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Hong Kong harbor lights

Hong Kong, how you used to sparkle

Canadian in America

June 2021

“Can you look on the Google to find where I can go protest?”, Mom asked me over the phone. I stopped multi-tasking and paid attention.

I had been following Hong Kong’s headlines with concern, but fleetingly. In the face of COVID and chaos in America, it was hard to see past local borders. Yet, now, I understand the Hong Kong conflict has parallels to the one boiling over in the U.S. In America, the divide generally falls between Republican red and Democrat blue. In Hong Kong, yellow and blue are the colors at battle. The blue camp stands with the pro-government establishment, and yellow for democracy through protest.

“Why do you want to protest mom?”, I asked. “Because I don’t think the government is being fair,” she said. Mom was talking about the national security law. Last June, Chinese authorities imposed rules that, in my view, essentially criminalize free speech and enable them to extradite Hong Kong citizens (and potentially foreigners) to mainland China for judgement out of world view. The security law will be taught to Hong Kong’s children as part of their formal education and schools will be asked to report any student’s support for the pro-democracy movement.

What a contrast to the golden age of Hong Kong that my mother once knew. She comes from humble origins, yet in her Hong Kong, in the 1960s, my mother had total freedom. At the tender age of 18, she was already a strong, independent woman working for Martin Emprex, a British garment company that manufactured clothing in the Hong Kong territory. She was visiting factories and production lines across the city doing quality control, with the power to decide what would ship and what would not. She was out every day with friends – at dim sum, at dinner, going shopping – and everything was open for conversation. There was no censorship.

“You were free to do what you wanted, work how you wanted, talk about anything, no one cared,” my mother told me, lighting up as she recounted her youth. “In those days, people were not rich. But everyone was real. Hong Kong people worked hard. Many opened their own businesses. We were all  determined. We didn’t waste time. We knew we had to work before we would get our food. At the same time, people were helpful and honest. It’s different now.”

In 1997, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong’s leaseholder since 1898, handed the territory back to China. At the time, China agreed to govern Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region for 50 years during which Hong Kong was to retain its right to self-rule including its own legal system, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech. Within a few years, these rights started to disintegrate.

As early as 2003, the government tried to introduce legislation to prohibit “sedition and subversion”. In other words, make it illegal to organize against the state. Hong Kong’s history of post-handover protests – in 2003, 2012, 2014, 2016 – were the peoples’ response to the government snipping at the edges of their democracy – to change school curriculum, limit political candidates to those approved by Beijing, and ban pro-independence candidates from running in local elections.

“Back when I was in Hong Kong, if you went to court, if you went to vote, everything was open. Everyone could see what was happening. Reporters watched too, just like in Canada,” mom said, as she reflected on her youth in Hong Kong. “But not now. Some courts are open to the public. But some cases are sent back to China. Once you’re in China, you’re not free.”

Mom and me at our go-to wonton noodle house in Vancouver, Canada

Last June, authorities imposed rules that essentially criminalize free speech in Hong Kong

Kowloon Rd circa 1960; mom was 18 in this Hong Kong of freedom and opportunity

The freedom that my mother speaks of may be accessible to those who can immigrate to Canada or the United Kingdom, if they are eligible to do so. But for those who do not have the option, and for most of the younger generation in Hong Kong, these freedoms will likely be curtailed. It was this younger generation that led protests for six straight months in 2019, after an extradition bill was proposed, a precursor to the bill currently in effect. Depending on whether you talk to someone in the blue camp or yellow camp (personally, I am in the yellow camp), this is where democracy went sideways. The protests turned violent. Even locally owned businesses were patronized or vandalized, depending on their perceived political leanings.

For many, the occupation of the Hong Kong parliament was a step too far. A friend in Hong Kong, who identifies with the pro-establishment blue camp, made an analogy to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by far-right groups. He pointed out that the American response – mass arrests – was legitimized by global media, yet the same response in Hong Kong was condoned. He believes that people should have the right to protest, but not the right to burn down someone’s store if they disagree. He advocates for dialogue, not violence.

His observations made me pause and reflect. I believe his points are valid. Yet the goals of the Hong Kong protesters, in my view, are vastly different than those of the far-right in the U.S. The former fight to retain essential, democratic freedoms. I also do not believe the Government of China is interested in dialogue with pro-democracy protesters. Rather, I believe their policies and actions state their intent: authoritarian rule.

In response to the increasing restrictions on Hong Kong democracy, Canada has implemented new immigration policies that make work and study visas more accessible to young people in Hong Kong, as well as their family members. The visas offer pathways to permanent Canadian residency. In addition, Canada has made the following statement on its immigration website:

Canada supports the right to peaceful protest, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Taking part in peaceful protests is not considered an offence in Canada. Arrests and convictions outside Canada for actions not considered an offence in Canada are not grounds for inadmissibility. Foreign nationals in Canada, including Hong Kong residents, continue to have access to our asylum system.

Oh Canada, you make me so proud!

When I started paying closer attention to the events in Hong Kong, I became angry and fearful – the same feelings my mother expressed when she asked me to “look on the Google” to find a place for her to protest. I started following pro-democracy activists on Twitter. I sought out reports from the ground. I found a t-shirt that said:

Free Hong Kong. Democracy Now. Attention: This shirt is illegal in China.

I’m sad to say that after a few washes, the words on the shirt are now barely visible. Some of the letters have peeled off. The word “democracy” is no longer legible, perhaps symbolic of what is to come.

I have visited Hong Kong a handful of times, once with my mother to see her roots, and other times with friends to take in the vitality and energy that made the place so special. I don’t know if I will ever travel there again, knowing what it once was and where it’s headed. Many of my friends who are also first-generation Canadian – whose parents have roots in Hong Kong and China – have expressed the same hesitation about going back.

Hong Kong used to sparkle like a diamond, in my mind. It used to represent opportunity and history and part of my family’s story. I am so sad that Hong Kong’s story is being rewritten without the voice of its people.

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