An Australian woman living in New York has been shocked to find a note hidden inside her paper shopping bag from a man in a Chinese prison factory pleading for help.
Stephanie Wilson was reaching for a receipt inside the paper shopping bag from Saks Fifth Avenue, where she had bought a pair of Hunter rain boots.
The message was from a desperate man who said he made the bag while being unfairly held in a Chinese prison factory more than 11,000km away.
“HELP, HELP, HELP. We are ill treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory,” he wrote.
It was signed by a man named Njong Emmanuel Tohnain and was accompanied by a small passport-sized colour photo of a man in an orange jacket.
Stephanie Wilson told DNAinfo, “I read the letter and I was just shocked.”
The letter also included the man’s email address.
Stephanie, who works in human rights, took the letter to the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group founded to fight human rights abuses in Chinese prisons.
Back in September 2012 when the note first surfaced, they had no luck in tracing the man as his email address appeared to be shut down.
DNAinfo reports that Harry Wu, the founder of Laogai Research Foundation, said Njong took a huge risk in writing and sending it.
“There would be solitary confinement until you confess and maybe later they increase your sentence — or even death,” Wu said.
However, in recent weeks DNAinfo finally managed to track the mystery man down through social media.
In a two-hour phone interview, a man who identified himself as Njong said he wrote the letter during his three-year prison sentence in the eastern city of Qingdao, Shandong Province. Unprompted, Njong described obscure details in the letter, like its mention of Samuel Eto’o, a professional soccer player on English premiere league team Chelsea, who like Njong is from Cameroon in West Africa. He added that he wrote a total of five letters while he was behind bars — some in French that he hid in bags labeled with French words and others in English, he said.
Njong Emmanuel Tohnain said he was arrested and charged with fraud, a crime he said he never committed in 2011.
When he was imprisoned and forced to work long days in a factory, starting at 6am and continuing as late as 10pm.
He sometimes made paper shopping bags like the one from Saks where he included the notes.
He told DNAinfo he hoped the letter would help lead someone to him.
“Maybe this bag could go somewhere and they find this letter and they can let my family know or anybody [know] that I am in prison,” said Njong.
He was then discharged in 2013 and sent back to Cameroon.
Njong said he was happy that his letter made its way into at least one person’s hands.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life. I am just happy that someone heard my cry.”
For Stephanie Wilson, the experience was an eye-opener.
She told DNAinfo that she had always been mindful of the products she purchased and where they were made but she never thought to worry about generic products like shopping bags.