job at a bar overseas," explained Borth.

"Katy took the job, and was told to wear a short dress and high heels, and serve drinks … Then, she was asked to dance slowly at the bar," said Borth.

"And one day, she was called into a car by a man, who raped her."

Borth explains that young girls are often tricked into becoming sex workers - it's seldom a choice they make voluntarily out of financial desperation. "Katy didn't realise what the job was all about until she had entered the car," said Borth.

"But the story didn't end there; Katy never thought she would see prostitution as a part of life, or something that defined her personality. But that all changed after the money she got from the job," she said.


 Top 10 women making a difference for girls and women in Hong Kong and around the world


Borth realised she had to help these women. "I went through three emotional phases - anger towards the industry, a realisation of the help these girls needed, and whether a young Midwestern girl like me could do something to change this," she recalls.

Together with a team of like-minded volunteers, she has been reaching out to women and mama-sans in red-light districts. They regularly speak to women like Katy to give them hope, and have been working to raise awareness of the city's sex trafficking scene. "Officials in Hong Kong tend to be rather modest in law enforcement, and it's not easy for a raped woman to [go] to the police, especially when she has a whole system in place against her," said Borth.

She ended her talk with a quote from William Wilberforce, an 18th-century leader also fighting against slave trade, "You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know."

 

Mixed influences are more dynamic

Mariko Sanchanta is half-Japanese, half-Thai, and has a quarter-Japanese, quarter-Thai, and half-Greek baby on the way. She delivered a phenomenal talk about intercultural marriages.

She began by sharing her parents' love story. They fell in love despite coming from two completely different worlds.

"Originally from Thailand, my dad was poor, and my mum was a few thousand miles away in Japan, with her privileged family. But once my dad came to Japan and saw my mum at the Imperial Hotel dressed in a beautiful kimono - let's just say my dad was in love," she said.

"The idea of an intercultural marriage saw huge opposition in those days, but my dad was determined to make it happen, and in 1968, they saw their dreams come true. They're celebrating their 46th anniversary this year," she said.

Sanchanta highlights the increased commonness of intercultural marriages nowadays, especially in a place like Hong Kong. "We don't freak out when we see a white man with an Asian woman," she said.

However, it's not so normal in many countries. When she was a child in the US, Mariko was the only Asian kid on the block. So throughout her childhood, white toddlers would come up to her with questions like "Why do you have to take off your shoes at home?", "Why does your house smell like soy sauce?", and "What are those two long sticks you eat with?"

Sanchanta believes a lot of stereotypes can be associated with a single race, with people outside that racial group often seeing things through a very narrow lens. "The human brain is known to register race within one-tenth of a second, even before gender," she said.

She also recalled some interesting incidents where she has been stereotyped as an Asian. "Once when I was in Discovery Bay, I met a man from New Zealand. We began speaking, and he praised me for my English, [saying it was good] for an Asian. And I replied, 'Yours too, for a Kiwi!'"

Sanchanta also spoke about discrimination faced by mixed-race people, giving Ariana Miyamoto, who won Miss Universe Japan, as an example. "Ariana was … born and raised … [in Japan] with a Japanese mother and African-American father. She was criticised for not being Japanese enough to represent the country, especially because of her dark skin colour.

"Some kids even thought they would get the dark skin if they touched her," Sanchanta said, adding the Japanese created the word "hafu" for people like Miyamoto - and Sanchanta herself.

Sanchanta believes intercultural relationships give both sides an excellent opportunity to learn about the other's culture, while banishing such stereotypes.

Sanchanta is not sure if being multicultural will confuse her soon-to-be born son. But she sincerely hopes intercultural marriages are further embraced in society, not only so future generations grow up in dynamic, multicultural environments, but also to make that "Where do you come from?" question even more compelling.

Joy Pamnani


Snapshots of inspiration

Xyza Cruz Bacani is an award-winning photographer, with her photos appearing in some of the best news outlets, including The New York Times and CNN.

Her recognition didn't come easily. When Bacani was seven, her mother left her and her siblings in the Philippines to work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. The young Bacani grew up quickly, learning to cook and clean for her family, and becoming a mother to her brothers and sisters.


Five women who run the world


When she was just 19, she also came to Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper to help pay for her siblings' education. She did this despite her dreams of art and colour inspired by television. She worked hard, always keeping her aspiration at the back of her mind. Then one day, she asked her employer for a loan - she wanted to buy a camera.

From that day, she would take photos of anything and everything. Her mother would look at them and scold her, saying "Photography is for the rich, Xyza," even though she, too, saw the pictures as windows to the world outside her work. Bacani would take photos every day, to show her mother a glimpse of the Hong Kong she saw, its beauty and its truth. It wasn't too much longer before she was discovered by the New York Times.

Now working sometimes as a freelance photographer, Bacani's won awards and a photography course scholarship for shooting the soul of Hong Kong. She photographed Occupy Central and random shots of Hong Kong life. She also takes pictures of domestic helpers at the Bethune Shelter, telling their stories through her photos, and raising awareness of their plight.

The audience was held captive by her honest and open demeanour, and fascinating story. The most important lesson we learned was that hard work gets you where you want to be. Bacani feels she has found her purpose. But her journey there has not been easy or short. Her closing remarks were a perfect summary: "Everything comes with 99 per cent work and just 1 per cent luck."

It's what's on the inside that counts

As the event went on, I grew more and more excited to hear Mui Thomas speak. I was quite right to, it turned out, because her talk was the only one that received a standing ovation.

Thomas was adopted as a baby. Her parents had only meant to take her in for a weekend, but luckily they decided to keep her. Thomas has a rare genetic skin condition, Harlequin Ichthyosis, which means her skin grows at 10 times the normal rate. This means her body is unprotected against infection, and most sufferers die within the few first years of their life.

The condition has also led to all sorts of abuse and discrimination. Thomas described her struggles in school, where she faced cyberbullying from a close friend, and her resulting mental battle against self-harming. Like anyone else, she knows when people are talking behind her back. She is sensitive. She sees people pointing at her in shock. She just wishes they would treat her like anyone else - like her parents always have.

Moving from her story of disappointment and abuse, Thomas described how she discovered rugby. Despite the risks to her health, her parents supported her. Now a rugby referee - the first and only one with Harlequin Ichthyosis - she cheekily told us of the chances she's had to meet famous faces, such as former British prime minister Tony Blair and supermodel Kate Moss.

Despite telling many sad tales, one positive thing kept popping up. When she was little and needed to be taken care of, Thomas' parents were there. When she was cyberbullied at school, she relied on her parents. When she wanted to try playing rugby, despite the way her condition limits her, her parents supported her. All through her life, Thomas' parents, Rog and Tina, have been there for, helping her to live her life to the fullest.

I remember Thomas personally. She was five years above me at my school. I even remember the first time I spoke to her. I won't lie - I was scared. I didn't know who she was or what had happened to her, having only heard a few unreliable rumours.

But when I spoke to her, as a little 11-year-old, I learned she is a lovely person, and genuinely kind to the people who are kind to her. It made me think, and taught me to appreciate people for who they are on the inside, no matter how apprehensive I may be of their appearance. Thomas learned from her own experiences to treat people this way, helped along by the immense love her parents have for her.

So give yourself the freedom to be who you are and succeed, no matter what stands in your way. As Thomas said, "Give it a go, and don't let anyone hold you back."

Sharon Cheng

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Girl power takes the stage

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