In the years leading up the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, hundreds of thousands of residents fearful of communist rule moved abroad. Virginia Tsang and her family stayed put.
When the city was shaken in 2003 by mass protests over a draconian national security law, and again in 2014 by the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement sit-in, Tsang remained on the sidelines.
Politics never worried her.
The demonstrations that erupted in June profoundly changed that. Enraged by government intransigence, police brutality and the decline of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the 49-year-old bookkeeper has attended pro-democracy rallies nearly every weekend.
And now Tsang has decided to relocate to Edmonton, Canada.
“This is my home. Until now, I never thought of leaving,” she said. “But Hong Kong is no longer the same. It feels like a police state. I’m so scared.”
Early Monday, matters took an even more perilous turn when Hong Kong police stormed a university campus held by protesters after an all-night standoff that included barrages of tear gas and water cannon. At daybreak, protesters remained in control of much of the campus and police suspended the attack, saying they would allow those inside to leave and proceed to a police station, the president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University said.
In some ways, Tsang’s decision follows the tradition of her generation of middle-class Hong Kongers, so many of whom left long ago for the United States, Canada or Australia.
They are the children of mainland Chinese who fled a China afflicted by famines and purges. Mistrust of the Beijing government — along with an instinct to seek safer pastures abroad — is practically ingrained in their DNA.
The agonizing choice to start new lives thousands of miles away is often cinched by the belief they’re giving their children a more secure future.
In this, Tsang is convinced of her decision. Her husband, an auditor for a financial firm, plans to remain behind to ensure the family has at least one stable income, but Tsang plans to take their 18-year-old daughter, April Lui.
No longer will Tsang have to beg her only child not to wear black, the color of the protest movement — and a pretext for harassment by police or gangsters. She won’t have to count down the minutes until 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, which is when Lui is expected home from tutoring classes.
“If you’re not home by then, I have to go searching for you,” Tsang told her. “Night is when the cops come out. It’s like that movie, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’”
Lui shares her mother’s desire for democracy, but she wants to stay in Hong Kong and fight.
Her political awakening happened the moment her tutor explained a proposed bill that would allow extraditions to China. If passed, it would mark another loss of autonomy from the government in Beijing.
Two days later, on June 9, a million people marched to protest the bill, sparking the standoff that continues to paralyze the city of 7.4 million.
“After that class, I started following the news,” Lui said. “Before then I didn’t know the difference between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing.”
Now in her senior year at one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious private institutions, the Diocesan Girls’ School, she’s traded her affection for K-pop fan fiction for political activism.
The protest movement exposed Lui to a side of Hong Kong she had never experienced.
There were the college students who adopted her at protests to ensure her safety and who continue to check on her well-being. The young man passing by wearing a black protest mask who warned her of police ahead. And the elderly woman she helped across the street when the traffic lights were dead and whose parting words brought Lui to tears.
“Fight on for Hong Kong,” she said.
Lui tries not to think about leaving. Fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, she knows of no other place better suited for her than home. More than that, the movement has given her purpose.
“I’ve never felt more alive,” she said.
Fleeing would saddle her with guilt. Why should other young people have to stay and fight? Isn’t pushing out the opposition what Beijing’s backers want?
So much of Lui’s life is now shaped by the cause.
She and her parents have stopped attending regular Sunday dinners with extended family who side with the government and police. She’s careful not to speak her mind in public — even ending calls abruptly with friends when they start talking about the protests.
She avoids the subway because of violence there, opting instead to ride the bus while trying to keep a safe distance from older passengers who seem like they might lash out at her for being young.
Lui relaxes only when she’s with other demonstrators clad in black clothing and dark masks — like the mourners she joined at a park recently to honor a 22-year-old protester who died after falling from the third story of a parking garage during a clash between police and demonstrators.
Canada seemed so far away.
“I’ve been shoving this immigration thing to the back of my head,” she said. “I know I don’t want to go. The past few days I’ve been thinking, I don’t have to listen to my mom.”
The unrest has boosted a cottage industry of agents who help Hong Kong residents secure visas, schooling and overseas property.
Attendance is swelling at seminars about how to emigrate to Australia, Canada and the United States and emerging alternatives such as Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand.
“Clients who were hesitating to move before are now making plans,” said Ruki Lau, director of MLN Global, a real estate firm that also helps clients relocate abroad. “The instability has pushed people to speed up their decision-making.”
Inquiries to Lau’s firm have jumped from a few dozen in May, a month before the protests started, to more than 100 a month today.
Requests for background-check documents needed to move abroad have surged since July, with the 3,597 applications in September more than doubling that month’s total a year earlier, according to police. As of late last month, 25,768 applications had been filed this year — far surpassing the total for all of 2018.
The increase has rekindled memories of the 1990s, when an estimated 800,000 people fled Hong Kong. The exodus was motivated in large part by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, which many people worried was a preview of Chinese rule in Hong Kong after the handover from Britain.
“There was a brain drain because most of the people who left were middle class,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The government remedied the problem by boosting investment in higher education and promoting lower-level civil servants to positions vacated by the British. That launched a period of unprecedented upward mobility for Hong Kong natives who remained.
An exodus now might unfold faster, Ma said, because many residents already have foreign passports or relatives overseas who can help them migrate.
“You don’t even have to send your whole family,” he said. “You could just send your kids to live with an aunt in L.A.”
The quickest path to foreign citizenship today is often through investment programs such as the EB-5 in the United States.
To get a similar visa in Canada, Tsang plans to use her savings to open a quick-serve Korean restaurant. Though she has no experience in restaurants, her sister-in-law in Edmonton does and offered to help. Lui would attend a local university.
The plan is to leave next summer, after Lui graduates from high school. Tsang is scheduled to meet with an immigration agent next month.
The longest Tsang and her husband, Kin Lui, have ever lived apart is two weeks.
But Kin Lui supports the move, believing his daughter will have a better future in Canada. He holds out hope that Hong Kong will return to the “good old days” before it was beset by unrest.
“I know it’s going to be tough,” Tsang said. “I’m going to have to work long hours. I don’t know if I’m going to have days off. But I have to give it a try.
“I want April to have a better life.”
Over a plate of eggs, bacon, toast and avocado at a crowded cafe one recent morning, Tsang tried to convince her daughter that moving made sense.
“You’ll have more options in Canada,” she said.
Lui, picking at her food, said she felt her mother’s plan was haphazard at best. No one had even decided yet who would look after the family’s three toy poodles.
“How long have you thought about this?” Lui said.
Tsang was preoccupied with questions other than the dogs. How was she going to feed Lui if she was going to be stuck at her new business? And how would Lui get around Edmonton without a driver’s license?
“I have no interest in driving,” Lui said.
Lui then tried to appeal to her mother with a sense of moral duty to stay.
“You said you don’t trust the government. Why don’t you stay here and help build it back up again?” she asked.
“You can’t change China,” Tsang replied.
“I have time to build a new hope,” Lui said.