Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Hong Kong Walks of Life: The Arrival



My first solo trip outside the Philippines went almost without a hiccup, almost because an hour and a half hanging out inside the HK immigration office was not part of my plan. However, as I analysed the varying reasons why these things happens to a Philippine passport holder - I was surprised at what it represent as a whole, in the end I have come into a conclusion that our Government will never solve this problem by issuing diplomatic protests left and right but a call for them and for us to look in the mirror and stare what was wrong with our system and political and economic structure as well.

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I alighted from the Cebu Pacific plane at around 8:00 PM - a few minutes after it touched down the tarmac of the Hong Kong International Airport. We made the descent at around 7:45 and at that time the sky over Hong Kong was still bright and I saw the airport from above, gigantic with the runway spreading just beside the bay and the rolling hills in the background. Beaming lights of a seemingly very busy airport blinks from all over, other planes rolls by at the other runway and as the plane made its final halt my mind was suddenly filled with images of dimsum as I was already starving by that time.

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It would take another 5 minutes of walking with a short train ride in between to transfer from our gate of arrival towards the terminal with the immigration rows. I never sensed any problems by arriving by myself however, thoughts of the incarcerated Ronald Singson crossed my mind and I wonder whether some Triad member planted a sachet of cocaine on my backpack while inside the plane. Paranoid, I double check my backpack and came up clean. 

I ended up in the line manned by an immigration officer whom I thought to be a shoo-in in a Jet Li movie as a villain. Seriousness covers his face as if he's motto of the day (and probably for his career) is "No TNT will pass under my watch". He was questioning everyone's purpose on their trip to Hong Kong, but surprisingly he let two separate solo Caucasian travelers without further ado.

I was like, what can he suspect me of. I would just say the same thing as those two have told him which is to "travel for a few days around Hong Kong". I was expecting a walk in the ballpark. 

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It was already my turn and as I handed my passport to him, he keeps checking every page of it as if looking for something. I have made two previous out of the country trips in Singapore and Malaysia back in 2007 and I thought that would be enough to show that I will depart a few days after arrival. Then he started questioning me about how much money I have, to the point of asking me where my money is. I showed him my pocket money of 100 US dollars and HK dollars in 10's and 20's.

Immigration Officer: "That's not enough"
Me: "I'm just here until Monday"
Immigration Officer: "Not enough"
Me: "Well I'm not going to Disneyland"

That probably appeased him so he came up with another line of questioning.

Immigration Officer: "Where is your hotel booking"
Me: "I don't have any, I'll stay at a friend's place"
Immigration Officer: "Where"
Me: "at Tsuen Wan"
Immigration Officer: "No hotel hmmm"

I explained to him that it was a lodging house, then after a few minutes and I started to feel the stares of those lined up behind me, as clearly I had spent more time than the normal. I was dumbfounded when I saw him picked up a form with the word "Restricted" written over it. I said.

Me: "What seems to be the problem?, I'll be leaving Monday here's my return ticket"

He won't have any of it and a moment later someone who looks like an airport police came up and asked me to come with him. It was a bit embarrassing being led that way at the plain sight of other passengers. I was then taken inside the immigration office where I saw two other passengers waiting for their passports.

Someone who looked like a Filipino was sitting nearby and I asked him "Anong problema ng sa iyo" he never answered, turns out he is Thai and he has no pocket money to show and the female immigration officer kept asking him "You don't have pocket money how can you stay in Hong Kong" the Thai just stared at her blankly with the look of not knowing what else to do.

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It was my turn to be interviewed by two female immigration officers, both young looking and fairly attractive with another female officer butting once in a while during my interview telling one of the two about something. They asked where I will stay in Hong Kong so I told them about my friend's recommendation bout staying in a lodging house owned by a Filipina.

They kind of asked whether if its a legitimate 'guest house' or if it was owned by a 'human smuggler' I said "No, no, no it's a backpacker's guest house, very cheap for $50 HK a night" and they were like "Wow only $50?" I said yes and I smiled (my version of a 'smile')

They smiled - they were really nice something totally opposite of what I expected when I was being led into the office. I expect a room with white walls and a Yuen Biao type of officer questioning me and If I didn't reply right away I'll get a kung fu chop in the throat. 

I told them I was a travel blogger, which took an additional 3 minutes of explaining what it was to them until they understand what I meant and asked for my travel blog URL. So I proudly told them about this travel blog and I was asked to wait in the waiting area which was just a few steps from the cubicle where they questioned me.

Then they came out of the cubicle went to the man with the computer and entered my URL - then they saw it read a few parts and asked if I had a picture on the blog. I wanted the thing to be over with so I just clicked an entry of my blog about Coron, Palawan and they saw my picture with four beautiful women in swim suits.

Immigration Girl: "Are they your girlfriends?"
Me: "Hmmm friends who were girls yes"
Immigration Girl: "I mean girlfriends"
Me: "I wish, I had that many girlfriends"

She laughed and then asked me to wait again. During that time an Indian guy was led to the immigration office for some issues, after a few minutes he was given the go signal then a French guy in a business attire came in and I was like "Wow they finally brought in a Caucasian guy to question" turns out his only issue was he lost his passport in the plane en route to Hong Kong.

So I was left inside together with the Thai guy who still looks perplexed and not knowing what to do after one of the Immigration officer had already stored his passport inside a ziplock bag. I was anticipating whether my passport would end the same fate.

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It was already 9:30 and I'm still supposed to meet Eileen for dinner in Hong Kong since she came with her family a few days earlier. A quarter to 10 PM and they finally gave me back my passport and I even motioned "bye-bye" to the two ladies and I was again led back to the immigration line. I saw the Jet Li movie villain still manning the next booth and as the officer on my booth stamped my passport I looked back at him and I wanted to say "I'm here for the holiday man, I ain't gonna work in a shipyard".

At the airport I called Eileen's hotel and she told me she's tired from the day's trip to Macau so I then called Ate Violy the owner of the place where I will be staying and told him bout my immigration holed-up. We met at the bus stop near Tsuen Wan MTR station and she led me to her place at the 23rd floor of one of the apartment buildings there. 

Ate Violy has been staying in Hong Kong for 15 years now and is now working part time and keeps her house open for transient visitors from the Philippines for only $50 HK / a night for an air-conditioned room with a good view of the city.

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Thinking about my immigration holed-up I cannot be pissed at what transpired. The Hong Kong immigration officers were just doing their job with a sense of seriousness and no nonsense approach in dealing with probable overstaying and illegal immigrants. They have managed to become the Hong Kong as we know today because of these traits. Dead-on, no-nonsense, all-business, strict and disciplined in all aspects.

Our Government can file all the diplomatic protests it can, left and right like map handouts to a college frat house-party. But our Government and us as a whole completely misses the point. While it saddens me that holding a Philippine passport can be quite a stigma already.

Filipinos are desperate for opportunities in other countries for a reason and that reason has remained unsolved  for many years. My mom has to overstay in the United States just to send me to college. Almost all of us knows someone staying illegally in other countries. Why are we perceived as such wont take a rocket scientist to figure it out.

Why in the first place does the so called 'drug mules' get caught up trying to smuggle drugs in other countries? It is because the bribery and corruption here in the Philippines have allowed them to step inside that plane out of this country. Our flawed system allows this to happen and in the end innocent Filipinos suffers the embarrassment of going through such a harrowing ordeal of being mistaken for a drug mule.

I admire all our OFW's with papers or not, the struggle to continue to provide a better life to their families is never-ending, I also salute fellow Filipino travelers whose zest for seeing the greater part of the world and trying to become a citizen of the world is a source of a never ending inspiration. In the end I just hope our political leaders pick up the slack on their end. We cannot be embarrassed anymore just because we hold a Philippine passport.


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