At first, Mary didn’t tell her father the real reason why she was leaving Hong Kong.
He was on the side of China’s crackdown on the city’s democratic movement, not surprising for a retired police officer. But Mary and her mother wanted more independence for their home. They were among the 1.7 million Hongkongers, a quarter of the population, who took to the streets back in 2019, the year that marked a swift crackdown on the city’s freedoms.
Mary marched in every protest. She wasn’t on the frontlines, but experienced getting caught in the fire of tear gas and saw people beaten by police. On one occasion after shopping in Causeway Bay with her 70-year-old mother, they joined protesters who were chanting on the street, only to be chased by police, cornered and pepper sprayed.
“All my life I never thought of leaving Hong Kong,” said Mary, who is in her early 30s and is using this pseudonym for her safety. “I had to give up everything I built up, but I worried about my personal safety.” Gone were the passionate protests the city was known for, with people arrested for offenses as seemingly minor as carrying stickers with slogans about independence.
Mary applied for a Canadian student visa and was approved in May 2021. Over the next three months, she said goodbye to her family, friends, a stable job at a software company and her lifelong home. Her excuse to her father was the economy, saying that she wanted to upgrade her education with a degree from overseas. He seemed to accept her reasoning.
In August, she arrived in Vancouver for the first time — with the expectation she might be settling for good.
Her father was furious when he discovered the real reason for her departure. “I still remember the phone call,” said Mary. “He said, ‘You’re not my daughter anymore. You abandoned us. I can live without you.’ It was heartbreaking. I cried. I’m still emotional. But my mother, she was very supportive. She said, ‘You should go. You should leave. You shouldn’t be here. All of us know what’s coming next.’”
These are the dynamics behind the flight of Hongkongers in the wake of the Beijing-backed national security law: divided families, bittersweet goodbyes, rushed departures, lives uprooted.
In response, the Canadian government — along with others like the U.S., the U.K. and Australia — has created a number of immigration pathways specifically for Hongkongers.
On July 1, it will have been 25 years since Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed to China in 1997. Canada is now on the receiving end of an exodus not seen since.
Goodbye, Hong Kong
“Worn out.” “Scared.” “Suffocated.”
This is the spectrum of reasons behind Hongkongers’ decision to leave home, four new Hong Kong immigrants to Canada told The Tyee.
They agreed to be interviewed for this article using a nickname or their first name only due to potential consequences under the national security law, a sweeping piece of legislation with an article that says it can be broken abroad by non-residents, who could be arrested upon arrival in Hong Kong. Two of the interviews were conducted in Cantonese and responses translated to English. Until they immigrated last year, none had ever lived abroad, let alone been to Canada before.
There are vocal activists among them who worry they might be next for arrest and possibly jail. But there are also those who aren’t facing consequences, and are leaving because they don’t see a future for themselves in Hong Kong due to the political climate, even those who are making good salaries, says Miu Chung Yan, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia.
Waves of emigration from Hong Kong are nothing new, says Yan, who researches Chinese newcomers in Canada.
“For the history of contemporary Hong Kong, people were driven out from the city almost every time because of some political issue caused by China.”
In 1967, there were the violent protests that happened against the backdrop of China’s cultural revolution, with pro-Beijing unions fighting Hong Kong’s British rule. Then came 1984, when the handover agreement of Hong Kong from the U.K. to China was validated, and in 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. These years, leading up to the 1997 handover itself, saw mass migration.
But this time around, Hong Kong’s draconian security law has created a new climate of desperation for residents looking to leave.
“They don’t have the luxury to plan,” said Yan. “This hurried situation makes it much more difficult.”
It was common for Hongkongers in the 1980s and 1990s to have as many as two years to prepare for departure, from saying goodbyes, settling their finances to paying an initial visit to scout out their potential home.
Now, people are leaving in a matter of months for destinations they’ve never been to before.
Mary, who had three months, didn’t have a chance to finish packing a lifetime of belongings before it was time to go. Her mother is still sending her packages.
“I also had to get myself mentally prepared,” she said, especially when it comes to saying goodbye to loved ones. “I have a 90-year-old grandma and I’m so close with her. I’m not sure if she can ever come to Canada because of her health. And she’s getting old. You never know what might happen.”
For Calvin, there was even less time.
“The idea to leave had been simmering in my mind since the national security law,” he said. As the crackdown on protesters and activists hardened, he made a sudden decision in September 2021 for his own safety. “I took off for Vancouver days later. I decided to come first as a tourist and worry about the visa later.”
Lifeboats and brain drains
The exodus has resulted in a “brain drain” for Hong Kong as young professionals pack their bags.
The Canadian government has been playing to this flight of talent, attracting them with new immigration pathways. There is an open work permit for recent graduates and permanent residency routes for Hongkongers with Canadian education or experience.
The total number of new permanent residents and new and extended temporary residents was 7,290 in 2019 and 8,042 in 2020, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
But after the pathways were introduced, the number jumped to over 25,000 in 2021. This year’s numbers are on track to top last year’s.
Despite the spike in these categories, the data does not capture the greater scale of this wave. Hong Kong has been called “Asia’s most Canadian city,” with about 300,000 Canadian citizens living there, many of whom are expected to return.
But a brain drain for Hong Kong doesn’t yet mean a “brain gain” for Canada. And while activists have applauded new visa pathways around the world as a “lifeboat” for Hongkongers, Yan the social work professor says it’s a boat with “many holes.”
“The reality is they’ll still have a hard time finding a job in Canada,” he said. “Youth generally have more difficulty getting into the labour market. I know many of these young people have very good qualifications and work professional jobs in Hong Kong, but after arriving... many of them just get a very menial, part-time job, working in a café or in sales. It’s a pathway, but they still have to struggle a lot in order to survive.”
On top of work, there’s the challenge of housing. These young immigrants might be trading one of the world’s most expensive housing markets for another, but in Hong Kong, it’s the norm for adult children to live with their parents, said Yan. Many singles coming to Canada are moving out for the first time, hunting for roommates and basement suites alongside locals.
Calvin, 27, a former civil servant, now sells electronics.
“I do hope to work in my old field again, maybe with some more education,” he said. “But right now, a lot of us who’ve just arrived are at supermarkets and restaurants, rather [than] continuing our former careers.”
Will, also 27, studied marketing and worked in hospitality back home. He is now in customer service.
“I didn’t get many interviews here,” he said. “Even the interviews I did get, nobody followed up with me afterward. It was tough when I first arrived.
“I’m not from a rich family. I didn’t bring that much money here and there was a lot of things like furniture that we had to spend money on when we first arrived. When our landlord wanted a background check, it was a headache too, because all of our bank statements, work experience and income records were from Hong Kong. But I eventually found this job, and even though it’s not exactly what I did before or what I want to do long-term, it’s not bad. As someone on a work permit, local experience is really important if I want to stay, so I hope it’ll give me a chance to get to know the work culture here and build up my connections.”
Immigration in fast forward
When Calvin visited the city of Richmond for the first time after immigrating, he thought he went back in time. “It’s like Hong Kong in the ‘90s!” he said.
There were familiar place names too, some with echoes of British colonial history, like Aberdeen and Admiralty. These Hong Kong areas lent their names to malls in suburban Richmond, known for being the North American city with the highest percentage of Chinese residents. Calvin, missing the taste of home, has been eating through the abundance of options.
The Vancouver region has been a base of Chinese immigration since before its inception. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Canada welcomed a wave of diverse Hong Kong newcomers from children to homemakers, university grads to blue-collar workers, celebrities and real estate tycoons.
Calvin’s comment about the 1990s is apt: that’s when big developers built the bulk of the region’s Chinese malls. Congregations at Chinese churches swelled. Language schools opened to keep the young generation fluent. Professionals from doctors to lawyers, engineers to mechanics launched businesses catering to Cantonese speakers. Chefs brought their mastery, from working-class fare like barbecue and congee, to east-meets-west fusion at cha chaan tengs to fine dining where seafood is the star. Vancouver became a launch pad for young celebrities and a retirement community for older ones from pop icons to kung fu stars.
The demographic shift and influx of capital frightened some Vancouverites. The media published xenophobic stories with invasion fears, using “Hongcouver” as a slur.
With this special relationship between two Pacific cities, the Hongkongers who have settled in Vancouver for decades have long been on the lookout for newcomers. They knew China’s increasing control over the city would eventually trigger emigration, but the 2019 protests and the 2020 national security law sped up the process.
A huge repertoire of resources and supports are online: a Facebook page that offers airport pickups, YouTube vlogs that introduce newcomers to Canada and chat groups on platforms like Telegram. New organizations have sprung up too, connecting arrivals for hangouts, English practice, career and immigration advice and continuing the fight for democracy in Hong Kong.
Heiky Kwan is among those lending a hand. For almost a year, she’s been doing airport pickups and taking newcomers out for dim sum and Costco runs. Many arrive without knowing anyone in Vancouver, so volunteers like Kwan have stepped up to be there. In a week, she meets between 20 to 50 newcomers — and the numbers are steadily increasing.
“There’s just a desire for Hongkongers to help each other during this difficult time,” said Kwan, 33. “It feels fulfilling, but heavy. Helping this community means that we’re dealing with a lot of trauma.”
She helped organize the Hong Kong Fair in May, which drew large crowds that maxed out the downtown venue’s capacity. There was lighter cultural fare like games and boy band fan clubs, but also documentary screenings and vendors selling pro-democracy accessories.
Kwan was six-years-old when she immigrated from Hong Kong to Richmond with her family back in 1996, one year before the handover. She’s visited Hong Kong over the years and kept a close eye on the intensifying protests as an adult. Like many others in Vancouver, she was ready to lend a hand when the latest wave arrived.
“It’s all very organic,” said Kwan of the social networks both online and through word-of-mouth. “When they get to me, I’m not even the first person they’ve contacted. You know a friend and then you know another friend and then suddenly, everyone is coming to you.”
The new wave has meant that Cantonese congregations, like that of Koinonia Evangelical Church in Richmond, have been growing rapidly. Places of worship have always played an important role when it comes to helping newcomers get settled.
“I really think we are working with the government on this whole thing,” said Rev. Joshua Chow, who co-founded the church in 2006. “The government gives them status, we give them support.”
Over 100 newcomers, many of them young families, have joined their congregation of 500.
“In the 1990s, [it was common for] the kids to come first or the wife to accompany the kids to go to school,” said Chow, who immigrated himself as a university student in the early 1990s.
“This time, we see a lot of whole families coming together. It’s a very brave action. Some of [the parents], they have very well-paid jobs in management in big companies, and when they come here, they do not have any expectation to find the same level of job. They really want to do the best thing for the next generation, so this is why they can make such a big decision, leave everything behind, to start over again.”
The church hasn’t been actively seeking these families, just trying to improve its online presence, as Chow knows that many newcomers’ first impressions of Canada will be from YouTubers introducing everything from education to neighbourhoods. During the pandemic, when many churches were livestreaming their services, the church got the idea to set up a special online service for Sunday morning, Hong Kong time. It offered those preparing to leave a peek of the community on the other side.
As their congregation adds newcomers, Chow says welcoming the people who left in the middle of a political shift takes a lot of sensitivity.
“Hong Kong gave them a lot of disappointment. We discover in their hearts there’s a lot of fear, a lot of insecurity. They might be more skeptical in church [or are] depressed about adapting to their new life. Instead of just helping them try to review what happened in Hong Kong in the past few years, we really want to help them to establish their new life.”
Speaking out abroad
On June 12 this year, in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a police squad beat protesters defending themselves with umbrellas, the air thick with imitation tear gas. The visceral scene was a re-enactment of the protests in Hong Kong back in 2019, when China toughened its crackdown on democracy movements.
The event was hosted by the newly organized Vancouver Activists of Hong Kong. Alexandra was at a booth that day, signing up people who wanted to further the fight for freedom in Hong Kong. As a safety precaution, she and other volunteers use nicknames. She arrived in Vancouver last year, and is among the many young emigrants who’ve taken the fight abroad.
“What Canadians need to know is that it’s not just about us,” she said. “None of us can escape from the CCP [the Chinese Communist Party] or other authoritarian regimes if we don’t speak up, if we don’t fight against them.”
Alexandra, 27, has seen her friends from Hong Kong scattered across countries: the U.K., Australia and Canada.
“Most of them, if they could choose, they wouldn’t leave,” she said. “If we chose to stay, we’d be sent to jail... facing a sentence for something that’s made up. It shouldn’t be like this. For young people, they should be going to university, making friends, building up their careers — not leaving their own home and starting from zero.”
In Canada, there is both yellow and blue, said Yan the UBC professor. Those are the colours of protest in Hong Kong: yellow representing the democracy movement and blue representing the police and the Beijing-backed government.
The blue camp is well-established in Vancouver, with many individuals who do business with China, says Yan. But the wave coming now from Hong Kong will very likely be adding their numbers to the yellow camp. “Once they settle themselves, they will become a strong political force.”
Mary says that many Hongkongers wouldn’t have been able to emigrate if it wasn’t for the protests that caught global attention, nudging governments abroad to loosen their borders.
“My freedom is built on the blood of my people,” she said. “I feel responsible to continue the fight. They can’t do it in Hong Kong, so it’s our responsibility to do it in Canada.”
A ‘one-way ticket’
For decades, Hongkongers have been known for zipping back and forth between homes in different countries.
There are many in Canada who return for long annual visits, but also those whose lives are more fluid. There are “astronaut families,” an arrangement where the breadwinner dad is in Hong Kong while mom and the kids are abroad. There are “return migrants,” the kids who grew up abroad but go back to Hong Kong to work in adulthood.
These transnational ways of living have led migration scholars to call these frequent flyers “circular migrants.”
There is now a group that Yan calls “post-return migrants.” These are people who’ve grown up in Canada, went to Hong Kong and are now back again.
The big question that Yan and many others are asking of all overseas Hongkongers in this time of upheaval: “After they settle down, will there be any way of moving back again?”
All four newcomers interviewed by The Tyee don’t expect to return to Hong Kong if China’s grip over the city continues to tighten.
For Mary, it’s been 10 months since she left.
“I’m afraid that people [in Canada] will think that we’re taking advantage of them,” she said, “taking their welfare away, taking their taxes away. We’re trying our best to contribute to Canadian society. I really hope that people will understand that what’s happening right now is for our own safety. We don’t really have a choice, so we have to leave.”
She still calls her mother every day.
“I miss home so much. This was a one-way ticket for me. I know I won’t be going back.”