Special Report-Leaving Hong Kong: A family makes a wrenching decision

From Pak Yiu and Marius Zaharia
HONG KONG (Reuters) - In the tiny kitchen of a Hong Kong skyscraper, the air was heavy with the aromas of a mother preparing her daughter's favorite childhood dishes.
It was the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest festival that brings families together for a cherished meal, and the last they would share before the daughter took her family to a country far from home.
"I'll miss her soy chicken," said Asa Lai as her mother cooked Cantonese cuisine plate by plate.
"I will miss my grandchildren," said their mother Ada after her daughter left the kitchen. "I'll miss my daughter. I don't want her to go. I feel helpless."
She tore up. "I don't like to think about it. When I do that, I cry."
It had been more than a year since Asa, 41, and her husband Willie decided to immigrate to Scotland and leave the town they both grew up in, the town where their three daughters were born. That evening in late September, the view finally felt all too real.
At dinner Asa took out a bottle of King Robert Scotch and gave it to her father. She said, "If you like it, you must come to Scotland for more."
Asa sat with folded hands at a dining table laden with french fries, stews, and a steamed sea bass.
"As we are about to leave Hong Kong, we do not know where the road will lead us, but I believe that you, sir, will lead us and take care of us. We are grateful. Amen."
They all raised their glasses.
Asa tried to break the following silence and asked, "Isn't grandma's chicken just so delicious? Won't you miss it?" But her mother looked away and hastily changed the subject to the rising cost of groceries.
Unpleasant conversations over dinner and painful family breakups are getting louder in Hong Kong. The Chinese government embarked on a more authoritarian path with the introduction of a comprehensive national security law in June that resulted in relentless crackdown on dissent.
The Lais are among the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents expected to emigrate. This is clear from a UK Home Office study and other visa applications as Beijing grips its most troubled city, a former British colony that has been widely promised, freedoms after its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
In contrast to protesters and activists who have fled the country and were charged with the often violent anti-government demonstrations of 2019, the Lais are a typical middle-class, politically moderate family in Hong Kong. They just leave because of the disillusionment they see in 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 participating in a 2 million-man march in June 2019, a turning point in the city that started the season of mass protests, but then she paused. It wasn't just a moment, she said.
"It's a collection of many things, all of these things that happened - it just seems to get worse and worse. So it's difficult to really pick an exact moment. I guess I would say it was the moment that freedom of speech began to shrink. "
The Lais' decision to uproot their families, documented by Reuters over the past five months, sheds light on the deep social wounds that mass emigration could inflict in Hong Kong and divide families and communities if people move elsewhere to find the freedoms have lost.
Hong Kong officials firmly believe that rights and freedoms are intact. They say the national security law is necessary to maintain public safety and order after last year's protests. During the demonstrations, protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, set the station exits on fire, and vandalized bank branches and shops believed to have ties to pro-Beijing figures. The police frequently used tear gas and water cannons, and around 10,000 people were arrested.
There has been a long journey since the introduction of the national security law. 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 "violent protests and anarchy in the streets" could be one of the motivations for people to emigrate over the past year, along with job, school, business or other personal reasons.
"The implementation of the National Security Law reversed the chaotic situation and severe violence last year, restored stability and increased confidence in Hong Kong, allowing the city to resume normal operations," the government spokesman said, adding arrests were " impartial "and" evidence-based ".
The Chinese Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Bureau, which reports to the State Council or Cabinet, and the Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s top branch in the city, did not respond to requests for comment.
There are no official statistics on how many leave this city of 7.5 million people. However, several proxy measures show an increasing trend of people who want to emigrate or leave. The scale could be comparable to Hong Kong's earlier mass exodus during the decade before the 1997 surrender.
The Hong Kong government estimates that between 1987 and 1996 about 503,800 people departed. The runoff peaked after Beijing's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, of which more than 66,000 left in 1992.
First signs are that the new wave may build up quickly.
The UK has issued more than 200,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passports so far this year, according to a UK government official. The passports are a legacy document of the colonial era that provides a route to citizenship.
The UK estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kong residents are eligible for BNOs and that up to 322,000 will move to the country between 2021 and 2025, according to a study by the Home Office. From January 2021, BNO holders can stay in the UK for five years. From this point onwards, if the requirements are met, they can apply for a settlement, and finally for citizenship.
The other preferred destinations for Hong Kongers are Canada and Australia, both of which have eased visa restrictions under the Security Act, according to immigration officers and relocation firms. Canada's immigration authorities said Hong Kong visa applications rose more than 10% to 8,640 in the past year. According to Reuters calculations based on the numbers from January to September 2020, they are well on their way to surpass that total by almost 25% this year. More than 2,500 Hong Kong passport holders in
Visas to Australia were extended after Canberra unveiled new rules on Australian citizenship for Hong Kong people in July.
When tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of citizens leave the city, said Leo Shin, associate professor and convenor of the Hong Kong Studies Initiative at the University of British Columbia, "obviously a lot of expertise and local knowledge is lost."
"At 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 at the big rally last June, they were hopeful that their China-ruled city would take a historic turn towards greater democracy.
But the authorities dug on their heels as the demonstrations grew more violent. For the Lais, the chaos in the streets and the government's reaction seemed more like a turn in the opposite direction.
"I couldn't accept it anymore. I thought I didn't want to live here anymore," said Asa. "Two million people and the government didn't answer us. And over time, the news got worse."
"For the youth of Hong Kong, as a mother herself, even though the children out there are not my own, to see no way in their future ..." she said before choking in tears.
Willie, 46, added: "If the teens are afraid to speak up, this is not a place. The best I can do now is help my children and raise them in a more suitable setting."
Their decisions were made by August last year. 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 grew up with.
It was an "enormous" decision, Asa said. Both had stable jobs. She has been a nurse for 23 years, most recently for a cancer organization. Willie, who climbed the hills of Hong Kong as a boy just to watch planes land, had a lucrative job importing and exporting aircraft parts for an aircraft construction company.
They would leave their parents, friends, and their community behind. Neither she nor her daughters are fluent in English. You saw "English with Lucy," a YouTube channel that teaches English, from pronunciation to accents - good thing for a family going to Glasgow, a city with one of the most impenetrable accents in the UK.
They contacted an immigration officer, asked about the United States, and prepared the paperwork for a visa application. But the couple dragged their feet for months. Her daughters were concerned about America's hurricanes and gun violence.
Then Beijing's introduction of the Security Act prompted Great Britain to extend the right of residence to holders of BNO passports. The couple renewed theirs.
They had never been to the UK before but booked a one-way flight via London to Glasgow for December 17th.
You know a couple of people who already live there and another family that just moved - at least that's a start. If it doesn't work out, they can check out different locations in the UK.
The Lais have already rented a four-bedroom, three-bath house in the suburbs south of Glasgow that they will share for five months with the other Hong Kong family who emigrated to Scotland.
The big house is in several ways a million miles from its 55-square-foot apartment in the Diamond Hill neighborhood of the Kowloon Peninsula, just below Lion Rock, a small mountain that is a symbol of sand and the unity of the city's folk culture.
They have lived there for a dozen years, and at times it felt like all life on earth was taking place in their tiny living room.
The two older daughters often did their homework at the dining table while Asa cooked in the open kitchen to her left and Willie sat on the couch behind them and watched TV.
Toddler Yanis constantly sought her sisters' attention while Happy the cat, a 17-year-old Scottish herd, tried to avoid her gaze and hid on a shelf from the relentless movement and screaming next to a globe that spun to face Britain demonstrate.
The views of towering blocks of flats on the lush hills across the street were spectacular from the 37th floor but were usually obscured by piles of toys and hanging laundry.
"Our lives were very plentiful, as were our hopes," Asa said of the chaotic apartment.
They sold the apartment for what they expect to keep for a few years until they find their feet. A privilege that other people who want to exercise may not have.
"We may have the financial means," said Asa, "but what about the rest of the future generation of Hong Kong? We are very lucky."
On November 7th, they started packing everything up. Some things should be taken with you, others should be thrown away, others would end up with Asa's parents, with whom the Lais would stay until their flight to Glasgow.
When Eunis and Caris stacked and sealed books in large cardboard boxes, Yanis used smaller ones to play peek-a-boo.
Asa and Willie went through a huge pile of clutter deciding what to leave and what to do: photo albums, piano sheets, a Bible, Chinese recipe books, newborn baby cards, brochures from their 10 day honeymoon in Mauritius.
They came across their wedding photos.
Willie was particularly impressed with one of them. He thought about it for a few seconds and then hung it on the wall to look at it again. Much more withdrawn than his wife, shy of family and friends and not prone to getting too personal, he usually responds with a long pause when emotions get intense.
The photo shows the couple at a zebra crossing on Canton Road in Hong Kong's tourist district of Tsim Sha Tsui, behind which neon lights shine. Willie, in a black suit and bow tie, stands on tiptoe to look taller and gives the camera a street-wise look. Asa holds a sunflower in her right hand in her A-line wedding dress, her father's hair and Willie's brother's make-up.
It reminds Willie of old Hong Kong, which had neon signs everywhere instead of LED lights and in which planes landed uncomfortably close to the rooftops of the city before landing on a tiny strip on the Kowloon Peninsula rather than the wilderness of Lantau Island new modern airport was built.
"If you look at it, you know it was captured around that time and it matters. It's all changed," Willie said of the picture.
He preferred old Hong Kong, he explained in a separate conversation. The transformation into a dazzling financial center makes it easier for him to leave. "If you ask me what I miss most about Hong Kong, it no longer exists," he said.
He wanted to go for a while, but it would always be Asa's choice. And Asa always takes time to think.
She met Willie in 2001 at Ocean Park, the city's oldest theme park where his younger brother worked. Willie was talking to the three friends she wanted to meet.
"I had just got out of a relationship so I wasn't interested in Willie," Asa said. "But he insisted."
After five years of dating, Willie took her for a walk in a harbor park 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 outlook on life.
While Willie leads the way in finding housing and schooling opportunities, Asa will have the final say after looking into finance and logistics.
"I make sure that our life works there," she said.
Three days after packing her things, the moving companies came to empty her home. The girls were in school; Asa was at work. Willie watched in thoughtful silence, broken only by a couple of long vowels in awe of how skilled the workers were.
After dinner, Willie took Asa back to the apartment to have another look around before handing over the keys. The view from her living room was finally free, but Asa seemed to stare blankly into it.
"There are no more guesses as to where we are going," she said - away from Hong Kong.
Willie then led her into the other room, where Asa saw a turquoise handbag in the corner, a present from her husband.
"He did the same thing when we first moved into town," said Asa. "He doesn't usually buy me presents. It's touching."
Every year around Christmas, the Lais and families of Asa's childhood friends Adeline, Florence and Eve meet for a big dinner.
Adeline, this year's hostess, stuck to the festive theme despite having to push the event forward by three weeks because of Lais's departure. A Christmas tree stood tall in the corner of the living room, while an LED monitor screen showed a video with fireplace flames and Christmas carols playing in the background.
"It's snowing in Glasgow. It looks so beautiful," said Asa, showing pictures sent by friends who lived there. In Hong Kong it was the first weekend of the dry season when the temperatures fell below 20 ° Celsius at night.
The seven children in the room, wearing Santa hats, played with a bunch of brightly colored, bloated balls while the adults drank wine from Burgundy, a 2008 vintage from the Carabello tree Château de Pommard that they originally wanted to keep for Eunis' graduation.
As Caris, her 11-year-old, walked by, Asa pointed to her pink leather watch and the white faux fur scarf that was wrapped around her neck - parting gifts from her friends at school.
"I was so busy moving that I didn't know my kids would have to say goodbye themselves," Asa said. "They sent me pictures with their friends at school and when I got them I started crying."
Just like on Christmas Eve, they shared gifts at midnight. Eunis got a pair of earrings; Caris got a bracelet. Adeline brought out a Napoleon cake that said, "For Lai's Family, New Change, Better Life" in chocolate and gave Asa a card with pictures of everyone taken over the past seven years.
Asa torn.
"We do have something for you, too," she said, taking 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 final hours of the Lais in Hong Kong, the stress began to reach Willie and Asa. An argument seemed inevitable about what else could fit in the four large suitcases, the travel bag, the three carry-on bags.
"I've been packing all morning and now you want to rearrange everything?" Willie told Asa.
"I have to take this one with me," Asa said, clutching a few bottles of contact lens solution. "These are from my cousin. They are gifts!"
Asa's mother, Ada, had denied her daughter's departure. She stood there and watched as everyone in her apartment moved aimlessly, saying words they didn't mean and worrying about things they didn't need.
"Today I finally accept the reality," said Ada.
She cooked one last meal: a spicy chicken pot, Caris' favorite vegetables, fried vegetables, and steamed fish.
Asa's friends came in three cars to drive them all to the airport, where more than a dozen other friends, former colleagues, and church people were waiting to say goodbye.
More gifts. They'll fit anywhere.
Just before going through the security gates, Caris gave her grandmother a letter: "You looked after me, cooked my favorite dishes and took me to the doctors when I was sick. Now it's my turn to take care of you . When you feel stressed out, I'll always be there to chat. "
(Reporting by Pak Yiu and Marius Zaharia; editing by Kari Howard)

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