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LONDON — For many newly arrived Hong Kongers in Britain, this will be their first Lunar New Year away from home.
As families across the Chinese-speaking world gather to celebrate the advent of the Year of the Tiger on February 1, the Cantonese festivities across the U.K. in the coming days will often be a bitter reminder of separation from loved ones and from the places where they grew up.
The exodus from Victoria Harbour to the Thames swells by the day. Some 90,000 people have already applied for a new visa scheme that Britain introduced in January 2021, months after Beijing imposed its National Security Law on the former British colony. This new legal weapon — coupled with other, sometimes colonial, laws — is widely used by Hong Kong’s government with Beijing’s blessing to crack down on opposition politicians, media businesses and civil society organizations.
If they all come, those 90,000 Hong Kongers — equivalent to the population of an English town like Hastings or Hartlepool — will add to an already significant Cantonese community and join the West Indians, South Asians and Eastern Europeans as the latest wave of newcomers to help reshape the fabric of modern Britain after World War II.
Beijing criticized the U.K. scheme for turning Hong Kongers into “second class citizens,” but many see flight to Britain as the only lifeboat available to them.
Carmen Lau, 26, is one of the new arrivals and has moved to suburban Ealing in West London. It’s a world away from the fishing village where she would normally celebrate New Year.
“My family was a traditional fishing family in Tai O on Lantau Island,” she explained over dim sum and fried rice in a restaurant in London’s Chinatown. “During the Lunar New Year, we always got together back in the boathouse where my mother grew up. I also grew up there and we used to have those celebrations together, but here, I do not have any relatives.”
Many of those who have just moved to the U.K. have first-hand experience of the massive protests of 2019, when 2 million Hong Kongers took to the streets — some clashing with the police — to call for the local government to withdraw an extradition bill, which could have seen Hong Kong citizens sent to mainland China for criminal trials.
Lau, barely two when Britain handed over its colony to China in 1997, was a member of an idealistic youthful generation caught up in the political showdown with the Communist party in Beijing.
With a degree in politics, she became an assistant to a pro-democracy lawmaker. Shortly after the 2019 protests broke out, applications for the District Council elections opened up. She found herself in a new movement hoping to break the tradition of widespread pro-Beijing influence in these local bodies, which run daily matters like setting up new libraries and pensioners’ centers — to say nothing of organizing lion dances during the Lunar New Year.
The pro-democracy camp won an overwhelming and unprecedented landslide — and it didn’t take Beijing long to react to stamp out that political threat. Lau bought a one-way ticket last summer when she sensed that she was about to become the subject of a government probe into electoral manipulation. She was quite right to be worried — with human rights groups and Western governments criticizing the Hong Kong authorities of launching a political persecution.
Two and a half years on from the start of the protests, the pro-democracy councillor is still affected by a strong sense of loss.
“Moving to a new country or settling in a new country is one thing, but I think the bigger challenge is that we face a failure, and we need time to recover,” she said.
“For us the younger politicians, we got into politics because we saw hope that Hong Kong might have a chance to be a democratic society one day. But within a year, the government’s attitude had changed,” she lamented. “Not even resigning was enough to stop further action from them. When I decided to leave, only my parents knew. I didn’t tell any of my friends and they were shocked when I told them I’d already left Hong Kong.”
For many of those who have left Hong Kong — but certainly not all — there is a desire to keep alive something of the flame from the protest movement. While demonstrations have been mostly banned in Hong Kong (where the police have repeatedly cited coronavirus restrictions as a reason to outlaw them), Hong Kongers have organized protests in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham in recent weeks to show support for jailed pro-democracy supporters back home.
There is also a desire to preserve the unique and brash cultural heritage of Hong Kong and not allow Beijing to snuff it out.
New groups have been formed teaching “Hong Kong-style Cantonese” and screening (made-and-banned-in-Hong Kong) documentaries chronicling the 2019 protests. A news presenter who used to work in Hong Kong’s largest broadcaster has set up a YouTube channel with Cantonese news about Britain. The British government has also offered funds to campaigners providing assistance and counseling services to recent migrants from Hong Kong.
Nathan Law, once Hong Kong’s youngest-ever lawmaker, is now the most prominent pro-democracy voice in Britain, where he arrived with refugee status.
He has put culture high on the list of the community’s priorities. After all, observers say, China’s ruling Communist party would like nothing more than for Hong Kong’s democrats in exile to forsake their identity and dissolve into innocuous English exile.
“It’s clear that the government is trying to erase protest memory by banning the movies and arts. As we are now living overseas, it’s crucial for us to preserve them, as well as our culture and identity. These are our weapons to fight against the authoritarianism,” he said. He noted that many Hong Kong cultural festivals have taken place in the U.K. “It is really a good sign that we facilitate integration and mutual understanding with the local community by cultural exchange. As long as we keep doing this, the spirit of Hong Kong will never die.”
Crucially, though, unity is not a given. Hong Kongers are wary of each other because of potential clashes over political allegiance. The fact that someone has come to Britain does not necessarily mean that they are in the pro-democracy camp. The new British visa is not a refugee scheme, which means that there’s no political assessment on the applicants. For many who’ve arrived, the most pressing concerns focus on integration and the practicalities of life.
Indeed, many of the new arrivals who try to engage one another by joining groups on Facebook and WhatsApp are quick to realize that any talk of politics would be the exception, not the norm.
“When we meet up, we only talk about which restaurants to go to, where to do shopping or look for a nice flat. No one feels safe enough to share political thoughts with strangers who’ve just known each other,” said Carol, a recent migrant who works in the tech industry. “There’s a lot of mutual suspicion.”
Indeed, even many of Lau’s cohort — ex-politicians who had a track record of speaking up — are keeping their heads down. Dozens of other pro-democracy politicians are currently taking refuge in Britain, but many of them refuse to talk to the media — or even publicly acknowledge the fact they’ve emigrated.
“We don’t know what might happen to our family members if we become too high-profile here [in the U.K.],” said one former elected politician, who now works as a waiter and prefers not to be named. “It’s better for us to lie low.”
The same unwillingness to speak publicly is also true of former journalists, half a dozen of whom requested anonymity to speak for this report. Many of them recalled the worsening level of press freedom, which, in the words of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, has been left “in tatters.”
Three independent media outlets, including the pro-democracy Apple Daily, have been shut down within the last seven months, while other media have seen the mass departure of journalists. Hong Kong’s police chief last week reminded those attending a press conference that “press freedom is not absolute.”
Unsurprisingly, media workers are among those who are worried enough to take up the new visa quickly. An ex-Apple Daily journalist, who moved to the U.K. about a year ago and spoke on condition of anonymity, said a return to Hong Kong would be out of the question.
“I think 70 percent of me wants to explore different countries, different cultures; 30 percent of me is thinking, like, I have to escape,” she said. “I think most of us agree that [the past few years] was a really painful experience. It’s like seeing your friends change into a different character. And you know that things will get worse.”
“It’s definitely not a nice thing to see.”
On the positive side, the community is showing solidarity in exile.
“There are some barriers, as not everyone speaks good English. And naturally the upheaval has had a toll on some people’s mental health, but I would say the signs feel encouraging to this point,” said Johnny Patterson, a campaigner who has spent the past few years with the Westminster-based Hong Kong Watch group. “I have been struck by how well some of the Hong Kongers have supported each other to integrate.”
The Hong Kongers even club together in their own football team that plays every weekend in south London.
Striking another nostalgic note, the Hong Kong team is named after the mountain that looms over the city’s Kowloon peninsula: Lion Rock United.