This is not an isolated incident: the Essex 39, Chinese Feminism and Anti-Border Activism

Bootcamp graduate Tessa has been organising with activists to stand in solidarity with the families of the Essex 39. Read on to find out more about her story and activism across the UK and China.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your upbringing.

My Dad is Chinese and my Mum is white British. I grew up in South London where I didn’t really stand out for being mixed. I was lucky that I didn’t experience much racism growing up, but many people in East and South-East Asian communities around me did and still do. It wasn’t until I started dating that I became aware of the way I was racialised as a mixed East Asian person.

Growing up I couldn’t read, write or speak very good Mandarin, so I studied Chinese at university and spent a year abroad in Beijing. That year was really transformative.

What happened in Beijing?

I met an amazing human rights lawyer called Ni Yulan at a cultural space called the Crossroads Centre. She faced a lot of persecution from the Chinese state and had her lawyer’s license revoked. She became like my Aunty. She instilled a lot of fire in me to keep the fight going, and continues to be the most badass person ever. I also spent a lot of time with other queer Chinese people. I was like, cool! These two parts of my identity don’t have to be seperate all the time.

This photo shows two women together, Tessa and Ni Yulan. They are outside in an open public square, with people in the background. Ni Yulan is a wheelchair user, and Tessa is crouched down beside her.
Tessa with Ni Yulan in Beijing, 2018.

What was going on politically whilst you were in China?

The Feminist Five were detained. They were five female activists, one of whom is my good friend. They did amazing activism, art and street performances.

On International Women’s Day 2015, they planned to hand out stickers to raise awareness against sexual harassment on public transport. The day before the action was planned, they were all detained in different cities. There was a huge outcry within and outside of China. A lot of people saw it as a clear turning point for grassroots activism in China. It was a symbolic decision from the state which told people: the activism you used to get away with isn’t going to fly anymore.

This image shows a campaign poster. In the centre are photos of the heads of five women, in orange. Above and below them are Chinese symbols. The translation reads: 'Feminism is not a crime. Release the Feminist Five'
Campaign poster: ‘Feminism is not a crime. Release the Feminist Five’

When did you get involved with SOAS Detainee Support (SDS), and what has your experience been like?

After I returned from China I joined SOAS Detainee Support, visiting Chinese people in immigration detention. There are a lot of Chinese people in detention who don’t speak or feel confident speaking English.

Sometimes people just needed friendship. Sometimes I supported people to take on their own legal case. As English is my first language, I have more access to intimidating rules and regulations which are deliberately hard to understand.

SDS describes themselves as abolitionist. What does that mean?

SDS as a group is abolitionist and anti-border. I definitely started off feeling very intimidated by those terms. But when I started visiting detainees, I saw the power of friendship between people normally separated by the state. The higher powers want to put borders between us. They want one of us to be invisible. Seeing each other, despite all of that, is a really powerful thing.

To me, being abolitionist means acknowledging that prisons, detention and borders cause more harm and have been created by people in power. There is nothing humane about locking people up.

What has been your journey campaigning around the Essex 39 case, where 39 Vietnamese people died in a lorry container in Essex due to the horrific conditions of their attempt to reach the UK? 

I felt grief, sadness, and so much anger because I knew that this was avoidable. This wasn’t an isolated incident. I messaged a few friends who I knew were really upset about it. We put all the emotions we were feeling into organising a vigil.

At first it was believed that the people were Chinese. A lot of people who were organising around Chinese communities came to the vigil, including organisers and elders within the communities who organised around the Dover 58. After it was discovered that the people were Vietnamese, the media didn’t really care. You could see how the power dynamics of China’s place in the world trickled down to communities here and their representation by the media.

We are still working out how best to show solidarity with the people who lost their lives and their families, as well as people in very similar situations: people who are still being subjected to the hostile environment and violent border regimes.

This is a photograph of a protest taking place on Westminster Bridge, London. We can see many people standing on the bridge, holding a red banner that says: 'Borders kill. Remember the Essex 39'. There is pink smoke above them. Behind the protest crowd, there is Big Ben and the Houses of Westminster.
National Migrants’ Day banner drop with SDS, Unis Resist Border Control and daikon* zine. The banner reads ‘Borders kill. Remember the Essex 39’.

What’s next for you and your campaigns?

We’ve linked up with groups like Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants (LGSM), and Eastern Margins to fundraise for the families of the Essex 39We’ve also got an event coming up at the end of Feb, raising awareness on issues around South-East and East Asian migrant workers and communities. We’ll be looking at the language used around migration and the hostile environment, linking no-borders struggles to other struggles (like sex work and prison abolition), and how we talk to people who find concepts like being ‘anti-border’ and ‘abolitionist’ intimidating. The last thing we want to do is make people feel unwelcome or alienated from the discussion.

After that…I’m moving to China! I’m going to do an internship at an organisation that does research on the family histories of people of Chinese heritage, like myself. I’ve been feeling scared about leaving London. But talking to you now reminds me of the reasons why I am doing it.

If you were inspired by Tessa’s story, why not apply for a place on Bootcamp?

Applications for our spring and summer camps are now closed. Thank you to everyone who applied! Applications for our autumn camp will open this summer. We’re also in the process of thinking about how to take our training online. If you’d like to power up your activism with Campaign Bootcamp, please sign up to our newsletter to hear the latest updates by clicking here.

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