For today’s Supportive Sunday, we have Amy. Amy and I are Instagram friends – our friendship literally started on Instagram and it’s only been months after we first chatted on Instagram that we finally went for a walk together two weeks ago.
Amy is an illustrator and graphic designer from London, and you can find her online shop here. She started her career in contracts and royalties reporting, enrolled in a part-time graphic design course and loved it so much she decided to go full time with graphic design! she is also a co-founder of a grassroots movement called besea.n which stands for Britain’s East and South East Asian Network where she does amazing work with five other people to push for fairer and broader representation of East and South East Asians.
When I first read her piece, my breath actually caught in my throat with all the emotions it brought up in me. As a child growing up in a post-colonial world, I’ve been thinking about Amy’s piece non-stop since the first time I read it. But today isn’t about me, it’s about Amy so here we go – Amy Phung’s “The Cost of Greed“.
The Cost of Greed
Does a baby sleep as sweetly rocked in a boat as a baby that is tucked snugly into a cot at home? Do the crashing of waves soothe them to slumber as well as the sound of lullaby? I often wonder about my parents in the late 1970s with their four children, the youngest not-yet two, hiding under deck as they left Northern Vietnam in junk boats. As tensions rose against the ethnic Chinese (although that was not the only reason for the mass exodus of both Chinese and Vietnamese from Vietnam), they were forced to flee their home as part of the Boat People. Against a backdrop of endless wars fought by imperial powers over the country, my parents had no choice but to gamble their lives on the sea just under a decade before I was born. My daughter is nearly four now, and I have fretted over every runny nose and cursed loud motorbikes as they disturbed her sleep, but she knows little of the once precariousness of my existence and consequently her own. Only four decades before, before either of us were born, her grandmother’s worry as a young woman was not if her children, my older siblings, would be able to sleep but if their bodies would be dashed against a rock or their boat raided by pirates, their lives holding on by a thread.
Somewhere between 200,000 – 400,000 people died at sea, but my family survived against the odds. After reaching a refugee camp in Hong Kong, they were finally able to head to the UK where they had two more children, including myself. The last of the Boat People didn’t stop escaping until the 1990s but the cycle of human migration that has been forced by geopolitical tensions continues to this day. In a recent tragedy, a Kurdish boy of only 15 months old named Artin was drowned alongside his whole family when they tried to cross the English Channel last October, attempting to find safety in the UK after living in terrible conditions in a tent in Dunkirk. The tightening of borders, the lack of safe passage, and policies such as the Hostile Environment are designed to drain life from desperate migrants, and to me it’s a symbol of greed. The centuries of ravaging and overexploitation by European colonialism and US Imperialism now sees these countries tightening their grip on that wealth. Despite happily invading and raiding with impunity (at its peak the British Empire covered 25% of the world), its eventual dissolution left countries picking up the pieces from damaged resources and inter-community tensions left by their colonisers. With the empire in retreat, we see the UK government protecting its hoard, quite literally, with the stone walls of institutions such as the British Museum holding the loot hostage that its benefactors have stolen.
In the minds of many, the wealth of our country has become almost entirely divorced from the tangible fact that it has been accumulated through colonisation and exploitation. By doing so, the general public see its byproducts as intrinsically part of the ‘British’ construct, including stately country homes, museums and even the laws of Isaac Newton (many of his calculations were made based on data and resources directly gathered as a result of African enslavement). The resources that have been robbed through imperialistic endeavours and the consequent wilful genocide when colonised populations fought back have been conveniently erased in our education, contributing to the collective amnesia about our ill-gotten wealth. Nowadays the battlegrounds of the Empire have moved, with the process for gaining asylum or citizenship beset with red tape, illegal deportations in breach of human rights, and government-endorsed peddling of the scarcity complex influencing the UK population against migrants. The 2016 Brexit campaign was eager to proclaim that the UK was drowning under a supposed migrant crisis, despite the fact that migrants make a net contribution to the economy, with a study from 2018 showing that migrants working in adult social care contributed £4.4 billion to the UK economy and the UK is below average compared to EU countries for asylum applications per head. What we do have, however, is a moral crisis and one by which we can only start redressing when we raise our heads, look at our past squarely in the face, and unfurl the hands around which we grip tightly to our wealth. Most urgently, we have to address the fact that as of October 2020, the U.K. is the world’s second largest exporter of arms which often goes directly towards funding regimes repressing people around the world, causing the forced migrations we see happening to today.
Bruce Hood, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bristol says that, “possessions are often a marker of identity and by exerting our control over them, we claim them as our own”. With greater knowledge around the violent past that has built Britain’s wealth, we must question our entitlement to the advancements and privileges we have gained from colonialism. As I know from my parents’ plight and that of so many others (many countries turned the Boat People away before they reached ports like Hong Kong), our lack of humanity shows when we ignore the desperation of families who flee their home countries because they had no other option. Understand that borders are a construct and hold our government accountable for the countless lives lost because of callous attitudes towards migrants. As we saw from the events on Kenmure Street, with enough organising, we know it is within our collective power to stem the tide that forces people who are likely mothers, fathers and children out into the sea.
Amy, thank you. If you’d like to support Amy’s art work, you can do so here. She’s also done interviews and panels, so if you’re looking to have an ESEAN voice on one of your events, do reach out to Amy or any of the besea.n network.