LONDON – Lin Kwong had a good life in Hong Kong. She taught sports management part-time in college and chaired an amateur theater club. Her young son, Chee Yin, was adored by his grandparents. She had friends and favorite restaurants. But in February, she made the difficult decision to leave it all behind.
“Nothing is harder than staying in a city that lacks freedom,” she said.
Since China imposed a sweeping national security law on its territory in Hong Kong, a former British colony, tens of thousands of people have planned to leave the city. And like Ms Kwong, many are heading to Britain, where British Overseas Passport (BNO) holders have been offered a path to work and citizenship. In the first quarter of the year, 34,300 people applied for the special visa, according to UK Immigration Department.
Now in London, Ms Kwong has spent weeks arguing with electricity providers, looking for work and finding school for her son. But she and others who have left Hong Kong say they feel less like refugees and more like pioneers, 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 it was announced, and hopes to help others through the restart process. “I always say to my friends, ‘I’m here, and when I settle in, I’ll help you too,'” she said. For her, the reasons for leaving were clear.
Ms Kwong said one of the reasons she made the decision to leave so quickly was that she didn’t want to have to tell her son to watch what he was saying in public in Hong Kong. “I don’t want him to know at this young age that you can talk at home but not say anything in the community or at school,” she said. “I don’t want him to grow up like this.”
Ms Kwong doesn’t expect to teach at a college in London and instead seeks administrative jobs in higher education. If this proves too difficult, a job in the hotel industry will do; she says swapping her old professional life for a new one in London was worth it.
Not everyone in Hong Kong has this luxury. Some do not have access to BNO passports, and others cannot afford to move. “They don’t have a credit history. They don’t have a stable job yet, ”said Terry Leung, co-founder of Justitia Hong Kong, an organization that helps newcomers adjust to London and organizes pro-democracy protests and other events in the city.
Mr Leung’s group is part of a wave of local organizations, largely run by more established immigrants, that are helping Hong Kongers find their way into their new home. There are tours, National Health Service orientation sessions, and volunteer opportunities for those looking to gain work experience.
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On a hot May afternoon, dozens of Hong Kongers met for the first time on a trek through the English countryside organized by Justitia Hong Kong and the British Chinese Company. British officials have also said they will allocate $ 50 million to help Hong Kong people integrate, a task made particularly difficult 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. This feeling of isolation led him to start Link to Hong Kong, a program that pairs newcomers to Hong Kong with local British residents to promote cultural exchange. Hong Kongers in Great Britain, another group, planned walking tours in London.
Some migrants have also set up groups on the encrypted messaging service Signal to discuss more sensitive topics privately. Among their concerns is the fear that they will be seen as taking jobs from the British at a time when the economy has suffered from the pandemic, as well as the growing number of anti-Asian hate crimes within the diaspora.
Many have prepared for a possible backlash in their new home. Articles began to appear in some UK newspapers about immigrants to Hong Kong buy properties and fill in the spaces in private schools. In group discussions, Ms Kwong said she and others often remembered, ‘Don’t disturb the British too much. Don’t ask too much.
How the government handles these issues will be critical, said Steven Tsang, director of the Chinese Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies. As more Hong Kongers move to big cities like London, “it means you will drive people out and drive up house prices. It means you are putting pressure on the schools, ”he said.
Over time, the days finally settled into a routine for Ms. Kwong. In the morning, she makes Hong Kong milk tea from leaves and cups that she brought from home. When her son comes home from boarding school, they cook char siu or barbecued pork together.
The thoughts of the family and friends she left behind are never too distant. Ms Kwong often posts on social media, wanting to show off the benefits of living in Britain. At a memorial in London last month on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, she posted a photo of a burning candle. In Hong Kong, the long-standing annual vigil had been banned.
During a demonstration in London on June 12, hundreds of Hong Kongers marched through the city center chanting “Fight for freedom!” and “Show solidarity with Hong Kong! The organizers wore masks with a Union Jack motif and sang “God Save the Queen”.
For those close to home, the separations caused by the departures are bittersweet. Ms. Kwong’s movement 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 abroad one day for school, he said. But “I didn’t expect it to be so soon.”
Tiffany May contributed reporting from Hong Kong.