SCMP Wednesday, April 18, 2001

A legacy of hope


The 24 "brothers" of Fishermen's Bay are having a party. There are home-made spring rolls, soft drinks and a big cake bearing the logo of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission.
Despite the joviality in the draughty dining hut at the mission's drug treatment centre, the recovering addicts are unhappy: Lip mok see is leaving.
The Very Reverend Vuokko Lipponen, the jolly, 55-year-old chief of the mission, is sad to be going. After 20 years in Hong Kong, the fluent Cantonese speaker feels much more at home in the remote village on the shores of Long Bay than in her hometown of Tampere, 100 kilometres north of Helsinki. She is returning to care for her 88-year-old mother.
She leaves behind a legacy of hope. The flow of addicts through the centre has helped hundreds of inmates conquer their habits and return to worthwhile, productive lives.
"We don't call them inmates," Lipponen gently corrects me. "They are our brothers. That's what we call them."
They call her Lip mok see: Lip, her name in Cantonese, and mok see, a respectful term for a female pastor. At the party, there are quiet words of farewell as she gives last words of encouragement to teenagers and weary grandfathers, all victims of narcotics.
"They are nice men, many of them intelligent and sincere," she says. "It's so easy to get drugs in Hong Kong. It's like 7-Eleven."
One of the "brothers" politely interrupts: "The dealers even make deliveries."
It's a blustery day with a north wind whipping up white caps in the bay. As we walk through the mission, Lipponen stops to chat with Newman Cheung. Like two other "peer counsellors" at the drug treatment centre, he is one of the success stories. He first entered as an addict.
"Newman and two other counsellors successfully cured themselves," she says. "He left here, got married and now his son goes to a very good school in Kowloon. He wants to help others escape the drug life."
What is a Finnish Lutheran woman minister doing running a narcotics treatment centre in a deserted village in Tanka Wan (Fishermen's Bay), half-way up Long Harbour on the far fringes of the Sai Kung Country Park? The answer goes back 99 years.
At the start of the last century, the Finnish Lutherans sent missionaries to Changsha in Hunan to establish a service to help opium addicts. That closed in 1949 and the last Finnish missionary left the mainland in 1953. Some went to Taiwan.
It wasn't until 1968 that a Finnish Lutheran missionary came to Hong Kong. She spent two years learning Cantonese at Chinese University before starting the Ling Oi (Spirit Love) youth centre as a half-way house for drug addicts.
"That still exists, in Kwai Chung," Lipponen explains. "It was the first half-way house in Hong Kong."
Meant as a place where recovering addicts could prepare to rejoin the community, Ling Oi received its inhabitants from Shek Kwu Chau treatment centre.
Then, in 1984, mission staff heard about a cluster of abandoned villages at Tanka Wan. The Mo clan houses were empty and falling down. They found the village elder (most of the former indigenous population now live in Britain) and negotiated an agreement to rent the village.
Paul Tsang Hoi-hang remembers the early days, when most of the houses were crumbling into piles of mud. "We prayed and built and we taught," he says.
Tsang, a Hong Kong graduate who studied social work in the United States, is a project development officer of the Lutheran Mission. He negotiated the leasing of the village. He also persuaded the Catholic Church to let them rebuild the old St Peter's Church, which stands on a prominent headland; in a pleasant ecumenical gesture, it's now used as the mission chapel.
Unlike many establishments designed to help drug addicts, Aids victims and the mentally ill, there has been no NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) backlash against Fishermen's Bay. The reason is simple: there's nobody else there, apart from one elderly village couple living on the far side of the inlet in another deserted clan hamlet.
The hills behind are studded with overgrown, half-forgotten villages and graves.
"About 90 per cent of our brothers come here after convictions for drug offences," Lipponen says.
"Most are on probation. This is a registered drug treatment centre. If we didn't look after them, Correctional Services would have to do it.
"That's why we get a subvention from the Social Welfare Department."
It doesn't look as if money is thrown about wildly. The "brothers" rise at dawn and work in the fields or kitchens or repair the older buildings. They do all their own washing, cleaning and cooking. The only staff are Lutherans, social workers such as Paul Tsang, who is employed by the mission, and teachers.
It is a detoxification centre, aimed at breaking addicts of their lust for heroin or the increasingly popular drugs such as ice and ecstasy. It's not easy. The day I am there, a new "brother" has joined the family. He's in the detoxification centre, which is a refurbished pigsty. No medicines are used to help him. One of the peer counsellors, who knows well the agony, sits watchfully outside the opened door to the darkened room.
"We use the gospel treatment of withdrawal," says Lipponen. "Prayer and the words of God are used rather than a medicinal approach." That means a daily dose of bible studies, prayer, counselling and teaching, along with the work, exercise on machines and basketball court, and swimming off the inviting beach. From prison or as voluntary inmates, new "brothers" arrive to spend nine months purifying themselves at isolated Tanka Wan. Then they go to the half-way house at Kwai Chung.
It doesn't always work. Tsang notes that a year after graduation, 30 per cent fall back into the clutches of narcotics. Within two years of leaving Ling Oi, half the brothers have lapsed. However, the recidivist rates are good by international rehabilitation standards. "It's so sad," says Lipponen.
She's a jolly woman, steered in her work by "God's guidance". But that's mixed with a solid realism. "It's not an easy option, coming here as a volunteer," she says.
Part of the path of enlightenment comes through music. The throb of Canto-pop comes from a makeshift hut built on the ruins of a rundown village house. Inside, Reverend Hannu Latti, who will be the centre's new head, plays the guitar as a recovering addict sings a pulsating ode to chasing the dragon (smoking heroin).
"It's better if they write their own songs, telling of their experiences," he says. Some lyrics deal with the Lutheran way of treatment, others tell of the perils of narcotics. Latti, who has been in Hong Kong for 10 years, has used music to help scores of young "brothers". Some have had CDs made.
"This is showing boys from unfortunate backgrounds that they can achieve something," says Lipponen. "They take pride."
In rural Finland when she was a girl, church was a part of life. When she was a teenager she decided she wanted to make it her career. She studied theology and graduated in 1972, but it wasn't until 1988, eight years after she came to Hong Kong, that she was ordained as a minister; until then, her church did not accept women of the cloth.
Lipponen will retain strong links with the mission when she returns to Finland. She will be organising the 100th anniversary celebrations marking the Lutherans' first attempt to treat drug addiction in China.
Her pale grey eyes light up: there's another reason to celebrate. The mission is back on the mainland, with an education programme among the Yao minority in northern Guangdong, identifying bright but poor youngsters and getting them to school.