One dreams of Hong Kong street food, but in a nightmare finds himself cornered by authorities in the city’s airport.
A fellow activist mourns a grandmother whose Hong Kong grave she may never visit.
And a teenager wonders shyly whether the friend he left behind might actually have been his boyfriend.
These are the Canadian Hongkongers who say they will never return to the city they once called home, as they navigate the complicated legal and emotional landscape of dual citizenship.
Davin Wong, once a key player in the Hong Kong protest movement as president of Hong Kong University’s student union, is now studying law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He also lobbies the Canadian government about his former home.
“If I set foot in Hong Kong again then they definitely have very good grounds to arrest me,” said Wong, who fled the city in August 2019, less than 24 hours after he was attacked on the street amid a spate of assaults on activists.
He said he had no doubt that his activities in Canada put him in breach of the sweeping national security law, which Beijing imposed in Hong Kong last year: “I mean, come on. I’m telling Canada to punish these guys.”
The law targets secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, but critics see it as a means to suppress dissent and freedom. It applies not just to activities in Hong Kong or China, but anywhere in the world.
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers who are both Chinese and Canadian citizens has been under recent scrutiny, with Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor pledging on February 9 that authorities would be “strictly enforcing” rules that do not recognise the concept of dual citizenship in relation to consular access.
Canadian media has reported that dual citizens in Hong Kong will be forced to choose a single nationality, citing the case of a prisoner asked to declare either Canadian or Chinese citizenship. Canada’s government estimates there are about 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong.
A source told the SCMP recently that about 100 inmates in Hong Kong prisons held dual nationality, and since January they had been asked to declare a single citizenship for the purpose of determining eligibility for consular access.
But since the 1997 handover, neither China nor the Hong Kong government have regarded Canadian or other dual citizens in Hong Kong as being entitled to consular protection. That was laid out when the National People’s Congress issued a set of “explanations” in 1996 about nationality and Hongkongers.
These do not mention foreign passports or dual citizenship but instead refer to Chinese nationals who have obtained “documents issued by the foreign governments” for the purpose of travelling. Such people “will not be entitled to consular protection in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and other parts of the People’s Republic of China on account of their holding the above mentioned documents”.
While China’s nationality law says people who acquire foreign nationality lose Chinese citizenship, Hongkongers are regarded as exceptions. Chinese consular authorities in Canada have previously tried to treat Canadian-born children of Hong Kong immigrants as Chinese citizens by refusing to grant them visas as foreign nationals and instead asking them to apply for Chinese travel documents.
Meanwhile, Hongkongers wanting to declare themselves solely Canadian are required to undertake a formal renunciation of Chinese citizenship, conducted by the Hong Kong Immigration Department.
Successful applicants – it is a discretionary process – lose their right of abode in Hong Kong but not their residency, automatically receiving the “right to land”, a lower status that still allows someone to live, work and study in Hong Kong.
But there is a substantial potential cost, since people with only the right to land cannot receive government benefits or assistance. They also lose their political rights and can be deported if convicted of a serious crime, including breaches of the security law.
Choosing a single nationality is not a simple decision, even for dual-citizen Hongkongers living in Canada who do not consider themselves Chinese. None of those who told the Post they were never returning to Hong Kong had undertaken renunciation.
Wong – who was born in Canada – had considered renunciation “because I felt more threatened and insecure holding Chinese nationality”. “But now that Canada broke off our extradition arrangement with Hong Kong I found there is less of an urgency to do so,” he said.
It is just one aspect of the tangled consequences of dual nationality.
Ai-Men Lau, 27, posted a declaration on Twitter on July 2 last year, after the introduction of the security law. It said she had “no intentions of returning to Hong Kong or visiting China in the foreseeable future”.
“That’s still very much how I feel,” said Lau, who works in Ottawa for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute public policy think tank. It was “not feasible” that she return because of her advocacy for Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a group that supports the Hong Kong protest movement.
Born in Canada in 1993, Lau obtained her Hong Kong permanent ID card and right of abode as a pre-handover birthright, by having a Hong Kong immigrant mother. Her father is from Malaysia, and the family spent years travelling between Thailand – where Lau’s father worked as a telecoms engineer – and Hong Kong.
Her connection to Hong Kong was hard to describe, Lau said, and the relationship ambiguous, reflecting her family’s own complicated history; her mother’s father was Pakistani.
But “Hong Kong is one of my homes”, said Lau, where as a child she wandered the streets in search of pineapple buns. “There was a level of comfort I got in Hong Kong that I don’t get in Canada,” she said.
She wanted to return, applying to the University of Hong Kong to study for a master‘s degree, and considering working in the city, “when everything exploded in Hong Kong” in the summer of 2019.
Her plans to resettle were upended, and the security law meant that living in Hong Kong “was not going to be in my future any more”; her last trip to the city was in 2015. She has not been able to visit the grave of her grandmother, who died recently.
Her mother, 59, has also decided never to return to Hong Kong, which also grieves Lau. “I miss seeing my mom in Hong Kong. That relief and comfort. How happy she seems there … So that is pretty painful.”
When the security law was introduced, Lau said she “experienced all five stages of grief at once”.
“I was surprised at how much I wanted to deny it, the part of me that said, ‘no, this is not happening, I’m going to go back and everything is going to be fine’ … but that lasted for about a week, and after that I resigned myself, that I could not go back, it’s changed,” she said.
Lau has changed too. In the summer of 2019, she was uncertain of exactly where she stood with the protest movement. At the time, she said she was shocked by the attitude of some protesters that “if we burn, you burn too”.
Now, she says she is a Hong Kong separatist, and doesn’t think of Hong Kong as part of China.
“I want Hong Kong to be Hong Kong, and at this point I don’t see any other option than being a separatist because ‘one country, two systems’ has utterly failed,” she said.
As for her own status, Lau said she was grappling with whether to cancel her Hong Kong ID card. Lau could also technically be considered a Chinese national because her mother is a native-born Hongkonger.
“I haven‘t thought about formally renouncing Chinese citizenship primarily because I have never identified as a Chinese national,” said Lau. But the security law meant renunciation could be “a wise decision”. It was, she said something else “to mull over”.
Fifteen-year-old Hugh says his parents first discussed moving permanently to Canada with him when he was in second grade.
But in June 2020, the decision was urgently brought forward by Hong Kong’s political upheaval. The national security law had just been proposed by the National People’s Congress. “It just seemed like the old Hong Kong was dead and thus we thought it would be better to leave,” he said.
“But it was more bittersweet when it happened than seven-year-old me had been expecting,” he said.
Moving to Canada during a pandemic has been a challenge; Hugh’s schooling has been largely conducted online, making it difficult to settle in. “Schoolwork is kind of a mess right now,” he said.
His parents obtained Canadian citizenship after immigrating in the 1990s, just before the handover, but returned to Hong Kong, where Hugh was born in 2005. They won’t be going back, he said.
Hugh’s parents approved of the Post’s interview with him but did not wish to take part. He was unwilling to be identified by his full name because he feared a social media “dog pile”.
His family supported the protest movement, and he and his father joined the large protest marches in June 2019, leaving a profound impact on the teen. “It’s still an experience I try to digest to this very day,” he said. “It was a confluence of emotions. Both hope and fear” about how the huge turnout would anger Beijing.
Hugh was only eight at the time of the 2014 “umbrella movement”, but he said those protests awakened his “civil consciousness” because his parents were so politically active. “In 2014 we’d already talked as a family about how, if there was a severe crackdown, then we would immediately get out of Hong Kong and move to Canada,” he recalled.
Hugh said that during the 2019 protests his high school’s administration had “pro-Beijing sympathies” but its student body was “yellow” – broadly supportive of the protest movement. He recalls a special assembly that June, called to discuss the protests, where he said he stood up for his beliefs to a “fanatically nationalist” teacher.
“It was possibly the stupidest thing I have ever done, but I was proud of it,” Hugh said. He was 14.
His family would not return to Hong Kong in the foreseeable future, he said. “It’s twofold. First off there are general concerns about any immigration laws they might pass, and how they deal with people who have dual citizenship. Would they not let me in? Would they detain people like that?” he said.
“The other part is that sometimes it’s better when something is dying, not to see it when it reaches its inevitable end.”
But he remains a Chinese citizen, in the eyes of Beijing at least, which he said “represents a genuine danger to me from the aspect of the judicial reach of the CCP”. He would consider renunciation when he became an adult, he said.
It was “jarring” to move from the political hothouse of a Hong Kong school, filled with like-minded politically active students, to a Vancouver school where such concerns were distant for most of his classmates.
Life in Vancouver was “a bit boring, but at this stage asking for boring may be the best possible thing,” he said; it was sometimes too painful to think about Hong Kong. “[But] when I miss my home even more than normal, and when I want to curl up in a ball against the door and cry, I think about the good moments.”
The moments are mostly political: “seeing everybody come back for one last showdown”, lying awake at 2am and delighting online with his friends as they followed the 2019 district elections, when the pro-democracy camp captured 17 out of 18 councils. “It was one of the best moments of my life,” Hugh said.
Like most who have left Hong Kong, Hugh misses the food scene. He misses the friends he has known since early childhood.
And he sometimes thinks of a particular boy. “We sort of had a relationship. As a boyfriend? But we sort of didn’t? So we left on good terms. But it was weird, is all I’m saying.”
They are still in touch. “They say distance makes the heart grow fonder but …”
His voice trails off.
Hugh says he is “gradually moving past the trauma” of how Hong Kong has changed, and while he doubts he will ever see the city again, “the people who leave Hong Kong, they are still carrying part of it with them in their souls. I’m sorry if that sounds so sappy.”
Ricker Choi, who immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada with his family in the 1980s, is a financial risk management consultant in Toronto.
But his passion is the Hong Kong democracy movement.
An accomplished pianist and artist, Choi composes and sells music in honour of the movement. He also sells protest-themed paintings to raise money for Hongkongers seeking political asylum in Canada. He writes letters to jailed activists in Hong Kong.
Choi said that when he moved to Canada in his teens, he lost touch with his Hong Kong identity. “The most connection I had with Hong Kong was karaoke,” he said, as well as an occasional brief holiday (his most recent trip was in 2007).
But 2019 changed everything. By then he had connected with his Hong Kong roots via Facebook, and the scenes of the June mass protests “had a huge emotional impact” on him.
“The unity they showed, then the police brutality, and how the protesters still insisted on fighting … that moved me a lot,” Choi said. “Now I look at Hong Kong news every single day.”
Ironically, it is only since the protest movement reignited his connection to Hong Kong that he has vowed never to return to the city. “It’s very risky now for someone like me who is politically active and is raising money to help political dissidents to come to Canada to seek refugee status,” he said.
He fears arrest, citing the case of Hong Kong radio personality Giggs, who was charged with seditious intent this month after fundraising for young Hong Kong protesters to study in Taiwan.
Choi rejected the idea that his lack of continuing direct connections to many people in Hong Kong means he isn’t entitled to his advocacy. “Human rights are a universal value,” he said. “It’s not just about Hongkongers. It’s about Uygurs, who are persecuted, Tibetans, who are persecuted. Myanmar, Thailand. People protest for their freedom everywhere.”
He has joined protests in Toronto in support of the Hong Kong democracy movement, and found a network of like-minded people. Choi says he has pro-Communist friends too, “but I don’t talk to them much any more”, and his social media postings have led to him fall out with some.
He is incredulous as he describes a Canadian-born friend telling him that “democracy is overrated; it’s more important to be prosperous; Hong Kong is so good”. “He would send me propaganda. I can’t believe a Canadian-born Chinese would watch this and believe it. I found it very disturbing,” he said.
Choi’s paintings mostly depict well-known scenes from Hong Kong’s upheaval – protesters cowering on the floor of an MTR train, a motorcyclist flying a black “Liberate Hong Kong” flag – as well as portraits of activists including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.
Others depict a Hong Kong of the imagination: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is recast with sinister figures in white lurking in the background, carrying sticks. Another painting shows a flaming phoenix rising behind the silhouette of a protester.
Choi says he will never go back to see the real thing for himself “as long as it is under CCP rule”. But nor does he have any plan to renounce his Chinese citizenship, judging it a pointless gesture.
“The two Michaels are non-Chinese, 100 per cent Canadian, and can still be unjustly imprisoned for two years, with access to Canadian consulate being refused arbitrarily, subjected to inhumane treatment, while [the] Canadian government can do nothing about it,” he said, referring to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
They were detained in China in December 2018 and accused of espionage, days after Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested on a US warrant in Vancouver.
Chinese citizenship or not was “meaningless”, Choi said.
Davin Wong can recall the moment he knew he had to leave Hong Kong with unusual precision: it was around midnight on the evening of August 30, 2019, one day before a major protest.
He was waiting for a bus near Wan Chai’s Southorn Playground, after taking part in a hip-hop dance performance, when a masked man came up behind him and started thrashing him with a rattan cane.
At the time, he was the acting president of Hong Kong University’s student union. It was part of a series of high-profile attacks on pro-democracy figures; a day earlier, Civil Human Rights Front convenor Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit was attacked by two men armed with a baseball bat and a machete.
Other activists were arrested in a police crackdown before the protest.
Wong’s attackers were never brought to justice. Fearing for his life, he was on a plane to Canada 18 hours later, and he never reported the attack to police, although it was the subject of widespread media coverage.
At the time, Wong said he would “never forgive myself for leaving Hong Kong at such a critical time”. “Even though it would be my lifelong shame, I was doomed to leave.”
Eighteen months later and 10,000km (6,200 miles) away in his UBC dorm in Vancouver, Wong is still doesn’t feel completely safe.
Like Ai-Men Lau, Wong released a statement on social media last year stating he would never go back to Hong Kong. This was “insurance … let’s say they take me back to Hong Kong and put me on trial, they cannot put a narrative on me, saying I voluntarily went back” he said.
He fears being abducted. “Look at what happened to the Causeway Bay bookstore incident,” he says, referring to the disappearances of five Hong Kong booksellers who vanished in 2015.
One of them, Gui Minhai, eventually turned up in Chinese custody after going missing in Thailand, and he was jailed last year for 10 years. Gui told Chinese state television that he had turned himself in.
At the time of the 2019 attack, Wong was living in a Yuen Long village with his mother, who was “shocked but not surprised”. “She could see it coming,” he said.
His father collected him at Calgary’s airport the next day. “He wasn’t surprised either,” said Wong.
Although his parents, who are divorced, did not pressure him, Wong’s activism has long been a source of tension in his extended family.
“Aunties and uncles … they blame me. They still think I am at fault for everything that I have put myself and my family through,” Wong says, referring to a campaign of harassment that he said started when he was campaigning for the HKU student union presidency in 2018.
Born in Canada in 1998, Wong moved back to Hong Kong with his parents when he was an infant. Although his relatives lived in Calgary, Wong has now moved to Vancouver “because after all those years living in Hong Kong I need to live near the sea”.
The hardest thing about relocating to Canada “was to understand my identity as a Canadian. Honestly, I had no idea of what it meant to be a Canadian. No idea about the issues. About indigenous affairs, about federalism …
“But definitely I feel very welcome in Canada, especially in Vancouver. I love the city. Except for the rain.”
He struggles with Canadian food, though, “how to eat vegan and keto. That West Coast stuff.”
And sometimes he dreams of Hong Kong.
He tells of one vivid nightmare – he is in Hong Kong’s airport and has been caught by customs officials.
Other times he dreams of siu mai and egg waffles. Even McDonald’s McFlurries are different in Hong Kong and Canada, Wong says.
He is now focused on advocating to the Canadian government; like Lau he is active in the group Alliance Canada Hong Kong.
He turns around the argument against foreign interference in Chinese or Hong Kong internal affairs. “Whatever any government does is their own ‘internal affair’,” Wong says. “So it’s Canada’s internal decision too … who are you to interfere in their decisions then?”
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