Labelled People: Growing Up on a Leprosy Island

Labelled People: Growing Up on a Leprosy Island

I grew up on a leprosy treatment island in Hong Kong. For me, leprosy was ordinary – patients arrived, were cured and we knew that if leprosy is treated early there needn’t be any damage. But we were also aware of the stigma, and that some people didn’t come for treatment until the disease had created damage. So I was always aware that labeling people and making them hide can have disastrous consequences.
 
Our island was paradise. We swam in warm sea and enjoyed the animals – king crabs, colourful birds, cute geckos on our walls, as well as a python I nearly jumped on, a king cobra, and seven inch centipedes. We lived in the city during the week, so coming home by boat on Fridays was lovely. Some school friends loved the island too, but others thought there were no proper shops, no cars and nothing to do. Leprosy was also offputting for some people. In fact it’s not as infectious as many other illnesses, isn’t contagious and it’s safe to shake hands with someone with leprosy.
 
One of Us isn’t about illness, but it concerns a group of labelled people – the Brotherhood. The name "Hoods" dehumanises people by reducing them to their religion. We never used the word "leper" because it defines someone by their illness. When K goes undercover into a Brotherhood school, she finds the reality at polar odds to her preconceptions. For me this is interesting because our experience of living in a leprosy treatment centre (home, comforting, normal) was at odds with how it looked from outside (scary, infectious, weird). My RE teacher told a story about Buddha having to eat the finger of a man who had leprosy because it fell into his begging bowl. I said that this could never happen, because leprosy doesn’t make fingers fall off, it creates nerve damage so they get injured without warning pain. But this spoiled her story and that made me think that trying to fit "other" people into an existing story can mean missing what’s really there.
 
When the Cultural Revolution took over, it was impossible for foreigners to visit China. So from about five, I was desperate to go there. The ground floor windows of Chinese Merchandise Emporium showcased Red Guards waving Mao’s little red book. They played propaganda on loudspeakers and during the riots rival banks blared Mao’s thoughts and God Save the Queen at each other. Maybe the propaganda in One of Us comes out of this experience. I thought it was stupid to try and make people think something by shouting it the loudest. Inside Chinese Merchandise we could buy wonderful art materials, tiny sampans carved from an olive stone, gorgeous silk brocades, and notebooks with heroes and heroines of the people on coloured pages. But at the same time, we knew that people were starving in China, a stone’s throw away. And on the hillsides of Hong Kong island were huge villages of squatter huts made of mats, bamboo sticks and scrap. 
 
The Hong Kong riots also meant that bombs were left in carrier bags , some killing people. Finding a brown paper carrier bag by the side of the road was sinister and frightening. One of Us opens with a bag abandoned on a platform, with the familiar question to anyone who lives with a terrorist threat: is it innocent, or has someone put it there to kill random strangers?
 
We had Chinese names as well as English, each of us three sisters having the word "lei". Mine was Wong Jun Lei, Wong for Waudby and Jun for Jean. Nobody called us these names except at the staff children’s Christmas party when we would have to listen for our name and walk up on to the stage for a present from Santa. At that moment it did feel like my name. I think this may explain why my main character has two names. When I went to China in 1986, my college created a Chinese name for me. It didn’t sound like my real name and I wished I had thought of giving them my old Cantonese name. This name was on my ID card and I had to use it every day. I realised that the name on your papers means you. So I’ve always found it interesting to think about the power of a name. 
 
We moved to the UK when I was 14. At school I was accepted into a diverse group of friends. For me a Londoner is someone who may have started anywhere in the world but has made London their home, and that’s why I feel comfortable here. My parents met in West Africa – maybe they wouldn’t have met if they’d stayed in Britain; Dad in Portsmouth and Mum in the Highlands. I have a feeling of home for Hong Kong, for England and Scotland and Aberystwyth where I went to university. And of course London. I like writing about where home is because it’s such a complex and interesting thing.
 
One of Us by Jeannie Waudby, out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)