In Hong Kong, the heartbreak of watching a son and pro-democracy leader being taken to prison

(Centre left to right) Bailed democracy activists Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law speak to the press outside the Court of Final Appeal on Nov 7, 2017.
(Centre left to right) Bailed democracy activists Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law speak to the press outside the Court of Final Appeal on Nov 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - In August, a court in Hong Kong sentenced three young pro-democracy activists to six to eight months in prison, making them what some have called the first political prisoners in the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule two decades ago.

On Tuesday (Nov 7), the city's highest court said it would hear their appeals. All three - Joshua Wong, 21; Alex Chow, 27; and Nathan Law, 24 - are free on bail pending the outcome of the appeal.

For the young men, the sentences are time lost from studies or budding careers, and a black mark on their futures.

But they are also a burden for their parents, who have endured the anguish of seeing their sons taken away in handcuffs. In rare interviews, they shared the heartbreak and pride of watching their children come of age as leaders of a protest movement for free elections.

They also described grappling with disagreements with their children on career choice and political ideology, highlighting the generation gap that has divided Hong Kong in its struggle to define its future as part of China.

'REPENT OF HIS SIN'

Mr Roger Wong has seen his son Joshua Wong arrested at political protests, ejected from countries that feared crossing Beijing and even assaulted by strangers. Once, his son came home with a black eye; another time, with egg in his hair.

Still, his heart sank on a windless August morning when his son paused at the door to kiss him. That was the day the court sentenced Joshua to six months in prison for unlawful assembly, in connection with his role, at age 17, in leading the 2014 demonstrations later known as the Umbrella Revolution.

"He had not done that since he was a little boy," said Mr Roger Wong, 53, a former computer professional who now trades online.

The youngest of the three jailed activists, his son emerged as the international face of the opposition, even being featured in a Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.

But Mr Roger Wong said he wakes each day prepared to see headlines blaring more bad news. To avoid the sidelong glances or adulation of strangers, he and his wife, Ms Grace Ng, a homemaker, no longer say their son's name in public, even when speaking about him with each other.

Mr Roger Wong, who identifies as a devout Christian, said the worst kind of attention came from fellow believers.

"The greatest pressure has come from Christians who out of nowhere offered to pray for my son to 'repent of his sin'," he said, adding that such remarks came from friends dear to him.

He said he supports his son's pro-democracy activism, saying Joshua Wong learned his sense of mission from his religious upbringing.

In fact, Mr Roger Wong said, his son was once an outspoken Christian, too, but now keeps his religious views out of the public eye. And differences over the role of faith in public policy have become a source of tension between them.

The two clashed over same-sex marriage, which Hong Kong does not allow. His son supports it, but Roger Wong has organised protests against it and called for removing rainbow-coloured lion statues that were erected in Hong Kong in support of LGBT rights.

Even now, the feelings may be a bit raw. Asked about their dispute, Mr Roger Wong threatened to cut short the interview.

He prefers to talk about another moment. After his son kissed him and his wife goodbye, he apologised. "I am sorry that I put so much pressure on you," Mr Roger Wong recalled his son saying.

'SELFISH PEOPLE LIKE YOU'

Ms Helen Ngai had different hopes for her son, Alex Chow. Having helped build a prospering family business, she wanted her children to enjoy a life of comfort and status.

She urged Alex Chow, the older of her two sons, to become a university professor.

This fall, he was supposed to go to the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue a doctorate in geography.

Instead, he went to prison.

"I wish my son had not taken this path," Ms Ngai, 58, said in an interview in a stylishly furnished apartment in Hong Kong, one of many properties that she and her husband own around the world, including in Queens.

"I'm just a selfish person. All I care about is making money," she said. "Many in Hong Kong are selfish people. Why do so much for them?"

She said she was puzzled when her son volunteered in high school to counsel under-performing students. She could not understand the guilt that he confessed to her over living in a big apartment. She ridiculed him for considering a job at Greenpeace that would have paid US$38,000 (S$51,843.40) per year.

"Is that even enough for food and housing?" she recalled challenging him.

The Umbrella Revolution exposed such generation gaps among Hong Kong's 7.2 million people. While those under age 40 overwhelmingly supported the protesters, people above that age were more critical, according to a Chinese University survey.

Ms Ngai and her husband, Mr Sidney Chow, are firmly in that older generation.

"I always tell my son, we must not oppose the country or the party because, at the end of the day, we are Chinese people," Ms Ngai said.

The couple is the sort of success story that has helped make Hong Kong one of the world's wealthiest cities. Their garment business has factories across South Asia. The two travel to Hanoi, Paris and New York so often that Ms Ngai said her son was essentially "raised by maids".

Ms Ngai also cashed in on Hong Kong's supercharged housing market, flipping apartments for profits. This put her at odds with her son, who accused her of driving up rents for working families.

"It's selfish people like you who are holding back society," she recalled her son accusing her.

"If I hadn't, would you have such a big apartment?" Ms Ngai retorted.

"I would rather live in subsidised housing," her son replied.

"We never had to worry too much about money," she said. "That's why for him it's all about justice and other people's misfortunes."

The first time she visited her son in prison, she cried so hard she could hardly speak. In an attempt to cheer her up, Alex Chow said prison had given him a new cause: advocating better conditions for inmates and prison employees.

Her sorrow turned to sighs.

"I told him not to meddle in other people's affairs," she said, "but he said that what is wrong must be set right."

THEY ALWAYS GO FOR THE LEADERS'

On the night when protesters stormed government headquarters, Ms Lam So-lan was across Hong Kong's picturesque harbour attending a relative's wedding.

She thought her son, Nathan Law, then 21, was back in his college dormitory.

She was stunned when someone switched on a television, and there he was rallying demonstrators.

"I knew he was in big trouble the moment he picked up the microphone," said Ms Lam, who had warned her son against getting involved in politics. "They always go for the leaders."

Ms Lam, 55, said she just wanted Law to focus on his studies. Born poor in China's southeastern province of Guangdong, she had moved to Hong Kong with her three sons in 1999 in hopes of providing them a better life.

She raised them almost entirely as a single mother, living in public housing and working as a janitor and in other jobs to put her sons through school.

She divorced her husband when Law, the youngest, was still in high school. In an interview, he described his upbringing as "working class".

Despite that, she said she always tried to give her sons a lot of freedom.

"My only expectations are that he studies, doesn't do heroin or gamble - the minimum requirements," she said.

However, she said she objected when she first learned that Law had become a leader of a pro-democracy group at his university.

"I just wanted stability," she said.

"If everyone is selfish, society will not change," she recalled her son responding.

She said she had another reason for feeling dread. Growing up in China, she had seen the political violence of the Cultural Revolution. She feared that challenging power would only bring retribution.

On the first night of the Umbrella Revolution, she said, she huddled in a hotel room with relatives, worried sick.

"He's young. He's inexperienced. He has not been through the kind of purge that happened on the mainland," Ms Lam said.

In the years that followed, her fears appeared to be borne out.

After her son was elected to Hong Kong's legislature last year, she watched as the Beijing-backed government moved to disqualify him after he mocked the oath of office. She also saw courts give him increasingly stiffer sentences, first to community service, and then, in August, to eight months in prison.

"He said, 'Hong Kong wasn't like the mainland.' And I said, 'You'll see. I'm worried for you even if you're not'," Ms Lam recalled. "Now it's all happened."