Hong Kong migrants seek fresh start in Britain after crackdown

A man waving to his family before departing for Britain in Hong Kong International Airport, on June 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Lin Kwong had a good life in Hong Kong. She taught sports management part time at a college and chaired an amateur drama club. Her young son, Chee Yin, was doted on by his grandparents. She had friends and favourite restaurants. But in February, she made the difficult decision to leave it all behind.

"Nothing is as difficult as staying in a city that is lacking freedom," she said.

In the year since China imposed a sweeping national security law on its territory of Hong Kong, a former British colony, tens of thousands of people have made plans to leave the city. And like Kwong, many are headed for Britain, where holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports have been given a pathway to work and citizenship. In the first quarter of the year, 34,300 people applied for the special visa, according to Britain's immigration department.

Now in London, Kwong has spent weeks wrangling with electricity providers, searching 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 trailblazers, eager to build a new home after watching their old one transform under Beijing.

Kwong, 41, made up her mind to apply for the new BNO visa programme immediately after it was announced and is hoping to help others through the process of starting over.

"I always tell my friends, 'I'm there, and when I settle down, I will help you as well,'" she said.

For her, the reasons to leave were clear.

In just 12 months, the national security law has seeped into nearly every aspect of daily life in the city, from newspapers and bookstores to the Legislature and schools. Activists who publicly supported the 2019 pro-democracy protests have fled the city, some applying for asylum in Britain. Families are splitting up so their children can have an education overseas. For young professionals, the prospect of better job opportunities beckons.

Upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong was promised 50 years of self-administration. The national security law cut that time short, prompting the British government to allow nearly 3 million people from Hong Kong to live and work in Britain through the special visa program. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described it as one of the biggest changes in visa regulations in British history.

In January, China announced that it would no longer recognise certain British travel documents, complicating efforts to leave the city.

Kwong said one of the reasons she made the decision to leave so quickly was because she did not want to have to tell her son to watch what he said in public in Hong Kong.

"I don't want him at that early age to know you can speak up at home, but don't say anything in the community or school," she said. "I don't want him to grow up like this."

Kwong does not expect to teach at a college in London and is searching for administrative jobs in higher education instead. If that proves too difficult, a job in hospitality will do; she said trading her former professional life for a new one in London was worth it.

Ms Lin Kwong, who chose to leave Hong Kong because of the Chinese security law, in her new apartment in London. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Not everyone in Hong Kong has that luxury. Some lack access to BNO passports, and others cannot afford to relocate.

"They don't have a credit history. They don't have stable employment yet," said Terry Leung, co-founder of Justitia Hong Kong, an organisation that helps newcomers adapt to London and organises pro-democracy protests and other events in the city.

Leung's group is part of a wave of grassroots organisations, largely run by more established immigrants, that helps Hong Kongers find each other in their new home. There are sightseeing tours, orientation sessions on the National Health Service and volunteer opportunities for those who want to gain work experience.

On a warm May afternoon, dozens of Hong Kongers met for the first time during a hike along the English countryside organised by Justitia Hong Kong and the British Chinese Society. British officials have also said they will allocate $50 million toward helping Hong Kongers integrate, a task made especially challenging by the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's really hard during a pandemic for newcomers to find new friends," said James Wong, 29, an asylum-seeker who fled to London last July. That feeling of isolation led him to start Hong Kong Link Up, a programme that pairs new arrivals from Hong Kong with local British residents to promote cultural exchange. Hong Kongers in Britain, another group, has planned walking tours in London.

Some migrants have also set up groups on the encrypted messaging service Signal to privately discuss more sensitive subjects. Among their concerns is the fear that they will be seen as taking the jobs of Britons at a time when the economy has suffered from the pandemic, as well as the rising number of anti-Asian hate crimes within the diaspora.

Many have braced themselves for a possible backlash in their new home. Articles have begun to appear in some British newspapers about Hong Kong immigrants buying up properties and filling spaces at private schools.

In group chats, Kwong said she and others often remind each other, "Don't bother the British too much. Don't request too much."

How the government handles these issues will be critical, said Steven Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies. As more Hong Kongers move into big cities like London, "it means you will be pushing people out and pushing property prices up. It means you're putting pressure on the schools," he said.

With time passing, the days have finally settled into a routine for Kwong. In the mornings, she makes Hong Kong milk tea from leaves and cups she brought with her from home. When her son is home from boarding school, they make char siu, or barbecue pork, together.

Thoughts of the family and friends she left behind are never too distant. Kwong often posts on social media, wanting to show the benefits of life in Britain. At a memorial in London last month on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, she posted a photo of a lit candle. In Hong Kong, the long-running annual vigil had been banned.

At a protest in London on June 12, hundreds of Hong Kongers marched through the city center chanting, "Fight for freedom!" and, "Stand with Hong Kong!"

Organisers wore masks with a Union Jack pattern and sang "God Save the Queen."

For the relatives left behind, the separations brought on by the departures are bittersweet. Kwong's move was so sudden that her father, Kwong Sing-ng, said he was caught off guard.

"I couldn't bear to see them go," he said of his daughter and grandson.

He had always known that his daughter would send her son overseas one day for school, he said. But "I didn't expect it to be so soon."

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