Bringing a McRefugee home
Some people don’t trust journalists.
Mary Seow certainly felt that way at our first meeting.
She had been interviewed at random by the Associated Press (AP) and mentioned in the wire agency’s early November report on homeless people sleeping in Hong Kong’s 24-hour McDonald outlets — also known as McRefugees.
Mary later told me she hadn’t known what a wire agency such as AP was, and had not expected her story to reach people beyond Hong Kong, where she said she had been roaming the streets after being cheated of her money by church friends.
After the AP report was published, those few paragraphs on her being a homeless Singaporean in Hong Kong led to interest in Mary from other members of the press.
For Mary, the attention was thoroughly unwanted and she was very wary of anyone else asking questions.
I was sent to locate her, to find out what had happened to her. How does a middle-aged Singaporean become homeless in a foreign city.
I spent a Friday night in the same McDonald’s she slept in. But as no photo of her had been taken by AP she was able to avoid detection.
I went returned the following night, again with no luck.
A woman I suspected to be Mary sat in the same corner I had seen her in the previous night, but refused to talk.
On my third night, I had new information that came from Mary’s family in Singapore.
Mary was a single parent, and her only son, Edward, had filed a missing person’s report with the police more than four years ago. This came after Mary suddenly became uncontactable during a business trip to China.
Edward had feared the worst, even thinking that she had been kidnapped or murdered.
Edward’s granduncle, Mr Roland Seow, contacted me after reading the first TNP story on Mary, asking if I could help put her in touch with her family.
Roland sent me an old picture of Mary. It was confirmation. The resemblance with the woman sleeping in the corner was unmistakable.
Edward wanted to bring his mother back, but Mary had been avoiding him all these years.
Shame and guilt for losing money that she felt should have been his had built to the point that she felt it was best to stay missing.
He, on the other hand, wanted to start afresh. But neither of us had a way to contact her by phone, and Edward’s job did not give him the means to travel.
I worked with Edward and decided that seeing his face would be the best way to convince his mother to open up. And so I headed back to the same McDonald’s for the third night. Time was not on our side.
Mary had plans to leave Macau. There was a chance she may have left already to avoid the spotlight.
Thankfully, she had delayed leaving for Macau by a day, and I managed to catch her, this time with her son’s image on my phone.
She was stunned that I’d spoken to the person she cared most about.
“Turn off your phone, I don’t want him to see me like this, let’s go somewhere else to talk,” she said gruffly.
But her demeanour softened once we were out on the curb outside the McDonald’s, where, her eyes welling, she asked me how Edward was.
I told her he was well, living alone in a rental room — Mary had sold their flat on ill advice from the same church friends — but getting by.
I doubt I will ever forget her next words: “You’ve answered my greatest prayers, that Edward is well.”
We spent the next few hours chatting — Mary felt she wasn’t ready to face her son, but Edward had other plans.
The stories I wrote on their family’s plight generated numerous offers of aid, and with the help of our readers, Edward was able to make a fully sponsored trip to Hong Kong to surprise his mother just a few days later.
It wasn’t easy creating an opportunity for them to meet quietly and have the alone time they needed to make important life decisions.
But when the surprise meeting finally took place, Mary’s shock and smiles said it all.
The very moment after she first saw Edward, Mary rolled up a piece of paper and pretended to hit him for giving her such a shock.
She soon turned to me and began hitting me as well, all in good humour.
Kind readers pitched in to make sure Mary had her first proper night’s sleep in Hong Kong before finally flying back to Singapore with Edward two days after.
Before she left, Mary told me: “I don’t treat you like a reporter anymore, I treat you like a friend. You are my friend.”
And this friend of hers is hoping she finds happiness together with her son.