HONG KONG – In the tiny kitchen of a Hong Kong high-rise apartment, the air was heavy with the aromas of a mother making her daughter’s favorite childhood dishes.
It was the mid-autumn festival, a harvest celebration that brings families together for a cherished meal, and the last one they would share before the daughter took her family away to a land far from home.
“I’ll miss her soy chicken,” Asa Lai said as her mother cooked plate after plate of Cantonese cuisine.
“I’ll miss my grandchildren,” her mother, Ada, said after her daughter left the kitchen. “I’ll miss my daughter. I don’t want to see them go. I feel helpless.”
She teared up. “I don’t like to think about it. When I do, I cry.”
It had been more than a year since Asa, 41, and her husband, Willie, decided to emigrate to Scotland, leaving the city where they had both grown up, the city where their three daughters had been born. On this evening in late September, the prospect finally felt all too real.
At dinner, Asa brought out a bottle of King Robert Scotch and gave it to her father, saying, “If you like it, you’ll have to come to Scotland for more.”
Hands clasped, sitting around a dinner table laden with stir fries, stews and a steamed seabass, Asa led grace.
“As we are going to be leaving Hong Kong soon, we don’t know where the road will take us, but I believe that you, Lord, will guide us and take care of us. We are thankful. Amen.”
They all raised their glasses.
Asa tried to break the silence that followed, asking: “Isn’t grandma’s chicken just so delicious? Won’t you miss it?” But her mother looked away and hurriedly changed the topic to the rising cost of groceries.
Awkward dinner conversations and painful family separations echo ever louder in Hong Kong, which the Chinese government has set on a more authoritarian path with the imposition of a sweeping national security law in June that has seen a relentless crackdown on dissent.
The Lais are among hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who are expected to emigrate, according to a study by Britain’s Home Office and visa applications elsewhere, as Beijing tightens its grip over its most restive city, a former British colony that was promised wide-ranging freedoms upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Unlike protesters and activists who have fled the country facing charges related to the often-violent anti-government demonstrations of 2019, the Lais are a typical middle-class, politically moderate Hong Kong family. They’re leaving simply because of disillusionment with a city they love but no longer recognize.
A few days after the family celebration, Asa talked about the moment she and her husband decided to emigrate. At first, she remembered taking part in a 2-million-strong march in June 2019, a turning point in the city that launched the season of mass protests, but then she paused. It wasn’t just one moment, she said.
“It’s a buildup of many things, all of these things that have happened — it seems to get worse and worse. So it’s hard to really pick an exact moment. I guess I would say it was the moment when freedom of speech began to shrink.”
The Lais’ wrenching decision to uproot their family, which Reuters has documented for the past five months, provides a glimpse of the deep societal wounds that mass emigration could inflict on Hong Kong, separating families and communities as people move elsewhere hoping to find the freedoms they have lost.
Officials in Hong Kong are adamant that rights and freedoms are intact. They say the national security law is needed to maintain public safety and order in the wake of last year’s protests. The demonstrations saw protesters hurling bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police, setting train station exits on fire and ravaging bank branches and shops perceived to have links with pro-Beijing figures. Police often used tear gas and water cannons, and roughly 10,000 people have been arrested.
Since the imposition of the national security law, there has been a broad crackdown. Leading pro-democracy activists have been arrested, some democratic lawmakers have been disqualified, activists have fled into exile, and protest slogans and songs have been declared illegal.
A Hong Kong government spokesman said last year’s “violent protests and anarchy on the streets” may be one of the motivations for people choosing to emigrate, along with job, schooling and business opportunities or other personal reasons.
“The implementation of the National Security Law has reverted the chaotic situation and serious violence in the past year, and restored stability and increased the confidence in Hong Kong, thereby allowing the city to resume its normal operation,” the government spokesman said, adding that arrests were “impartial” and “based on evidence.”
China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which comes under the State Council, or cabinet, and the Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s top representative body in the city, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
There are no official statistics on how many are leaving this city of 7.5 million. But several proxy measures show a rising trend of people emigrating or looking to leave. The scale could be comparable to Hong Kong’s previous mass exodus during the decade leading up to the 1997 handover.
The Hong Kong government estimates that about 503,800 people left between 1987 and 1996. The outflow peaked in the wake of Beijing’s bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, with more than 66,000 departing in 1992. Initial indications show that the new wave may be rapidly building.
The United Kingdom has issued more than 200,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passports so far this year, according to a British government official. The passports are a legacy document of the colonial era that provides a path to citizenship.
Britain estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kongers are eligible for BNOs and that as many as 322,000 will move to the country between 2021 and 2025, according to a Home Office study. From January 2021, BNO holders will be eligible to stay in Britain for five years, at which point they can apply for settlement if requirements are met and, eventually, citizenship.
Hong Kongers’ other preferred destinations are Canada and Australia, both of which eased visa restrictions in the wake of the security law, according to immigration agents and relocation firms. Canada’s immigration authorities said visa applications from Hong Kongers jumped more than 10% last year to 8,640. They’re on track to surpass that total by almost 25% this year, according to Reuters calculations based on January-September 2020 figures. More than 2,500 Hong Kong passport holders in Australia have had their visas extended after Canberra unveiled new rules providing a path to Australian citizenship for people from Hong Kong in July.
If tens or hundreds of thousands of middle-class people leave the city, said Leo Shin, associate professor and convenor of the Hong Kong Studies Initiative at the University of British Columbia, “obviously a great deal of professional expertise and local knowledge will be lost.”
“On the micro level, despite the availability of social media and other technologies, family and social ties will inevitably suffer,” Shin said.
When Asa and Willie Lai marched with their family in last June’s massive rally, they were full of hope that their Chinese-ruled city was about to take a historic turn toward greater democracy.
But authorities dug in their heels, while demonstrations turned increasingly violent. To the Lais, the chaos on the streets and the government’s reaction felt instead like a turn in the opposite direction.
“I couldn’t accept it anymore. I thought, ‘I don’t want to live here anymore,'” Asa said. “Two million people, and the government didn’t respond to us. And as time passed, news became more and more depressing.”
“For the youth of Hong Kong, as a mother myself, even though the children out there aren’t my own, to not be able to see a path in their future,” she said, before choking with tears.
Willie, 46, took over: “If the youth fear speaking out, then this isn’t a suitable place. The best I can do, right now, is to help my children, to bring them up in a more suitable environment.”
By August last year, their minds were made up. They had to leave Hong Kong to give their three daughters — Eunis, now 12, Caris, 11, and Yanis, 1 — a chance at the freedoms they felt they had grown up with.
It was an “enormous” decision, Asa said. Both had stable jobs. She’s been a nurse for 23 years, most recently for a cancer support organization. Willie, who used to climb Hong Kong’s hilltops as a boy just to watch planes land, had a lucrative job handling imports and exports of aircraft parts for an airplane engineering firm.
They would be leaving behind their parents, friends, their church community. Neither they nor their daughters are fluent in English. They’ve been watching “English with Lucy,” a YouTube channel that teaches English, from pronunciation to accents — a good thing for a family going to Glasgow, a city with one of the most impenetrable accents in Britain.
They contacted an immigration agent and made enquiries about the United States, then prepared the paperwork for a visa application. But the couple dragged their feet for months. Their daughters were worried about America’s hurricanes and its gun violence.
Then Beijing’s imposition of the security law prompted Britain to extend residency rights to BNO passport holders. The couple renewed theirs.
They had never even been to Britain before, but they booked a one-way flight to Glasgow, via London, for Dec. 17.
They know a few people who already live there and another family who just moved — at least that’s a start. If it doesn’t work out, they figure, they can look at different places in Britain.
The Lais have already rented a four-bedroom, three-bath home in a suburb south of Glasgow, which they’ll share for five months with the other Hong Kong family who emigrated to Scotland.
The large home feels a million miles, in more ways than one, from their 600-square-foot (55 sqm) flat in the Kowloon peninsula’s Diamond Hill neighborhood just beneath Lion Rock, a small mountain that is a symbol of grit and unity in the city’s folk culture.
They’ve lived there for a dozen years, and at times it felt as if all life on earth took place in their tiny living room.
The two elder daughters often did their homework at the dinner table, while Asa cooked in the open-plan kitchen to their left and Willie sat on the couch behind them, watching the TV.
Toddler Yanis constantly looked for her sisters’ attention, while Happy the cat, a 17-year-old Scottish fold, looked to evade their gaze, hiding on a shelf from the relentless moving and shouting next to a globe spun to show Britain.
The view of towering apartment blocks dotting the lush hills across the street was spectacular from the 37th floor, but it was usually obscured by piles of toys and hanging laundry.
“Our life has been very abundant, just like our hopes,” Asa said of the chaotic apartment.
They sold the flat for a sum they expect to sustain them for a few years until they find their feet, a privilege they’re aware that other people looking to move may not have.
“We may have the financial ability,” Asa said, “but what about the others, the future generation of Hong Kong? We are very lucky.”
On Nov. 7, they started packing it all up. Some things were to be taken with them, some were to be thrown out, some were going to end up with Asa’s parents, with whom the Lais would stay until their flight out to Glasgow.
As Eunis and Caris stacked and sealed books into large cardboard boxes, Yanis used smaller ones to play peek-a-boo.
Asa and Willie went through a big pile of clutter to decide what stays and what goes: photo albums, piano music sheets, a Bible, Chinese recipe books, newborn-baby cards, brochures from their 10-day honeymoon in Mauritius.
They stumbled upon their wedding photos.
Willie was particularly struck by one of them. He pondered it for several seconds, then hung it on the wall to look at it again. Much more withdrawn than his wife, shy about his family and friends and not keen to get too personal, he usually reacts with a long pause when emotions get intense.
The photo shows the couple on a crosswalk on Canton Road in Hong Kong’s tourist area of Tsim Sha Tsui, neon lights beaming behind them. Willie, in black suit and bowtie, stands on his toes to look taller, throwing a street-smart look down into the camera. Asa, in her A-line wedding dress, her hair done by her father and makeup by Willie’s brother, holds a sunflower in her right hand.
It reminds Willie of the old Hong Kong, the one that had neon signs instead of LED lights everywhere, and where planes descended uncomfortably close to the city’s rooftops before landing on a tiny strip on the Kowloon peninsula rather than over the wilderness of Lantau Island where the new, modern airport was built.
“When you look at it, you know that it was taken during that period, and it’s significant. It’s all changed,” Willie said of the picture.
He preferred the old Hong Kong, he explained in a separate conversation. Its transformation into a glitzy finance hub makes it easier for him to leave. “When you ask me what I miss most about Hong Kong, well, it no longer exists,” he said.
He had wanted to leave for a while, but it was always going to be Asa’s decision. And Asa always takes her time to think things through.
She met Willie in 2001 at Ocean Park, the city’s oldest theme park, where his younger brother worked. Willie was chatting with the three girlfriends she was about to meet.
“I had just come out of a relationship, so I wasn’t interested in Willie,” Asa said. “But he persisted.”
After five years of dating, Willie took her for a walk in a park by the harbor and asked her to marry him. It took her “a few days” to say yes.
To this day, their relationship is a constant tango between Asa’s analytical instincts and Willie’s romantic approach to life.
While Willie leads the way in searching for housing and schooling options, Asa will have the final word after looking into finances and logistics.
“I take charge of making sure that our life will be functional there,” she said.
Three days after packing their things, the movers came to empty their flat. The girls were at school; Asa was at work. Willie watched on in pensive silence, interrupted only by a few long vowels uttered in awe at how deft the workers were.
After dinner, Willie brought Asa back to the apartment for another look around before handing over the keys. The view from their living room was finally unobstructed, but Asa seemed to stare into it blankly.
“There’s no more guessing where we’re headed,” she said — away from Hong Kong.
Willie then guided her to the other room, where Asa spotted a turquoise handbag in the corner, a gift from her husband.
“He did the same thing when we first moved into the place,” Asa said. “He doesn’t usually buy me gifts. It’s touching.”
Every year around Christmas, the Lais and the families of Asa’s childhood friends Adeline, Florence and Eve get together for a big dinner.
Adeline, this year’s host, stuck to the festive theme despite having to move the event forward by three weeks because of the Lais’ departure. A Christmas tree stood tall in a corner of the living room, while an LED monitor screen displayed a looped video of fireplace flames, carols playing in the background.
“It’s snowing over in Glasgow. It looks so beautiful,” Asa said, showing pictures sent by her friends who live there. In Hong Kong, it was the first weekend of the dry season when temperatures dropped below 20 degrees Celsius at night.
The seven children in the room, donning Santa hats, played with a mass of brightly colored inflated balls while the adults had wine from Burgundy, a 2008 Carabello-Baum Château de Pommard vintage they initially wanted to keep for Eunis’ graduation.
As Caris, her 11-year-old, walked past, Asa pointed to her pink leather watch and the white faux-fur scarf wrapped around her neck — farewell presents from her friends at school.
“I’ve been so busy with the move that I didn’t realize my kids also need to do their own farewells,” Asa said. “They sent me pictures with their friends at school, and when I got them I started to cry.”
Just like during Christmas Eve, they shared gifts at midnight. Eunis got a pair of earrings; Caris got a bracelet. Adeline brought out a napoleon cake with the message, “To Lais family, new change, better life” written on it in chocolate and gave Asa a card with pictures of all of them together taken over the past seven years.
Asa teared up.
“We also actually have something for you,” she said, pulling out three black boxes, each containing a translucent amulet engraved with Corinthians 13:7 in traditional Chinese characters:
“It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
In the Lais’ final hours in Hong Kong, the stress began to get to Willie and Asa. A quarrel seemed inevitable over what else could fit in the four large suitcases, the duffel bag, the three carry-on bags.
“I’ve spent all morning packing, and now you want to rearrange everything?” Willie told Asa.
“I need to take these with me,” said Asa, clutching some bottles of contact lens solution. “These are from my cousin. They’re gifts!”
Asa’s mother, Ada, had been in denial about her daughter’s departure. She stood watching everyone in her flat moving around aimlessly, saying words they didn’t mean, worrying about things they didn’t need.
“Today, I’m finally accepting reality,” Ada said.
She cooked one last meal: spicy chicken pot, Caris’ favorite, stir-fried vegetables and steamed fish.
Asa’s friends arrived, split into three cars, to drive them all to the airport, where more than a dozen other friends, former colleagues and people from the church awaited to say their final goodbyes.
More gifts. They’ll fit somewhere.
Right before heading through the security gates, Caris handed her grandmother a letter: “You’ve taken care of me, cooked my favorite meals, took me to the doctors when I was sick. Now it’s my turn to take care of you. When you’re feeling stressed, I will always be there to chat.”
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