My talk at the University of Hong Kong in their Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD) undergrad class was happening on the 27th of January but I and Dr. Sam Winter, professor-in-charge of the SGD class and an ally and advocate of the transgender community and author of Transgender Asia Research, agreed that it would be a good idea to come earlier so any other pre-talk concerns could be smoothed out with enough time. So my flight out of Manila was booked for the 26th and I was scheduled to come back home on Saturday, the 30th. I left Manila Thursday via Philippine Air Lines flight PR 306 at 2:45 pm (see pic above), and arrived in Hong Kong two hours later. The Philippines and Hong Kong lie in the same time zone so I did not need to adjust my clock upon arrival.
I flew to Hong Kong on an uneventful flight. Immediately after stepping off the plane, I could not wait to take pictures to document every step of the trip. A long time ago, I gave away winter clothes which I had accumulated working cold nights for a call center in the past. Most of them were rotting away unused in my closet so when I had the chance, I gave them to friends who started working for call centers themselves. For this trip I had to borrow from friends warm clothes for the Hong Kong winter cold to avoid having to spend unnecessarily money that I could use in the trip instead.
A while back, I had written here about the humiliating experiences of several Filipina transwomen who had passed through Hong Kong immigration. Apparently, transwomen have been singled out by Hong Kong airport officers for "standard security checks". This means that once a transwoman approaches an immigration counter to exit into Hong Kong, she has no assurance of entry. Instead, she will be passed on to a chain of several people until she finds herself in a holding room where she will be interviewed by a senior immigration officer, the end result of which is anyone's guess.
There the interview will vary from a brief polite exchange to insulting, heated argument between the transwoman and immigration official on why the former wants to enter Hong Kong. Through the trans community grapevine we have heard of transwomen who have seen the insides of that infamous holding room of being accused of illegal activity in the Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR), being required to empty out their wallets to prove their financial capacity to stay in Hong Kong, and the worst one yet--of being asked to strip naked for a body search. I know some people who have not been exempt from these troubling practices and they were slapped with a limited number of visitation days (the standard is 14 for all tourists) by being allowed to stay between one to two days only, detained in the holding room for varying lengths of time (sometimes under an hour, sometimes more), and the worst of all--deported back to Manila immediately which in local Filipino slang is called "airport to airport" or A to A.
So it was with great trepidation that I approached this trip. But although I was anxious, at the back of my head, I still kept thinking that this immigration hitch was never going to happen to me. I was so wrong.
The immigration officer asked for my passport. He went through it and when he seemed finished and satisfied (the entire thing took about 15 minutes), he called over an older guy, Guy Number 2 and asked me in a terse tone to follow him.
At that point I started to get angry. While trying to follow after Guy Number 2, I said in a curt and cutting tone, "Excuse me sir, but what seems to be the problem?". Guy Number 2 seemed to have sensed the unhappy tenor in my voice and answered nicely, "Oh just standard security check." After passing through the immigration line but not yet exiting, we got to the middle of the airport where Guy Number 2 stopped at a group of airport security-looking people and then handed us over to another person, Guy Number 3. Guy Number 3 began escorting us and so I asked him the same question. With a hint of a smile and very politely he said, "It's just standard security check." I asked him, "How long is this going to take? I have someone outside waiting for me." Guy Number 3 answered. "Just around 20 minutes or so."
At that point, there seemed to be nothing that I could do but just go through the process. I followed Guy Number 3 who ended up taking me to the infamous holding room. After waiting for a few more minutes, we were asked to see a senior looking officer, Guy Number 4.
He took me into one of the cubicles and asked me questions (i.e., What are you here for? When are you leaving? May I see your return ticket?). After noting my return flight, he thanked me and I was good to go.This time, a lady immigration officer escorted me to a special immigration counter where a surly looking guy took my passport and asked for my name. After this, I exited into the baggage claim area.
And so it came to pass. What I had been dreading finally happened to me. How silly of me to think that I was "special" and immune from such treatment. I know this is a bit of a thorny issue and I will talk about that point in another post. But my main point is: all transwomen affected by this issue should come together and discuss how to move forward in responding to this humiliating process already institutionalized at the Hong Kong airport. At this point, there is no sense in finding who to blame because as it were, it is a problem that already affects us all. We must unite and stand up to this unneeded harassment and not exclude anyone in the conversation. After all, this is a clear case of discrimination that does not choose, that includes us all.