When former triad member Chan Chi-cheung was released having served 38 years in prison over manslaughter charges, he was not especially remorseful. Instead, he became reliant on drugs to get through the days after failing to find a job and becoming homeless.

Now 64, Chan told his story of transformation to a small group of audience at “Confessions,” an exhibition organised by the Society for Community Organization (SoCO).

Civil servants: ‘You are rubbish’

In 2011, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) took away all of Chan’s belongings in a street cleaning operation. Chan said that a police officer on the scene promised he could retrieve his personal documents before the FEHD left.

Chan Chi-cheung. Photo: Lam Chun-tung.

But when the FEHD truck was about to leave, Chan confronted the officer. “The cop said that my belongings were now the government’s property, and if I tried to get my personal documents, he would arrest me,” he said.

“The cop then said: ‘You are also a piece of rubbish; the only difference is I didn’t put you into the truck.’”

With the help of SoCO, Chan filed a lawsuit against the government. The Department of Justice agreed to compensate Chan, but refused to issue an apology. According to Chan, the department said that the government would never apologise to the homeless, because it would affect its authority and hence ability to “do its job.”

“Also, they said because we [homeless people] are rubbish,” Chan said. “I know I am a piece of rubbish, but I don’t need them to tell me that.”

Chan’s faded tattoos. Photo: HKFP / Ellie Ng.

Kind acts of strangers

It was the kindness of strangers that transformed Chan.

Soon after the incident, the government gave Chan public housing. Upon hearing the news, activist Benson Tsang of Fair Sharing Action offered to buy Chan furniture for his new apartment.

“Benson said that he didn’t want anything in return. His conditions were that I quit drugs and pay it forward by helping others come off drugs,” Chan said.

Chan has been working at a hardware shop for six years. Photo: Lam Chun-tung.

Coincidentally, Chan landed a job at a hardware shop in Sham Shui Po. His boss gave him a job right away despite learning about his background through news reports.

Chan also found a support network in the church.

To Chan, acceptance by others has proved more effective than any correctional services.

“I don’t even know these people, yet they are so kind to me,” Chan said. “I don’t want to disappoint them.”

Prison as a miniature society

There is also injustice inside correctional institutions, according to former triad leader Wong Ting-hin, who had spent more than 20 years in prison for crimes ranging from burglary to identity fraud.

Wong Ting-hin. Photo: Lam Chun-tung.

Wong alleged that in 2014, four correctional services staffers beat him because a supervisor held a grudge against him, resulting in hearing loss. The correctional services union denied the allegations and the police did not press charges against anyone after investigations.

Wong admitted that he had misidentified one of the staffers. “But what I said was true,” Wong said. “Many prisoners have similar experiences but most of them keep silent because they don’t think anyone can help them.”

Instead of helping convicts rebuild their lives, Wong thinks that the criminal system perpetuates injustice. According to Wong, prison personnel often bully prisoners who are ignorant about their rights – for example, by taking away supplies they are entitled to.

“A prison is a miniature society,” Wong said, referring to the government’s lack of accountability. “And prison administration is like the police force: they can do whatever they want.”

Wong at the “Confessions” exhibition. Photo: Lam Chun-tung

‘Backward’ privacy law

Despite the efforts by the Correctional Services in recent years to help ex-convicts reintegrate into society, many continue to face discrimination.

A solution is to reform Hong Kong’s privacy law to offer greater protection to ex-offenders in the disclosure of criminal records to employers, SoCO organiser Ng Wai-tung suggested.

The Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance only requires an employer to observe general principles such as collecting personal data that are “directly related to its function or activity”. There are “no fast and hard rules” in interpreting such principles, according to the statutory body Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data.

“Hong Kong’s privacy law is very backward,” Ng said. “The government said it supports the employment of ex-convicts, but it hasn’t taken any action to improve the situation for them.”

SoCO organiser Ng Wai-tung (left), Chan Chi-cheung (middle), Wong Ting-hin (right). Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

For now, Chan and Wong are trying to make their second chance count.

Wong, who now works at his brother’s garage, said his family is his biggest source of strength. “Without my wife and my kid, I don’t think I would have survived until now. It’s not easy to live through such hardships.”

Chan works during the day and volunteers in the evening. On Sunday, he goes to church. “People like Benson wish me well,” Chan said. “To pay it back, I will try – to the best of my ability – to stand back up.”

SoCO’s exhibition “Confessions” is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday 12pm-6:30pm through November 27, 2016. Address: 1/F., 269 Yu Chau Street, Sham Shui Po (near MTR Exit C2). The photo book “Prisoners”, a compilation of stories of 13 ex-convicts, is for sale priced HK$150.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.