HONG KONG — Ten old college classmates had rented a room in a five-star hotel. There was plenty of laughing and joking and memories, but a sad feeling somehow lingered. The reunion was really a farewell party.
In two weeks' time, Apple and her family of three will move to London. Tianxin and her husband are planning to leave Hong Kong also, for either Britain or Taiwan.
Proficient in financial management, Tianxin, since the beginning of this summer, has been solicited by friends wanting to know how to open offshore accounts and how to transfer properties abroad. Every now and then, she'd learn that one of her friends is leaving Hong Kong.
Twice emigrants, two different unhappy emotions Tina and her husband, Andee, have a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. They also have two foreign domestic helpers, a dog and three tortoises— a typical upper middle-class family in this financial city.
Having decided to leave Hong Kong several months back, they have sold their apartment and are temporarily renting a condominium. Tianxin turns to Tina to see her state of mind: "You worked really hard and of course with the returns of a good job and fat salary. Now you are leaving, do you feel you'll have to give up a lot of what you have here?"
"Of course. And we know, for example, that in Canada we won't be able to afford full-time domestic help," Tina responds. Her husband intervenes: "To a certain extent, I have been preparing Tina psychologically."
Too many people who are leaving don't have any concept what emigration is all about – it's to uproot everything. Andee's grandfather left Hong Kong to settle in Canada in the 1970s. Then, one by one, his nine children followed — all except Andee's dad.
But when his parents divorced, they also left respectively, to go and live in Canada, leaving Andee and his younger sister in the care of their maternal grandmother.
The waves of emigration from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s didn't seem to affect Andee until Valentine's Day, 1994. Just after his date with his first girlfriend that night, he went home to find the letter from the immigration office announcing that his application had been accepted and that he'd have to enter Canada within three weeks.
Too many people who are leaving don't have any concept what emigration is all about — it's to uproot everything.
"For my sister and I, we felt our world was suddenly turned upside down … I can still remember that emotion today," Andee recalled. Parachuted into Calgary, in the western Canadian province of Alberta, Andee had to adapt himself to the father with whom he was not familiar, the language and new peers. Though there was no lack of youngsters like him from Hong Kong, he felt out of place.
He finally graduated from college and acclimated to life in Canada. After winning a design award with a Canadian classmate, they were both taken on as interns by a major design company. But it was his classmate who got recruited. Andee decided to go back to Hong Kong.
That was in 2004 when the former British colony's economy was booming. Andee found a design job immediately, with a high salary and had stayed there ever since. Unlike Andee, nobody in Tina's family had ever left Hong Kong, nor did she ever think about living elsewhere. Both worked hard and step by step, climbed to middle level positions in their companies. Even though Andee's mother would pressure them from time to time to join her in Calgary, the idea never attracted the couple.
The widespread protests that started in June 2019, caused first by the proposed bill to allow extradition to China and then by the introduction of the National Security Law this year, totally changed Andee and Tina's perspective on their future.
The impact of the Yuen Long Attack, which occurred in July last year, in which an armed band of mobsters dressed in white indiscriminately attacked civilians and passengers in the Yuen Long subway station, was a turning point.
"I had the television, iPad and two mobiles all turned on that night and was so shocked seeing the surreal scene of violence in a place that's so familiar to me," Andee recalled.
The education of their children worries the young couple too. The school textbooks are being modified while teachers' pedagogic freedom is being narrowed. And they no longer know what to say to the children when the news shows conflicts between police and demonstrators nearly every day.
A recent protest in Hong Kong — Photo: Willie Siawillie Siau/SOPA/ZUMA
More and more colleagues in Andee's company began discussing emigrating. One of them, who already had an Australian passport, reckoned that it's best to sell one's property and leave before the city's real estate market crashes. In fact, the colleague made the move within a month. This triggered Andee's agitation. Recalling his own teenage experience, he decided that the earlier they moved to Canada, the faster his children could adapt.
Having no children, Tianxin did not feel emigration concerned her at first, until she realized that she had been deprived of her freedoms and rights one by one over the past years.
"Is one better off being a second-class citizen as an immigrant?" her mom would say. "Is there anything more unbearable than being discriminated against in one's own country? " Tianxin retorted.
The doldrums of the social atmosphere since the massive months-long Umbrella Movement in 2014 triggered her 10-year plan to emigrate, on condition that she saved up sufficient money first. But that plan has been shortened to five, two and eventually one year.
Is there anything more unbearable than being discriminated against in one's own country?
In recent years, Tianxin has attended all major demonstrations including the annual June 4 protest in memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. But "we have fought and retreated to the point where if one doesn't wish to be arrested, one has to leave…"
Apple and her husband Keith had never imagined leaving Hong Kong until last June, when more than a million people took to the streets asking the Hong Kong government to withdraw the extradition bill that they consider would undermine the special district's judicial autonomy.
"June 21 was a decisive day, " Keith recalled. "We decided that night that we'll leave Hong Kong. The evolution of the past year has made me feel even more grateful that I made this decision early."
What pushed them to leave is their daughter. "Our parents didn't decide whether they should emigrate at their time. But we ought to do it for our offspring so that they won't be still wondering whether they stay or leave in their turn," says Apple. "As long as we are capable, we are going to provide our daughter with a foreign passport. Even if she loves China when she grows up, it'll be her own choice."
Andee lost 10 pounds after making the decision to leave Hong Kong. All kinds of thoughts come to his mind when he closes his eyes every night, like a revolving lantern.
He needs to sort out and dissociate his past 16 years of life, with good timing and order. Tina couldn't bear the idea of telling her parents she is leaving until she and her husband had sold their apartment. Her mom accepted her decision much more openly than she expected while her dad didn't say a word. "He loves me very much and he must be very reluctant, but he didn't want to say anything," she explained.
Apple and Keith have decided not to sell their flat for the moment. But they have sent off all important items to London. Keith felt somewhat like a deserter. "But we can't do anything here. We are not brave. On the other hand, I know many Hong Kongers want to go to Britain."
Ten days after Apple and Keith left for London, the British government declared a further extension of residence rights for the British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders – a status granted by voluntary registration to Hong Kong residents before the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997.
This means BNO passport holders and their dependents will be able to work and study for five years in Britain before eventually applying for full British citizenship. Upon hearing the news, Tianxin decided immediately that she would also go to Britain with her husband.
For Andee, this is the second departure from his homeland: "When I left for the first time at 16, I was anxious about all I was leaving behind. That was when Hong Kong was at its prime. I don't feel particularly attached anymore. All my closest friends have left."