What’s the real history behind the Chinese child refugees in Call the Midwife’s Christmas special?

This year's Call the Midwife Christmas special sees newcomer Sister Mildred arrive at Nonnatus House with four Chinese child refugees in tow. But what's the real-life history behind the episode?

CALLTHE MIDWIFE (BBC)

In 1963, Sue Jardine arrived at Heathrow Airport, where her new adoptive parents were waiting to meet her. She was one-and-a-half years old and dressed in a red Chinese jacket, while an identity bracelet engraved with her Chinese name (Sau Ching, meaning ‘lovely and pure’) hung at her wrist.

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Jardine was one of a hundred children — mostly girls, the majority under three years old — who came to the UK between 1960 and 1963 as part of The International Social Services UK Hong Kong Adoption Project.

The project is highlighted is this year’s Call the Midwife Christmas special, which sees forthright Sister Mildred (Harry Potter’s Miriam Margolyes) arrive unexpectedly at Nonnatus House with four Chinese child refugees in tow, before taking the children to the seaside motherhouse to meet their new families.

Why were Hong Kong babies being adopted in the UK in the 1960s?

We learn in Call the Midwife that the child refugees (all girls) were found abandoned in Hong Kong, having fled communist China and the famine that followed Mao’s Great Leap Forward – the Communist Party of China’s economic and social campaign which ran from 1958 to 1962 and failed in its aim to transform the country, resulting in tens of millions of deaths. 

The girls’ story, also set in 1963, is strikingly similar to Jardine’s. She was abandoned in a first-floor stairwell “by the docks on Hong Kong Island”, to the south of Hong Kong. “I can presume — I mean, I don’t know — that my [birth] parents managed to get into Hong Kong and then weren’t able to feed me,” Jardine tells RadioTimes.com.

She was moved to Fanling Babies Home in Hong Kong, run by a midwife and English missionary called Lucy Clay. “The orphanage was also run primarily by women [like the nuns’ motherhouse]… I’ve been told that it took a bit of time for me to get used to men when I arrived in the UK,” Jardine says.

Sue Jardin's identity bracelet, passport and baby jacket
Sue Jardine’s identity bracelet, passport and baby jacket

Meanwhile in England, Jardine’s future adoptive parents responded to a radio programme detailing the refugee crisis and Hong Kong Adoption Project.

“The journey [to the UK] was about two days,” Jardine says. She travelled with four other Chinese children. “We generally came over with anybody who was flying over, so often it was air hostesses.”

What issues did the Hong Kong Adoption Project face?

The Call the Midwife episode doesn’t shy away from the potential struggles the child refugees might experience as they grew up. One midwife is frustrated that the girls can’t be placed with Chinese adoptive parents: “The babies need to know they’re Chinese.” However, another counters that “they’ll know they’re Chinese every time they look in the mirror”.

Jardine, who grew up in Hertfordshire with four older siblings, recalls that she struggled with the realisation that she was “different”: “When I was growing up… there wasn’t anybody who looked like me.”

“In my early years, I don’t think I was very aware of being Chinese,” she explains. “For me, it was not even a matter of forgetting that I was Chinese — I never felt that I was Chinese in the first place. When I met Chinese people, I was not able to see that I was like them at all. Both visually and culturally they were unfamiliar to me.”

A recent image of Sue (courtesy of Sue Jardin)
A recent image of Sue (courtesy of Sue Jardine)

On her physical dissimilarity from the rest of her adoptive family, Jardine says: “I think it did become difficult. Just in terms of being so obviously different to them.”

Growing up, she “attract[ed] negative attention… Racist comments. Or the pulling of the eyes, things like that, from other children”.

“When I looked in the mirror, it was a reminder that I did not look like other children I played with or saw in my everyday life, or on TV,” Jardine says, adding, “I didn’t like what I saw.”

“The majority of Hong Kong adoptees I know have been on the receiving end of negative comments [or] racism,” but, she adds, they all responded differently to the comments. “Some of us got into fights, or others had brothers or sisters who protected them.”

What does a real-life Hong Kong adoptee think of Call the Midwife’s storyline?

Asked how she finds seeing her experience onscreen, Jardine says, “I mean, Call the Midwife is amazing anyway. They do tackle really [tough] social issues… and increasingly they’ve had other storylines around people from different cultures or viewpoints.”

Call The Midwife S8 - Christmas Special 2018

She also praises the show for touching on the racial disconnect experienced by many of the project’s adoptees.

“That was a very good comment to make in the programme. Because it is about, what do we actually pick up [as a child] in terms of cues about ourselves?”

Five years ago, Jardine took part in a study run by Coram BAAF (British Association for Adopting and Fostering), which followed-up on the Hong Kong Adoption Project. “Previously I hadn’t thought about there being others like me,” Jardine admits.

The adoptees have since gone on to create a supportive network for each other, called the UK Hong Kong Adoptees Network. With their encouragement, Jardine has visited Hong Kong and begun her search for her birth parents. She understands the likely reasons why they left her — and growing up she didn’t feel bereft, stating that her adoptive parents never made her feel different.

“They were very clear about [that],” she says. “We were all part of the family.”


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The Call the Midwife Christmas special airs at 7.45pm on Christmas Day (Tuesday 25th December 2018) on BBC1