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Briton’s 50 years of helping Hong Kong addicts beat drugs – and find God

In the centre for recovering drug addicts run by the St Stephen’s Society in Sha Tin, about 20 Chinese men of various ages stand in a circle singing gospel songs. The youngest, wearing pyjamas and a coat, sits on a sofa hunched over his songbook, looking pained. He is in the first stages of withdrawal. A middle-aged man puts his arm around his shoulder, offering solace.

The men are the latest among the thousands of Hongkongers that Briton Jackie Pullinger has helped quit drugs without the use of medication since she arrived in the city, by boat, in 1966. They may not succeed initially, she says, but once they have fully accepted Jesus’ help they become “like a newborn baby”, starting their lives afresh.

The Christian from Croydon, south London, first worked as a primary-school teacher in the squalid and lawless Kowloon Walled City. Her attention soon turned to the problems faced by those living in the crumbling settlement, however, and she later set up the St Stephen’s charity.

“Churches tend to look after the nice people. I do my work with the nasty ones, like addicts and prostitutes who feel despised and excluded,” she told the Post in January 1983. “They won’t go near churches, so I make it my job to find them.”

The golden jubilee of Pullinger’s arrival in Hong Kong, and the good deeds she has done, were recently celebrated at the Vine Centre in Wan Chai, and a three-day public worship begins at 6pm on Friday at Kowloon Walled City Park.

One of the many people she has helped is Winson Chan Wing-shun, an affable 65-year-old who checks in visitors at the society’s Shing Mun Streams compound on a Sha Tin hillside, which has four dormitories, a gym and swimming pool.

It’s a far cry from his childhood experience. Chan grew up in the Kowloon Walled City, where his father was a triad member and opium addict. With his family unable to pay tuition fees, Chan didn’t finish his primary education until he was 17.

“At school I was already stealing things. At night we’d go to construction sites – they weren’t cordoned off in those days – and we’d steal metal things to sell,” he recalls. “Eventually I joined the triads and we’d either steal or fight.

“We’d hang out with the senior members in opium dens, watching them smoke. We were curious and started taking the odd puff. After a while you couldn’t stop yourself and were addicted.”

In 1970 Chan met Pullinger, who had set up a youth centre in Kowloon Walled City where teenagers played table tennis and enjoyed free snacks.

“We wondered what she was doing in a place that was so filthy and chaotic. Was she a police informer?” Chan says. When he and fellow triad members realised she was just trying to improve their lives, he offered support.

Chan decided to turn to Christianity, and Pullinger helped him kick his drug habit through prayer. Once clean, he learned English and got a hotel job, starting as a bell boy and eventually becoming a concierge.

His story is chronicled in Pullinger’s 1980 best-seller Chasing the Dragon, which has been translated into several languages. Nine years later, she released Crack in the Wall: the Life and Death of Kowloon Walled City, a photographic account of her work there.

In 1988 she received an MBE, a British honour bestowed by Queen Elizabeth. Despite drawing no salary and relying on donations and volunteers, Pullinger soldiers on.

“I had no idea I would be here this long, but it’s gone quickly. I’m lucky to see what I dreamed of realised,” she says.

The Sha Tin rehabilitation centre houses about 200 people, some in the first stages of drug withdrawal and others who have lived there for years. They not only pray, but also exercise daily, swimming, playing basketball or soccer, and learning work skills such as English and computing.

Like Winson Chan, Chan Hok-yin also owes immense gratitude to Pullinger. He had been an opium addict and triad member since the age of 13, and turned his life around after meeting her when he was 28, wanting to get clean.

“You can get off drugs quickly, but changing your outlook on life takes a long time. I’m still doing that,” the 61-year-old widower says. “I’m still learning to walk with Jesus, learning how to help people. If it wasn’t for Jackie I’d probably be dead, either from drugs, fighting in triads or in jail.”

Chan Cheuk-ho, 39, lives in the compound with his two sons and wife Esther, and organises playtime in the gym, encouraging parents to enjoy time with their children.

What was it really like living in Kowloon Walled City?

“Twenty years ago I started taking marijuana, then ketamine, then heroin,” he says. “My father was a triad member and drug addict. My parents had split up and no one really looked after me; no one cared if I went to school or not, so inevitably I became a wayward kid, stealing and getting arrested.”

His probation officer showed him a list of drug treatment centres and he picked the one that was free – Pullinger’s. “I didn’t know what Christianity was. I thought it was old school. But on the first day I became so emotional because the people helping me to pray understood my pain. It was the first time I felt someone understood me.”

After emerging from his drug fog, Chan Cheuk-ho realised he’d turned to drugs to avoid thinking about his family problems and bury the pain. Once clean, he began to study, and a year later got a job in tech support while also volunteering for Pullinger. He now works at the rehabilitation centre full time, teaching computer skills.

Japanese love Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City

Although drugs remain a concern, Pullinger believes addiction is the core issue. “People are trying to find something to stop [them] thinking about something painful,” she says. “You can be a workaholic husband who doesn’t see his family, and it becomes dysfunctional, not caring about the children.”

She wants people who turn to the centre to feel safe enough to open up, see the issues facing them and confront them, in order to heal, like in the case of Yung Sum-yee.

Yung came to see Pullinger about 10 years ago – brought by her father, a former drug addict and triad member, and a friend of Winson Chan.

Yung, 40, says she and her two younger sisters had an unhappy childhood because her parents argued constantly. They beat Yung until she bled, and her bruises scared other children away from her at school.

“When my parents were angry with me, they’d order me to leave the flat, and I’d hang on to the gate, not wanting to leave,” she recalls. “I hated my parents. I remember my mum had bought insurance for herself and not for my dad, so I prayed for my mother to die so I could claim the insurance.”

Yung looked for love elsewhere, got married at 17 and became pregnant a year later. She divorced and remarried twice, with two daughters in tow.

“After my second marriage fell apart, I tried to kill myself. I didn’t know the way forward. My second daughter was only a few months old.” Yung disliked drugs but forced herself to take ketamine. Seeing her spiralling downwards, her father took her to Pullinger.

“I just wanted someone to tell me I was clean, so I could get out, get a job and provide for my kids, but I realised it wasn’t that easy,” Yung says.

Her roommate for three years was British volunteer Caroline Chown, who encouraged Yung to speak with her in English for an hour every night. Worried about her pronunciation, however, Yung barely spoke. But Chown offered constant praise and Yung realised her English wasn’t that bad after all.

“I also realised I should praise people more. I would only criticise people, which is what I learned from my parents. I have since learned to be quiet and my relationship with my younger daughter, now 17 [the older one is 21], has improved. I’m also learning to live with other people, communicating with them, and trusting them.”

What Hong Kong parents can do to flag drug and alcohol risks to children

Pullinger expresses concern at the criteria by Hong Kong society judges success or failure today – the obsession with getting into the best schools, and putting too much pressure on children from an early age.

“My values are that everyone is different, and we should allow them to be different. Don’t enforce your idea of success on them. We have teenagers who have failed the system. When I look at them, they are scared; I tell them I look at them because I respect them. I tell them they are special, that they are clever people to fail so early. They can’t concentrate but they are very bright. They just didn’t fit into the Hong Kong mould of a ‘good child’. We want them to know they are loved, and once they find out what they are good at, they can be disciplined.”

Jackie Pullinger invites the public to come to Kowloon Walled City Park on Carpenter Road, Kowloon City, for three days of worship on Friday from 6pm-9pm; Saturday 9am-9pm; Sunday 9am-8pm