Ever since Hong Kong’s protest movement erupted last year, young people have flocked to Leung’s bubble tea house in the busy shopping district of Mong Kok to leave messages of support for democracy on the so-called “Lennon wall” inside the shop.
They used to write ‘Liberate Hong Kong’, ‘One Hong Kong, One Nation”, or ‘Hong Kong People, Resist” on a post-it note, stick it on the wall as they enjoyed a fresh tapioca pearl tea, and then disappear into the night.
Today post-its still cover the wall. But after Beijing this month imposed a sweeping national security law that threatens life in prison for an ill-defined range of crimes, including secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, all of the colourful squares of paper have been left blank.
“The post-its represent our continuous support to the movement and we let customers use their imagination to fill in the words” said 23-year-old Leung, picking out toppings for the next drink.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party hopes that its draconian law will crush the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong that saw millions of people take to the streets last year. Critics say the law effectively ends the unique freedoms granted to Hong Kong under the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement signed before the territory was returned to China by Britain.
On Saturday, however, tens of thousands of people signalled they had not given up hope by turning out to vote in primary polls for pro-democracy candidates in the upcoming election to Hong Kong’s legislative council, the heavily Beijing-influenced body that oversees the city.
They queued for hours in the sun despite warnings that the unofficial vote itself might be in breach of the new security law - and chilling news of an earlier police raid on an opinion pollster helping to conduct the ballot.
While some hold out slim hope for electoral success, daring young men and women are trying to keep the protest movement against Beijing alive - walking an increasingly uncertain tightrope of potential arrest and imprisonment.
Since the new regulations explicitly outlaw the protest anthem ‘Glory to Hong Kong’, David, a 17-year-old high school student, has joined others in singing the song by replacing its letters with numbers.
“If we want to continue to protest legally, we have to be creative. If I sing in words, the lyrics may violate the law and I will be at risk,” said David, after he loudly sang a series of what appear to be meaningless numbers by way of example.
Similarly, as the government has outlawed the popular slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, activists have started to abbreviate the phrase as “KFHG, SDGM” - referring to the Chinese English or Chinglish translation “kwong fok heung gong, si doi gark ming”.
With authorities bearing down on protesters and the limits of the law unclear, some attempts at exploiting loopholes have fallen flat. One man was arrested at a protest the day after the law’s introduction, on July 1st, for holding a flag bearing “Hong Kong independence” in large letters - and a small “No” put in front of the slogan.
A total of 10 people have been charged under the new law with inciting others to subvert state power, according to local police. But unlike the massive ructions that last year followed attempts by the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to introduce a law allowing extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, this time protesters have largely kept off the streets since the marking of an annual demonstration on July 1st. Partly that owes to the coronavirus pandemic, protesters said.
But the city is also coming to terms with a new climate of fear, symbolised by an all-powerful secret police force this week sequestering a 33-storey hotel in Causeway Bay district as its new headquarters.
“I’m scared if I speak something wrong, I’ll be arrested by the secret police,” Melody, 23, told the Telegraph. “They’re everywhere - but I’m most concerned for the people on the frontline. What will happen to them?”
Spurred by the law, some of those frontline protesters are considering leaving the city whose freedoms they have fought so hard to preserve. Many were born after handover in 1997, meaning they are not eligible for a British National Overseas (BNO) passport. The British government has offered a route to citizenship for the 3 million Hong Kongers who do hold BNO status, but the younger generation must look elsewhere for sanctuary.
“Currently we still have room to struggle and kind of express our views. But at the end of the day, our freedom will be thrashed by the Communist Party,” said Brandon, a student born after the millennium who hopes to move to Taiwan because of its cultural similarity and strong opposition to mainland China.
“I hope the rest of my family will leave Hong Kong,” Ken, who is the youngest of six siblings and the only one unable to move to Britain, told the Telegraph. “Living in Hong Kong is like living in fear.”