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

Player utilities

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

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, this is The World. 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. That's exactly what happened to one shopper, a woman in New York City. The letter made its way to Serena Solomon. She's a reporter with DNAinfo New York, who investigated where the letter came from.

Serena Solomon: Well, it's a very simple story that I think you could say could happen to anyone. She simply went down to Saks Fifth Avenue wanting to buy some rain boots. It was a rainy week in New York and so she bought those, brought them home, went to reach into her bag for a receipt and I guess between the bottom of the bag she saw this note peeking out from a corner of the bag and she pulled it out and believe it or not it was a letter detailing a lot of abuse and wrongful imprisonment in China. This is another unusual turn from an African man, a man in Cameroon, who was imprisoned in China.

Hills: At some point you entered the picture as a reporter and you actually tracked down the Cameroonian man who wrote the letter. How did you do that?

Solomon: I know it sounds like a needle and a haystack type story but it actually isn’t. The gentleman, whose name is Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, he supplied an email address on the back of the letter that linked to a Facebook page, believe it or not. That Facebook page hadn't been used in quite some time, actually 10 days before the date he listed of his arrest in 2011. Through the connections on that Facebook page, we were quite easily able to locate family members and people who were actually able to put us in contact with him.

Hills: Where was he when you tracked him down?

Solomon: The timeline of events that happened - he was arrested in 2011, he spent almost three years in either detention or prison and he actually gained an early release, six months was cut off his sentence for good behavior in prison. He was released in December and promptly put back on a plane by Chinese officials, straight back to Cameroon where he was reunited with his family who did not know what had happened to him. They thought him to be dead. He returned to Cameroon in December of last year and a few weeks ago he actually moved to Dubai in an attempt to find work.

Hills: How did he end up in a Chinese prison?

Solomon: These are details that we were actually able to confirm through lawyers in China. If you're a foreigner and you're arrested in China, you actually do have access to government-sponsored or legal aid lawyers. We were also able to track down lawyers who worked on the case and were willing to talk to us about it. He was arrested for fraud. We haven't been able to confirm any other details about the crime. Tohnain has fervently said that he is innocent of this crime.

Hills: What was he in China doing at that point when he was arrested?

Solomon: I think that's another interesting element of the story. A lot of people have said "Is it common for an African to be living in China?" and there is a growing population, especially in southern China, of Africans living in China. He moved to China simply because he believed he would find opportunities there that he couldn't in his own country. He began teaching English in China to Chinese students in a school.

Hills: This Cameroonian man was forced to do prison labor as part of this Chinese Laogai system. What is that system?

Hills: The Laogai prison system that Tohnain was in is a system where you do go through some sort of court and trial and sentence process, which he did have, but he believes it was unfair and he said that he was not supplied with a proper translator and was very confused the whole time as to what was going on during that trial.

Hills: When you spoke to Tohnain as he surprised that somebody ever received the letter? Did he ever think sending these letters out would ever result in anything?

Solomon: He said it was something that caught him very offguard. He says he was incredibly surprised but also he told us that he wrote numerous letters. He's a bilingual speaker, he speaks French and English as well as a tiny bit of Chinese. What he did was he wrote five letters. In some he wrote in French and in some he wrote in English. One of the things he did make in prison was the bags, the generic carry bags that you take out of a shop when you leave with a product. What he did was he put the French letters in the bags with French words on them and the English letters in the bags with English words on them in hopes that someone would find them. I'm just curious - how many letters are we actually missing? Who knows who else out there from any numerous countries, not just China, that are writing these letters and crying out for help.

Hills: DNAinfo New York reporter Serena Solomon investigated a letter from a prisoner in a labor camp in China that a New York woman found in her Saks Fifth Avenue bag. Thanks, Serena.

Solomon: Thank you.