"How can you really understand people if you haven't lived their lives?" asks Hsiao-hung Pai. A long-time resident of the United Kingdom, the Taiwanese investigative writer focuses on issues around illegal migrant labor, Asian migrants, and their integration into and conflict with European society for many years, and in that time she worn many identities to go undercover and get first-hand information through personal experience. This, to her, is the most powerful way to report on the issues.
After starting university in 1987, Pai began actively participating in Taiwanese student movements, including the historic Wild Lily student movement in 1990, when she could be seen among the hundreds of students that occupied the Memorial Square (now Liberty Square) at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Later she traveled to the UK to pursue higher education, enrolling in the Journalism program at the University of Westminster in 2001. Eventually, at the recommendation of one of her professors, Pai joined The Guardian as a reporter.
During her time with the newspaper, Pai went undercover working for Grampian Country Pork to experience the lives of the illegal migrant laborers there. The publication of the resulting report drew substantial attention among the British public toward the plight of illegal migrant workers. Former Guardian investigations editor David Leigh has praised Pai as a courageous, persistent writer who has been a pioneer in exposing the suffering of immigrant Han Chinese laborers in the UK.
Pai has gone on to publish a number of pieces of investigative literature in the UK, with her first book, "Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour," shortlisted for the 2009 Orwell Prize and her later book "Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants," winning the Bread and Roses Radical Publishing Award.
She has also gone beyond being a well-known writer on migrant labor in the UK, with her books "Angry White People: Coming Face-to-Face with the British Far Right," "Invisible: Britain's Migrant Sex Workers," and "Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants" having even been published in Taiwan and becoming widely known among Taiwanese readers.
Pai has been tireless in her investigative work on the lives of those at the lowest levels of society. She has spent two years journeying through China tracing migrant labor from construction sites for the Beijing Olympics, through the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River Basin, to factories in the Pearl River Delta, as well as visiting the laborers' families left behind at home.
She has also investigated refugee and migrant shelters on the borders of Europe, seeing and hearing the stories and situations of displaced people first-handedly and exposing the injustice and cruelty stemming from decisions made by the political leaders of Europe. Through such in-person investigations, Pai is able to produce detailed depictions of these people and the reality of their lives.
In 2018, the Edinburgh International Book Festival invited Taiwanese writers to participate for the first time, with Pai among their number. In her conversation with British writer Teresa Thornhill titled "How Europe Fails Refugees," she shared with readers from around the world her years of experience with the migrants and refugees in Europe, receiving a rapturous response.
A good journalist, Pai believes, has a sense of social responsibility, and in carrying out her investigative reporting, she is working to reveal to the public the real lives of those on the lowest levels of society. "To me, this is the most direct, most powerful way to report on the issues. I have always attempted to look at people's experiences from their own perspectives."