Back in the 1960s, more than 100 children – mostly abandoned, mostly babies and mostly girls – were brought over from Hong Kong to be adopted by British families. The British colony simply couldn't cope with the number of refugees fleeing communist China, the upshot of which was struggling families and overcrowded orphanages. But only one of them is known to have traced her birth family.
"I didn't even think of myself as Chinese when I was growing up," says Karen Moir, who is now 46 and lives in London. "When the boys at school used to dance around me making Kung Fu noises, part of me was quite attracted to it, but most of me thought, 'I don't know what on earth you're doing.'"
In fact, it was only when she was a teenager that Karen met anyone else of Chinese origin. "Even then, it was in Chinese restaurants. I'd dread them speaking to me in Cantonese because I wouldn't have a clue what they were talking about."
Years later, when Karen read a magazine article about another woman in her situation, she could hardly believe her luck. "I had grown up thinking I was the only one. At times, that had felt very isolating. I wrote to her and when we met, it was profound. We finished each other's sentences and we are still good friends."
Then, when Karen's job as a social worker led her to help people who had been adopted within the UK to search for their birth families, it got her thinking. "Very unusually for the group of us that was brought over here from Hong Kong, I didn't come from an orphanage, so I knew I was in with some hope."
Karen's adoptive dad was in the army, she explains, and they'd been sent to Hong Kong. "My birth father was the handyman for his block of flats, while my birth mother became their housekeeper. When my birth mother became pregnant with me, she asked my adoptive mum to take me with them back to England because she was already struggling with four young girls living in one room."
Karen wrote to the Hong Kong court that approved the adoption and quicker than she could have imagined, her birth parents were found. "I couldn't believe it. I was told they were over the moon that I'd traced them and would be happy for me to write to them, which I did and that's when I got my first letter back from one of my sisters. It transpired they had another girl, which initially made me quite envious, but I later learned that their situation was at its worst when I was born."
By the time Karen boarded the plane to Hong Kong to meet them three years later, she'd seen photos ("It was so wonderful to finally look like someone") and had a sense of them as a family ("hard-working, brave and close"). "They were all there waiting to meet me at the airport, full of tears. It was amazing, despite our language barriers. Having always wanted a brother or sister, I suddenly had five. Hong Kong itself became a special place for me and I've been back eight times since. The circle is completed for me now. Knowing who I am has made me more confident and certainly more content."
The other people adopted from China during the 1960s haven't been so lucky. "For the 86 per cent who weren't relinquished but abandoned, contact with birth families is a no-go area," explains Julia Feast, policy and research consultant for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, who has spent the last four years heading up a study of 72 of them, the findings of which are launched tomorrow. "In fact, our study found very few have even thought about tracing. Maybe it's a form of self-protection or perhaps it's simply an acceptance that the door is shut and they know that they won't find anything."
But even by Feast's own admission, that's not entirely true. "We discovered that most of the women had no idea that some information was kept, so as a result of the study we now have many more people going back to adoption agencies to ask to see their files. Finding birth families will be almost impossible, but even getting records that fill in some gaps can make them feel as though they have more of a history."
Chris Atkins, 50, who was abandoned as a baby in 1962, has managed to find the area of Hong Kong she's from, what it would have looked like at the time of her birth and the actual place she was found. "That has been very moving for me, not least because it became clear to me that my mother left me somewhere, knowing that the police would find me and that I'd be safe."
Tracing roots is not, however, the sole focus of the study, points out Feast. Indeed, it probably stands out most as being the only mid-life study of people who were adopted internationally from orphanages. "Many of the women started their lives in rooms with 29 other babies. We wanted to know what happens when such women are placed in families in other countries and cultures. What's their life like? Are they able to have good family relationships and do well educationally?"
Overall, the findings are positive, says Feast. "The majority have loving relationships with their adoptive families, although the message isn't that international adoption is plain sailing. Virtually all the women, who ranged from 42 to 53, experienced racism and some felt isolated at times. But despite all that, this group of people did much better than we predicted in terms of psychological and physical health, educationally and in life satisfaction and did just as well as people adopted domestically."
But perhaps the most touching aspect of the study is what the women themselves say about it. "'You've changed my life' has been the most common comment from the participants, many of whom had never met another Chinese adopted person until they took part," says Feast. "That's been very satisfying, powerful and moving to watch. Quite a lot told us they feel they've found their sisters and, in many ways, their family."
To order Adversity, Adoption and Afterwards – a mid-life follow-up study of women adopted from Hong Kong, contact BAAF Publications on 020 7421 2604 or visit baaf.org.uk
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