'Wherever I am is Hong Kong': Migrants build a new life in Britain

Eric Wong makes Hong Kong-style milk tea at his apartment in Sutton, England, on April 1, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SUTTON, ENGLAND (NYTIMES) - The days were short and so much colder than the ones they had known, when Eric Wong and his family set foot in London in the winter of 2020 to start new lives.

In Hong Kong, Mr Wong had been an owner of a successful business selling milk tea, and his wife had been a school administrator. In England, as a coronavirus lockdown stretched on, he played with their daughter, Trini, in their apartment and worried that his English was too poor to get him a job. It was difficult to make friends. And he missed the sun.

"I couldn't see the direction in front of me," said Mr Wong, 46, who was a beneficiary of a visa programme that gives British overseas passport holders in Hong Kong a path to citizenship. "Nothing was clear."

A year and a half later, Mr Wong has found his footing and is doing what he likes best: making and selling Hong Kong-style milk tea - which he hopes will gain traction in this country of tea drinkers - and bringing a taste of home for newcomers from Hong Kong who have taken advantage of the new visa programme.

Britain has called the programme a humanitarian, postcolonial responsibility after a crackdown in Hong Kong by the Chinese government, saying that Beijing is violating the terms of a handover agreement in 1997 that would leave the former British colony untouched politically.

From bustling cities like Birmingham in the Midlands to vibrant towns like Kingston, south of London, tens of thousands of people from Hong Kong have spent the past year searching for jobs and new homes. They have settled into fast-growing communities of other people from Hong Kong - a comfort for many, but at the cost of leaving behind a city where they had once hoped to grow old with their children, often having to say painful farewells to loved ones.

"You grow up in a place, and you don't recognise it. It becomes a stranger," Mr Wong said on a recent afternoon, reflecting on the changes in Hong Kong as he mixed evaporated milk into a kettle of steaming tea. "When we think of it, we just want to cry."

He said that he had been forced to leave his ailing father behind in Hong Kong but that concern for the future of his 4-year-old daughter, after whom he has named his new business in England, had trumped other concerns. "People say I brought Trini to England," he said, "but I think of it as the opposite: Trini brought me here."

So far, the new arrivals have been mostly welcome in Britain. That is in contrast to efforts by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to send some asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Even a programme for refugees from Ukraine has been mired in bureaucratic delays.

"The expectation is that this is going to be quite a distinctive migration wave because of how high-skilled it is and the kind of contributions it can make to the knowledge economy," Dr Peter William Walsh, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory, said of those arriving from Hong Kong.

According to government statistics released in May, there have been 123,400 applications for the visa by people from Hong Kong since its introduction, with as many as 322,400 people expected to come in the first five years of the programme.

In Sutton, about 15 miles (24km) south of central London, hundreds of families from Hong Kong have passed through the same residential towers, advising friends back home who are thinking about making the move.

There, former firefighters from Hong Kong drive Amazon delivery trucks as they plan their next moves. Old school friends bump into one another on Sutton's streets. Others attended campaign events together in the lead-up to local elections, buoyed by the novelty of being eligible to cast ballots in England, even as the democratic process narrows in Hong Kong.

"It has changed the face of our cultural mix in Sutton, which is wonderful," said Ms Hannah Miles, an assistant pastor at a local church, speaking of the new arrivals. "We should take this opportunity to make these people feel like family."

So far, the newcomers there say they have felt welcome.

Before Ms Kago Ng, a former designer, arrived in London last year with her husband and 4-year-old son, Kaspar, she said she wept every night, worrying that they would not find jobs or like the city. "They said in the UK, we would be second-class citizens, but in Hong Kong, we did not feel like first-class citizens," she said, referring to sentiments they had read online and in the news.

London, she said, has been much better than she imagined. She is taking on some freelance work and staying at home to care for Kaspar, while her husband has found a job repairing watches for Rolex.

Kago Ng, her husband Valen Liu and their son Kaspar at their apartment in Sutton, England, on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

But like many others, Ms Ng worries about a backlash. Housing prices in the area, like elsewhere in Britain, have risen during the pandemic, and it is difficult for children to find coveted places in one of the neighbourhood's schools, she said.

"Maybe the local people will think we will dilute the resources," said Ms Ng as she played with Kaspar in their apartment before a dinner of hot pot, a popular meal in Hong Kong. Her brow furrowed with worry. "Maybe they will hate us."

Settling into their new lives in England has not been without its challenges.

The arrival of all of the newcomers from Hong Kong, fleeing repression by China, has caused rifts with Chinese people in Britain who support the government in Beijing.

An area where many newer arrivals from Hong Kong have settled, in Sutton, England. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Pro-democracy groups from Hong Kong have organised protests in British cities, but they say they are regularly harangued online by supporters of Beijing. Some people from Hong Kong fear speaking publicly about their political views and say they avoid restaurants where the menu is in the simplified Chinese used in the mainland.

People from Hong Kong have a strong sense of identity that is very distinct from people from mainland China, said Mr Richard Choi, a Sutton community leader.

As part of a broad effort to help newcomers settle in, Reverend Yu Kan, a minister who emigrated from Hong Kong two decades ago, recently started a church service for people from the city to gather. "I wanted to be there to walk alongside them," she said.

That service has grown to more than 200 worshippers, many of whom one recent Sunday stood in pews, singing hymns in Cantonese. Rev Yu said her aim was to help new arrivals build confidence and provide them with psychological support.

"How do you deal with your grief and loss?" she said. "You need to let go of a place that you called home for so many years."

Rev Yu recently started a church service for people from the city to gather. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Rev Yu has co-founded a nonprofit organisation linking children and parents with Cantonese-speaking therapists to help guide them through their new lives. Another group is offering art therapy for children to express their feelings. Sports groups are also popular among the new arrivals from Hong Kong.

"It's a lot of mental stress," said Mr Kenneth Chu, who used to sell photocopiers for Xerox but now organises a popular men's basketball game on Friday nights. "It's a good idea for them to have some place to relax."

Mr David Wong, a cellist who played beside pro-democracy protesters on the street during demonstrations in 2014, said he liked the sense of community and support he had found in Sutton. He often encourages Mr Wong, the tea maker, to practise his English more.

"If you don't connect with each other and help each other and do things for each other - what do you do?" he said.

The two strangers became friendly when they were neighbours living in the same residential tower.

"We feel this is Hong Kong; the community is here," said Mr Wong, the cellist. "Wherever I am is Hong Kong."

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