Conflict & Justice

How did a letter from a prisoner in China find its way into a Saks Fifth Avenue bag?

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Credit: Thomas Peter/ Reuters

Imagine coming home from a store and finding a handwritten letter in your shopping bag — a letter written by someone who made that bag at a prison labor camp in China.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

That's exactly what happened to one shopper — Stephanie Wilson in New York City.

“It was a letter detailing a lot of abuse, wrongful imprisonment in China,” said reporter Serena Solomon.

Solomon investigated the letter for the publication DNAinfo New York and was able to track down the Cameroonian prisoner, Tohnain Emmanuel Njong.

“I know it sounds like a needle and a haystack type story but it actually isn’t,” said Solomon. “Tohnain Emmanuel Njong supplied an email address [on the letter] that linked to a Facebook page.”

From there Solomon was able to track down Njong’s friends and family, and eventually Njong himself.

Njong was incredibly surprised when Solomon got in touch with him. He had been released from prison late last year after spending nearly three years in a prison labor camp manufacturing items such as the shopping bag in which Wilson found his note.

He had been charged by the Chinese authorities with fraud, a charge that Njong flatly denies. Njong was in China teaching English when he was arrested and put in prison.

While in prison he wrote numerous letters he told Solomon.

“Some he wrote in French and some he wrote in English,” said Solomon.

Njong placed his French letters in the shopping bags that he made for French brands and he put his English letters in the bags with English brands.

“How many letters are we actually missing, who knows who else is out there from any numerous countries that are writing these letters crying out for help?” said Solomon.

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