China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Apr

Giovanna’s Experience of Faith

Born in China’s Guangdong Province, Chan Choi-wan is 23 years old. She was baptised on Holy Saturday, 2002, and received the name Giovanna. Her best friend, Martina Lei Man-yin was also baptised that same night. Fathers Franco Mella and Gianni Criveller presided over the celebration.

Both Giovanna and Martina lived through tension-filled days in their struggle to obtain the Right of Abode. They were among the thousands of Mainland children of Hong Kong citizens who staged protests in spite of government threats to repatriate them by force. They were among those who, in January 1999, eagerly awaited the decision the Supreme Court of Hong Kong on their right reside in Hong Kong in accordance with Article 24 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

The Catholic Church, beginning with Bishop Joseph Zen, the Justice and Peace Commission, Fr. Franco Mella, PIME, was in the front line supporting the Rights of Abode seekers. This is how Giovanna and Martina, both from non-Christian families, encountered the Christian faith and the Catholic Church.

Martina’s fate is still unresolved, and she divides her time between the Mainland and Hong Kong. She has lived through many hardships with great faith, courage and dignity.

Giovanna, who had lived with her family (her parents and younger brother) since May 1999, was more fortunate. On February 21, 2003, she finally obtained her Hong Kong permanent resident’s identity card and can now think about her future.

The struggle for rights denied

“Before coming in contact with the faith,” Giovanna says, “I fought to gain residency because it would provide me with good opportunities. Later, however, I understood that my struggle was for justice, for the unity of the family. I realised I was struggling for one of my God-given rights.”

Her new Christian faith influenced the way she went about fighting for the Right of Abode. “At the beginning I thought I would be able to obtain my rights by being strong,” she says. “I thought I could get whatever I wanted through my own efforts. The Supreme Court’s favourable verdict on 29 January 1999, seemed to lend weight to my personal feeling of power.”

This feeling of personal power and exaltation was short-lived. Giovanna and most of the other abode seekers were in for a big disappointment. In June 1999, the Hong Kong government sought a reinterpretation from the Beijing government and Beijing revoked the court’s decision.

The abode seekers were plunged into sadness and uncertainly. Furthermore, they received little sympathy from the Hong Kong government and the people in general. Newspapers presented them as troublemakers, and opportunists. Some even accused them of being the cause of the economic recession.

In January 2000, Giovanna’s permit expired, but she remained in Hong Kong, staying at home for fear of getting caught. “My mother went out in the streets to demonstrate in my place,” she tells us. “I felt unsuccessful, weak and alone.”

It was during this time that Giovanna got to know Father Mella personally. One of the leaders in the Right of Abode movement, Father Mella was then on hunger strike in front of Victoria Prison. Through him, Giovanna met other Christians and began taking part in the meetings and Masses of a small Christian Community that he had formed.

“Faith made me understand the weakness of all human strength,” she says, “but I learned that the strength that comes from God has no limits. Certainly, even now I have moments of fatigue and suffering, but now I know that I am not suffering alone. Jesus is there suffering with me and carrying the cross.”

Giovanna recalls the time she bought two bookmarks, one for herself and one for her friend, Martina. The bookmarks recounted the dream of a man who had seen the journey of his life as footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, like two friends walking together, sometimes, however, there was only one, exactly when life had been most difficult. The explanation, of course was clear: when life was most difficult to bear, the Lord had carried the man in his arms! This story pleased Giovanna very much since it reflected her own life story.

“The days preceding our baptism,” Giovanna continues, “Martina and I were busy assisting Fathers Franco and Gianni and others engaged in the hunger strike at Chater Garden. It was a time of great tension. The attention of the government, the police and the mass media were all focused on us. We had no breathing space; we were uneasy and slept very little. I, in particular, was extremely tense because Father Mella’s hunger strike had lasted for more than 10 days and I was very worried about his health. Martina and I lived that experience together, in total solidarity. It was a time when we experienced the presence of God in our midst.

“I had decided to be baptised. I wanted to become a disciple of Jesus. I wanted Jesus always to be with me, to share my life.” Martina, who had long been undecided because of the opposition of her family and friends, decided to be baptised with Giovanna.

Struggle Not Over

Today, many of the friends who struggled with Giovanna are discouraged and disillusioned. They still have nothing to show for their effort after four years. Giovanna feels, however, that the struggle for the Right of Abode is not over. In the meantime, she still works for the movement and does what she can. She says: “We have begun two ‘popular’ schools similar in style to those of Don Lorenzo Milani, and Italian priest, introduced to us by Fathers Franco and Gianni: the Right of Abode University for young people; a Super School for boys and girls and little children. We teach different languages, history, literature, music, computer, and various aspects of Hong Kong society. This new experiment is going well and it keeps me busy every day. It also gives our new movement a great deal of courage.”

My Small Community

“I cannot say that I have an in-depth knowledge of the Catholic Church,” says Giovanna, “but I deeply appreciate the engagement of the Church in the life of the people and in social questions and in particular for the way it supported our movement.”

Before her baptism, Giovanna went to Mass with the “small community” and studied the catechism. She carefully observed the behaviour of the Christians to understand what being a Christian meant. She was not always satisfied with what she saw, feeling some were not to be very “Christian”. Reflecting on this now, she explains, “I still did not know that my attitude was judgmental, that it is an error to judge, that Jesus would not have done this. I discovered that to be a real disciple of Jesus is difficult.”

Since her baptism, Giovanna has made a great effort to be what Jesus would want her to be. “I find that the hardest thing is to give myself completely for others as Jesus did.”

Her most difficult test comes from her own family. Her father is opposed to her faith. This has been a challenge not only to her faith, but to her ability to accept her father as he is. Giovanna likes to quote this verse form the Bible: “Suffering produces patience, patience produces character and character produces hope” (Rm 5:3).

“I think that with my father I must have patience,” she reflects. “By exercising patience I have learned to accept his opposition as a means of deepening our relationship.”

In fact, Giovanna feels that the situation has even improved her relations with her father. “Before my baptism, I respected him, but our relations were almost nonexistent, having grown up without him, our dialogue was strained. Now there is more conflict but there is a real relationship. I am more aware of his sacrifices, of what he has done for us. He has sacrificed a great deal of himself by coming to Hong Kong and he worked hard and alone to give his family a better future. Now I appreciate him all the more, and I also listen to him more on those matters not related to the faith.”

A New Life

Now that she has finally obtained the right of abode Giovanna is at peace. She sees this as a gift from God to be used for others.

“Now I know that we all have a mission, that the Lord has traced a path for us. I still don’t know my mission, but I know that I must seek it with confidence in God. For that reason I now look to my future with a great deal of hope.”