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LONDON – Lin Kwong had a good life in Hong Kong. She taught college sports management part-time and ran an amateur drama club. Their young son, Chee Yin, was worshiped by his grandparents. She had friends and favorite restaurants. But in February she made the difficult decision to leave it all behind.
“Nothing is as difficult as staying in a city that lacks freedom,” she said.
In the year since China passed a comprehensive national security law on its territory, Hong Kong, a former British colony, tens of thousands of people have made plans to leave the city. And like Ms. Kwong, many are going to the UK, where British National Overseas (BNO) passports have been given access to work and citizenship. In the first quarter of the year, 34,300 people applied for the special visa, according to the British Immigration Service.
Now in London, Ms. Kwong has been arguing with electricity providers for weeks, looking for a job and finding a school for her son. But she and others who have left Hong Kong say they feel less like refugees than as trailblazers eager to build a new home after seeing their old one transform under Beijing.
Ms. Kwong, 41, decided to apply for the new BNO visa program immediately after the announcement, hoping to help others through the process of starting over. “I always tell my friends, ‘I’m here, and when I settle down, I’ll help you too,’” she said. The reasons for leaving were clear to them.
Ms. Kwong said one of the reasons she made the decision to leave so quickly was because she didn’t want to tell her son to publicly listen to what he was saying in Hong Kong. “I don’t want him to know at this early age that you can say something at home but say nothing in the ward or school,” she said. “I don’t want him to grow up like that.”
Ms. Kwong does not expect to teach in a college in London and is instead looking for administrative jobs in higher education. If that’s too difficult, a job in the hospitality industry will do; She says it was worth swapping her previous professional life for a new one in London.
Not everyone in Hong Kong has this luxury. Some do not have access to BNO passports and others cannot afford to move. “You have no credit history. They don’t have a permanent job yet, ”said Terry Leung, co-founder of Justitia Hong Kong, an organization that helps newcomers adapt to London and organizes pro-democracy protests and other events in the city.
Mr. Leung’s group is part of a wave of grassroots organizations, largely run by more established immigrants, helping Hong Kongers find their way to their new home. There are sightseeing tours, National Health Service orientations, and volunteer opportunities for those looking to gain work experience.
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On a warm May afternoon, dozens of Hong Kong residents met for the first time on a walking tour of the English countryside organized by Justitia Hong Kong and the British Chinese Society. British officials have also announced they will allocate $ 50 million to help Hong Kong people integrate, a task particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is really difficult for newcomers to make new friends during a pandemic,” said James Wong, 29, an asylum seeker who fled to London last July. This sense of isolation led him to start Hong Kong Link Up, a program that brings Hong Kong newcomers together with British residents to foster cultural exchanges. Hong Kongers in the UK, another group, have planned walking tours in London.
Some migrants have also set up Signal groups at the encrypted messaging service to privately discuss more sensitive issues. Her concerns include fears that she will take over British jobs at a time when the economy has suffered from the pandemic, and the rising number of anti-Asian hate crimes within the diaspora.
Many have anticipated a possible backlash in their new home. Articles in some British newspapers appear about immigrants from Hong Kong buying up real estate and taking places in private schools. In group chats, Ms. Kwong said that she and others often remember, “Don’t bother the British too much. Don’t ask too much. “
How the government deals with these issues will be crucial, said Steven Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies. When more and more Hong Kong residents move to big cities like London, “it means you are crowding out and driving up property prices. That means you are putting pressure on the schools, ”he said.
Over time, the days have finally become routine for Ms. Kwong. In the mornings, she makes Hong Kong milk tea from leaves and cups that she has brought from home. When their son comes home from boarding school, they make char siu or barbecue pork together.
Thoughts of the family and friends she left behind are never too far away. Ms. Kwong often posts on social media to highlight the benefits of living in the UK. At a memorial service in London last month to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, she posted a photo of a burning candle. In Hong Kong, the long-standing annual vigil had been banned.
At a protest rally in London on June 12th, hundreds of Hong Kongers marched through the city center shouting “Fight for Freedom!” and “Stand by Hong Kong!” The organizers wore masks with a Union Jack pattern and sang “God Save the Queen”.
For the relatives who have stayed behind, the separations due to the departures are bittersweet. Ms. Kwong’s move was so sudden that her father, Kwong Sing-ng, said he was surprised. “I couldn’t bear to see them go,” he said of his daughter and grandson. He always knew that one day his daughter would send her son to school overseas, he said. But “I didn’t expect it to be so fast.”
Tiffany May contributed the coverage from Hong Kong.