They are three women who have led very different lives, but there is an invisible link between them, forged 25 years ago in China.
For, when young British broadcaster Kate Blewett made an explosive documentary uncovering the neglect of millions of Chinese girls in squalid, state-run orphanages, she changed the lives of thousands of children, including Sophie Brook and Tamzin Howard.
They were adopted as babies after Kate’s film revealed how China had failed to care for, or about, them.
And when Kate finally met Sophie and Tamzin, now young women and living happily in the UK, she described it as “a beautiful moment, off the Richter scale of anything I’ve ever experienced”.
Kate’s 1996 documentary, The Dying Rooms, exposed the devastating collision between China’s one-child policy and preference for male heirs.
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Kate and Brian Woods went undercover with a secret camera and risked their lives, posing as charity workers, to access orphanages and film girls tied to potty benches, suffocating under heavy blankets or left to die of starvation.
In one of the “dying rooms” they found a tiny girl called Mei-Ming, which means “no name”. Ignored by the orphanage staff, she was left to starve in a dark room, emaciated, covered in faeces and days from death. Her dying gasps were heard around the world when the documentary was aired on Channel 4 and led to a rush of Western families adopting Chinese baby girls. Now those babies are women like Sophie and Tamzin, both 24.
Tamzin, a TV researcher living in Leeds, was seven months old when her parents adopted her from Hunan province and took her home to Berkshire.
Sophie, a learning support assistant living in London, was adopted from Foshan, Guangdong, aged 11 months and taken to live in North Yorkshire.
Kate, 59, says: “Tamzin and Sophie are the survivors Mei-Ming never was. They are intelligent, modern young women.
“Meeting them made me realise what all those young girls were capable of. They are the faces of 25 million girls who don’t exist because of their gender.”
Estimates put the number of girls who perished in the dying rooms at many millions. In addition, there were an estimated 336 million abortions because of China’s one-child policy.
The documentary footage from the orphanages was horrific, baby girls tied up, covered in urine-soaked blankets, some with gangrene and sores, others rocking back and forth, starved of love and comfort.
Ian Vogler / Daily Mirror)
Kate, who had a one-year-old daughter Freddie when she made the programme, says: “As a mother myself, I knew Chinese women were desperate to avoid abandoning their daughters, but were in fear of a brutal regime, which viewed girls as ‘the maggots in the rice’.”
Tamzin and Sophie both watched the documentary in their late teens with disbelief, but also gratitude for the way it helped them escape.
They met in 2016 at Central Saint Martin’s College, London, where they both studied fine art and became friends. Tamzin says: “It is rare to meet someone who shares your unique experience.”
Tamzin first approached Kate when she asked to interview her for her final-year university project. Tamzin says: “It was like meeting your actual hero.”
The meeting was equally important to Kate, who says: “Without The Dying Rooms, she might not be alive, but I was a stranger to her. It was an emotional and surreal moment.”
Tamzin and Sophie both struggled with their identities growing up.
Tamzin says: “I came back from my first day at a predominately white school and said, ‘Mum, why does no one look like me?’ I experienced racism from my peers and family members, which led to insecurities, which thankfully I’m past.”
Sophie says: “I only realised I was Chinese through racial slurs. It was tough growing up in such a white area. But I’ve educated myself. I am a confident, secure Chinese British gay woman. I feel whole and proud of my culture.”
Looking back on her ground-breaking documentary, Kate says: “Today, if someone said to me, hide a bulky camera in a bag, head off to the middle of China with no communications, no back-up, with the Chinese government looking out for you, I’d say you were mad, but I’d do it all again tomorrow. The more neglect Brian and I saw, the angrier we grew.”
Kate, Brian and cameraman Peter Woolridge travelled more than 4,000 miles, using cover stories to gain access and then secretly film.
Kate says: “It was the smell which hit us first, the eye-watering stench and then the eerie silence. Babies were smothered under heavy blankets, toddlers tied up with their legs splayed over makeshift potties and not one of them made a sound. They had given up crying as they knew no one would come. They all rocked relentlessly, their only form of stimulation.”
It was in the last orphanage they visited, in the wealthy suburb of Guangdong, that they found the dying rooms, where Mei-Ming was left to starve to death.
Kate says: “The staff did not go in there. When I ventured in I saw this poor baby girl, her face shrunken to a skull, so close to death.
“I asked Peter to turn the camera off. The mother in me wanted to get her out, but we knew we would be caught and more than likely never seen again. It was the toughest decision of my life to keep filming. Documenting it was painful, but we had to do it to reveal the institutionalised cruelty and murder of girls.”
When Kate and Brian tried to get help to Mei-Ming, the orphanage denied her existence. The only proof she ever lived at all was the footage of her dying days.
The shocking documentary had a huge impact. The Chinese government issued furious denials and questions were raised in the House of Commons.
PR executive Omer-Li Cohen volunteered to launch a campaign to keep the issue in the public eye and raise funds.
She says: “I wrote to everyone I could think of and the response was astonishing. Every day I came into the office to a deluge of mail and opened letters with cheques from Elton John and Paul McCartney and many more. We also worked on an advertising campaign. Ten days after our campaign broke, China capitulated and requested £8.6billion from the World Bank to help resolve the problem of over population.”
The Dying Rooms Trust was formed to help the babies by supplying medicine, training for staff and specialist baby units. Kate still speaks out about China’s brutal human rights abuses.
She says: “State officials dragged pregnant women from their homes and performed forced abortions and sterilisations on them, with the aborted babies being slung into a bucket.
“When you see a policy that allows huge-scale gendercide, not just through the state orphanages, but forced abortion and sterilisation, it never leaves you.
“These abuses haven’t gone away, they have simply changed shape.”
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