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What Lies Beneath: One woman’s healing journey after rape and sexual abuse

Severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts have followed one woman like a shadow since childhood.

Growing up in Sham Shui Po, a working-class neighbourhood in Hong Kong, Valerie Chan* spent a lot of time alone. Her parents worked long hours at garment factories, struggling to make a living, while her older brother was busy with secondary school. 

“My parents were very good to me and my brother, despite earning so little. Particularly me, as the youngest,” she recalls. “They gave us everything they could, even though we had a tough time.”

Timid and quiet, Chan was seemingly content as a child. She didn’t throw tantrums, push the boundaries or question her parents’ authority. “Since I never complained, my parents – and everyone in their circle – thought of me as a nice little girl who was always happy,” recalls Chan. But under the surface, she was suffering in silence for years. 

As soon as she entered primary school, Chan quickly became a star student. She excelled in every subject and her primary school teachers loved her. One, in particular, was especially attentive. “In Primary 4, I had a teacher who treated me very well. I was his top student, a high-flyer. He gave me special assignments and always said I had potential.” 

At first, Chan says, she thought her teacher was just being kind. He saw her intellect and wanted to challenge her. “I thought I was so privileged that this teacher wanted to pay extra attention to me,” she recalls. As the year went on, the teacher – a bald middle-aged man who smoked cigars during class – started calling Chan to his desk while the other students took exams. “That’s when he would grab my hand or touch my body, at first in subtle ways,” she recalls. “Somehow he would graze my back or buttocks while talking to me.”

The situation escalated when the teacher invited Chan to be his assistant during an event in Wan Chai, which he was organising. “While I was carrying some papers for him, he led me into the stairwell and then grabbed me really tight. As a little girl, I kind of pushed away. And I remember he replied, ‘What? Are you shy?’”

Later that evening, following the event, they returned together to the empty school. It was a weekend, and the other students and teachers had already left. “I remember him being at the top of a flight of stairs and motioning for me to come up. When I walked to the top he kissed me with his tongue,” says Chan. “I can’t remember how long it lasted, but I remember his mustache. I can still feel it. I can still smell him. He reeked of cigars. That smell is etched in my memories. After he kissed me, he said: ‘That was very special. I won’t do that to anyone else.’”

Naturally shy, Chan didn’t say anything. She ran home and wept in her room for hours. “I didn’t really know why I was crying. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, but I knew it was wrong. I can’t explain how I felt. He was my teacher, right? Why did he do that? Did I do something wrong? Early on, I learned that people could be demons.”

Jump into the hole
Valerie experienced PTSD and depression following several instances of rape and sexual harassment.

In plain sight

Since Chan’s parents often worked late the young girl spent a lot of time at her grandmother’s apartment. It was dark and crowded, with walls that would sweat from the humidity. “I remember there being very little light, with many households all crammed together. A lot of my relatives lived with my grandma, including several cousins and a few uncles.”

Chan’s youngest uncle, who is 15 years her senior, was in his early 20s at the time. “Since I was walking home alone from school every day, my uncle would pick me up on the street and bring me to the apartment. There was no lift and we had to take the stairs.”

One day, as they were climbing the stairs, he suddenly lifted Chan up, held her to his chest, and kissed her. “He just held me there for a while, then put me back down and kept walking like nothing had happened,” she recalls. “I was scared and really puzzled. What happened just now?”

As she tried to make sense of it over the next few weeks, her uncle’s advances grew more frequent. “I would be playing with my other cousins – little boys who were running around – and my uncle would just brush up against my body. He took me into the kitchen once and started kissing me. I pulled away from him and didn’t know what he would do next. Then one of my other uncles, who is quite a bit older, walked in. That saved me in that instant. I think my older uncle knew that something was wrong, but he never brought it up with me.”  

In the following months, Chan tried to keep to herself, pouring her energy into schoolwork, but she couldn’t escape her uncle’s groping. Finally, Chan’s mum said she was old enough to study at home alone and didn’t have to go to her grandmother’s anymore. “I think, by then, I was in Primary 5. It’s hard for me to remember. But when my mum said I didn’t have to stay at grandma’s, it felt like a blessing.”

But that was the beginning of the most traumatic period of Chan’s childhood. Knowing she was home alone, her uncle began visiting – always armed with a logical excuse: one day he was dropping off the laundry, the next a note or a delivery. He raped her once. Then on several other occasions during the course of the next year.

“In retrospect, I always wonder, ‘Why did I let him in? Why didn’t I pretend I wasn’t home?’ But I was a very obedient girl. I always followed the rules and I never questioned the adults.”

Chan hid what happened from her parents, her brother, and her grandmother. “I vowed that I would never tell my parents about what happened to me. They are simple, good people. I want to protect them,” says Chan. “I know they would blame themselves for leaving me home alone. My mum would think it’s her fault and she’d never be happy again. Their happiness is all that matters to me.”

At some point, her uncle stopped coming over – it was around the time when Chan graduated from Primary 6. Chan was relieved that it might be over but continued to conceal her pain for several years.

And there was this voice, telling me to jump into that hole.

Valerie Chan

She confided in a friend for the first time in Form 5 (Grade 11) when she was around 16 or 17 years old, but neither of the young women knew what to do. “Many times, I thought of killing myself. I also thought about taking a knife and killing him. I had all of these crazy thoughts. I feel like he destroyed a part of me, like things have never been the same since.”

Both her teacher and uncle were men Chan thought she could trust. “I lost any sense of security in my life and I felt scared everywhere I went – walking down the street, on the MTR, home alone. I never felt safe.” 

When she entered Form 6, Chan visited a counsellor to seek advice but did not feel as though she could reveal her true feelings. “I was young, and I didn’t know how to handle it,” she says. “Maybe I wasn’t ready to talk.”

Meanwhile, Chan’s suicidal thoughts grew more intense as she entered university. “I felt like I was suffocating, like everything I did was unworthy,” she recalls. One afternoon, she was sitting at her window, watching the traffic below. A voice urged her to step off the ledge. “I remember seeing the cars rush by, the lights, and this dark hole that just seemed to grow deeper and deeper, swallowing the road. And there was this voice, telling me to jump into that hole. I felt this overwhelming urge to [jump], but my mum just happened to call me. That jerked me out of it.”

Throughout her adult years, Chan says she has felt emotionally unstable at times, falling into weeks-long episodes of depression that are hard to escape. She hasn’t sought out professional help since secondary school, but she has read several online resources and books on psychology, spirituality and sexual trauma. “I learned that a lot of people ask the same questions: ‘Is it my fault? Am I accountable for this? Did I victimise myself? That has helped me to understand why I have these feelings of worthlessness.”

Nowhere to hide

When she was around 30 years old, Chan finally told her brother and his wife what had happened to her as a child. “He was devastated, replaying all the years that he couldn’t protect me. His support and understanding meant a lot. I just needed to know that I didn’t have to face everything alone. Maybe I should have told him earlier, but it wasn’t easy to speak up.”

In her family, Chan says that in-depth conversations were rare. They usually just talked about every day, happy things. In Chinese families, Chan says, it’s taboo to discuss intimate details and emotions.

Now aged 45, Chan has a high-level professional career and many supportive friends. But she still feels empty and, at times, shackled by her emotions. She has also experienced sexual harassment and assault several times as an adult. One of the most challenging experiences took place around seven years ago, when she worked at a large organisation in Hong Kong.

Chan’s boss joined the company around the same time she was promoted to director of her department. “I became his target,” she recalls. He acted outgoing and gregarious – had a very friendly manner but was touchy. The boss hugged Chan after meetings and, at first, she thought maybe this was just his management style.

He then started visiting her office late in the evening, when she was still working and few people were around. “He would sit on the edge of my desk for a while and talk to me,” she remembers. “Then, when he got up to say goodbye, he’d hug me and grope my body in the process.”

Fearful that the hugs would escalate, she tried to finish her work earlier and avoid any potential late-night encounters. Chan also told her direct supervisor, who was a woman. They discussed reporting the case to the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) but, in the end, Chan decided against it. She feared retribution and thought it could damage her career. 

“My supervisor suggested the EOC, but I didn’t think it would bring about real change,” says Chan. “They simply provide a mediator and the best you can hope for is an apology and a promise to improve. But it means nothing.”

During a quarterly meeting where employees were invited to share their views anonymously, Chan suggested an open-door policy and glass walls to ensure the safety of female employees. Her boss stopped visiting her office after the review.

Chan later heard that the same man had harassed other colleagues. “One of my colleagues said that he asked her to sit on his lap and he touched her breasts.” The women didn’t formally report their boss, but both left the company soon after. 

Chan believes that what happened to them at the office is a reflection of the bigger picture in Hong Kong. “Women are still being hurt and taken advantage of in this society – things are not equal and there are far too few safeguards, both in terms of corporate guidelines and government protections. I also think it’s partly about the culture of Chinese people. Sex is still a very taboo topic, which leads to more shame and makes it harder for victims to speak up.” 

ghost from the past
“I felt like he was attacking me again in some way, even though I’m already an adult,” says Valerie.

Ghosts from the past

Three years ago, an event resurrected Chan’s buried feelings. She attended a family wedding and worried her uncle would appear. When she learned he was due to arrive at the banquet, she ran home, consumed by fear. 

“I was crying the entire way on the MTR. I just couldn’t control my tears. People were staring at me,” she recalls. “I felt like he was attacking me again in some way, even though I’m already an adult.”

She didn’t actually see her uncle that day, but the very threat of his presence was overwhelming. Last year, when an older uncle passed away, Chan’s family congregated for the funeral. She hadn’t seen her abusive uncle for many years, but there he was in the same room.

“When I saw him at the funeral, I was devastated,” says Chan. “My heart was pounding. I felt so scared and vulnerable all over again. I can’t let go of it. I don’t think he could ever understand the damage he has done to me.”

The damage, she says, has permeated nearly every aspect of her life, from self-esteem to emotional stability to relationships. On the surface, it would be impossible to tell. During our interview, she seems graceful and poised, wearing a crisp skirt and an angular haircut.

“Even though I’ve had some success with my career, it’s important to remember that no matter their background, people can be destroyed inside. It’s hard to see the extent of the destruction. After many years, I am still struggling. It causes a lot of damage in one’s life. I’ve lost trust in people, I doubt myself, I have battled depression… People think it just passes, that you should be ‘fine’ after 10 years. But the scar is always there.”

No matter their background, people can be destroyed inside.

Valerie Chan

After her uncle raped her, Chan spent decades feeling unworthy of love. “I have built this deep fortress in my subconscious, something dark that I can’t touch. But when I’m in a bad condition, my mind gets closer to that dark castle. It feels like if I touch it, I will drown in a black hole. I want to wipe it from my mind, but I can’t control its power over me.”

But it’s not all wreckage. In recent years, Chan says depression has been less frequent and she finally feels as though she is on the pathway to healing. “I spent many years questioning myself – wondering if I am accountable for what happened. I lost hope in life at times. But over the past 30 years, I have grown stronger. I’m not as shy as I once was, and I have become more determined to protect myself.” 

Even though the scars are a part of her, she now feels worthy of love – and capable of accepting love. “I want other victims to understand that we can heal. We have to love ourselves first and foremost.”

She says it’s also important for victims to speak up, to find a support network and, most importantly, to stop blaming themselves. “I no longer think about what could have happened if I had done things differently. What if I did this, or didn’t do that? It kills me. For a long time, I felt like I failed that little girl. I felt ashamed to face her. She had been trapped, crying alone for years.”

“If I could talk to her, I would say: ‘Don’t blame yourself anymore. You are good. You are not alone. You are worthy of real love. Truly.’”

*Name has been changed at the request of the victim.

healing from the past
Esther Ng, a Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist, says that a feeling of worthlessness is common among sexual assault victims.


Unpacking the Pain

Esther Ng – a Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist who has worked with women for the past 30 years – says that a feeling of “worthlessness” is common among sexual assault victims, as is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and low self-esteem.

“When you’re exposed to a severely traumatic experience like assault or rape, you will have a high possibility of developing PTSD,” she says, adding that symptoms include disturbed sleep due to nightmares, a strong sense of fear or anger, insecurity, irritability, hypervigilance, detachment and a strong avoidance response. “If the person is reminded of the incident, perhaps by seeing a person or being in a familiar place, they can also have disturbing flashbacks that feel like they’re experiencing it all over again.” 

Children, who haven’t fully developed mentally and cognitively, are particularly vulnerable. “They try to make sense of the experience, which is very difficult for them, especially when the person who is assaulting them is someone they are familiar with, like a family member,” says Ng. “They will often blame themselves.”

Furthermore, she says it’s uncommon for children to report incidents of sexual assault. Usually, they will suppress the information until they are much older – if they ever disclose it at all. “The most prevalent reason is shame. As a society, we are led to believe that sexual assault or rape is something dirty and, if this happened to me, then I must be dirty,” explains Ng. “There’s also a lot of self-blame and guilt, which can make a person feel like they aren’t worthy of love anymore.”

Ng says that, if and when victims do seek help, they often don’t realise the extent of the trauma. For instance, they might seek help for another mental health issue altogether. Through therapy, they realise that this trauma is related, if not the root cause of the other psychological or physical symptoms. “It’s very important that victims speak up about their experience as soon as possible, in order to minimise the negative impact on their lives.”  

But speaking up is difficult. In Hong Kong, where the stigma of rape remains strong, cultural taboos and prejudice can exacerbate the trauma. In many cases, parents will blame the victims, because they can’t accept what has happened. Other times, parents might not report the incident, because they worry about losing face, damaging the perpetrator’s reputation or retaliation.

For example, if a mother is dependent on her husband, who has abused their child, she may weigh the consequences and decide that standing up to him would be more dangerous for the family.

The professional and legal support systems in place also pose problems for victims. “In a case last year, the victim reported an aversive experience in the police station, and later in the hospital for medical examination,” Ng says. “The victim was treated coldly at a time when she needed a sense of safety and security. The police and healthcare professionals are supposedly ‘trained’ to deal with sexual assault victims, but it seems that they are not doing a good job.”