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Campaigner steps down from Unison after serving ethnic minority communities for 16 years 

By Agnes Ng

Sometimes, the surest sign of love is knowing when to let go. For Fermi Wong Wai-fun, setting up  and running Unison, Hong Kong’s foremost non-governmental organisation (NGO) advocating for the rights of ethnic minorities, has been a labour of love. Now, after 16 years, Wong has left the organisation in the hope that it can be more effective without her at the helm.

“I have been working non-stop in Unison for 16 years. I am really tired,” Wong says, then stops and tries to mask the hardship with a smile. “I think it is the time for me to let go.”

Wong started her career as a social worker specialising in community work in 1995. In the course of her work, she saw a pressing need for ethnic minorities to get out of poverty and segregation, particularly in schools. “Serving ethnic minorities is not a choice, [it’s that] at that moment you see the need and then you naturally respond,” Wong says.

Wong strongly believes everyone is entitled to dignity regardless of his or her race. “Under everyone’s skin, our bones are white and our blood is red. I cannot see that they [ethnic minorities] are inferior compared with the Chinese-speaking people,” Wong says resolutely.

Wong founded Unison in 2001 with two other partners. “There was not even a single organisation helping the ethnic minorities, so I did it myself,” Wong says.

Wong with members of ethnic minority communities.

It was an uphill struggle. For the first three years, there was no funding and the organisation ran on donations. Wong herself depended on handouts. “My sister gave me cash. I cannot remember whether it was $3,000 or $5,000,” Wong says with gratitude. “But I spent most of it on Unison. I did not use much, only for dining and transportation,” she adds.

Apart from the lack of money, Unison also had no office. Wong says she used to meet her clients in neighbourhood cha chaan teng diners. She soon realised this did not work since the diners would charge double if customers only ordered drinks and Wong did not have the money to pay for food every time. Neither was it appropriate to go to parks because they were too exposed for private emotions; sometimes her clients wept when talking about their suffering.

Wong went as far as asking her then boyfriend, now husband, if he could lend her his home in Yuen Long where many ethnic minorities live. Fortunately, her teacher’s friend lent Wong an office space in Mong Kok after hearing about her plight.  Once she had an office, she furnished it with items she picked up near a refuse collection point.

“Our lack of resources might affect the scale of our services but it could be overcome,” Wong says. She then “found” clients by doing outreach work among the ethnic minorities. She would start random conversations in parks and offer to help members of the ethnic minorities to find schools and jobs. When they were in trouble with the law, she sometimes bailed them out. Gradually, she built up friendship and trust. Sometimes she even gave the key of her office to teenagers who had nowhere to sleep at night.

Before drug rehabilitation centres started to accept drug users from Nepal, some of them would seek Wong out. “I helped them to quit,” she says. “Actually it was very dangerous and luckily they did not die,” Wong says, describing scenes where drug users would be writhing on the floor suffering from withdrawal symptoms, while she worked at her desk and tried to distract them by chanting sutras.