Saying goodbye to his only daughter at Hong Kong airport, 80-year-old James Leung* struggled to hold back his tears.
The former restaurant manager never expected his 39-year-old daughter to pack up and go to Britain for good, after spending her entire life with him and his wife in Hong Kong, where she was born.
He said he understood her reasons for leaving, pointing to fears that Hong Kong’s freedoms were being eroded since Beijing imposed the national security law on the city in June last year.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
Leung said he and his wife had no intention of leaving the city he had called home for 70 years, since arriving as a child from the mainland, where he was born. For now, he added, their 41-year-old son was remaining in Hong Kong.
“For the young people, freedom is important. For us elderly folk, it is not as important,” he told the Post, while waiting by the British Airways check-in desk.
He said he was “heartbroken” to see the snaking queue of Hongkongers, many with young children in tow, leaving the airport’s departure hall to start their new lives in Britain.
Some older men and women could be seen sobbing quietly, as their children and grandchildren bade a final goodbye before disappearing behind the barriers.
Over a week at the airport, the Post spotted dozens of families, as well as adults travelling alone, among those saying goodbye to elderly parents staying behind.
All seven elderly people who spoke to the Post said they were not moving to Britain with their family members mainly because they could not speak English and did not want to uproot at this late stage of their lives, leaving their friends and other relatives in the city.
While some like Leung said they understood their children’s decision, others protested, and tried to dissuade their children from emigrating.
The disagreements caused rifts, and some of those who left said they kept their departure details a secret from relatives who did not want them to leave, to avoid more arguments.
Most of those leaving blamed the political situation in Hong Kong, and those with families said they wanted to get their children settled in Britain before school began in September.
Though sad to leave their parents behind, they said they made their choice for the sake of their children’s future.
‘They are unlikely to return’
After the national security law was introduced, banning acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, countries such as Britain, Australia and Canada announced new immigration pathways for Hongkongers.
According to government figures, the city’s population decreased by 0.6 per cent at the end of 2020, with a net outflow – which means more people leaving than those arriving – of 49,900 Hong Kong residents.
As of May this year, more than 34,000 Hongkongers had applied for British National (Overseas) visas that allow them to stay in Britain for up to five years, with the right to work and study, and to apply for citizenship after six years.
Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, associate dean of the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of social sciences, noted the implication when most of those who left over the past year were people in their 30s and 40s, with young children.
“You will have a group of the elderly left behind, who do not want to go,” he said.
He said the current wave of departures was unlike that in the years leading up to 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China. At that time, about half a million Hongkongers emigrated, but around 120,000 returned after obtaining permanent residence elsewhere.
Since the national security law arrived, Beijing has tightened its grip on the city, with dozens of activists and opposition politicians arrested and the electoral systems overhauled to ensure that only “patriots” contest elections and run the city.
Against that backdrop, Yip said many of those leaving now were unlikely to return.
“They have seen what is going to happen … and it is not their cup of tea, which means their chances of coming back to Hong Kong are smaller than before,” he said.
In a survey of 1,500 people by Hang Seng University (HSU) between May and June last year, more than 75 per cent of those aged 70 and above said they had no intentions of leaving Hong Kong, even if they could.
Gary Tang Kin-yat, HSU assistant professor of social science, who led the research, explained that elderly people were more reluctant to leave and wary of having to adapt to a new country and lifestyle, as well as the language barrier.
“The elderly, especially those who are less well-off, rely more for their living resources on their neighbourhood and their peers,” he said.
‘Forget me not,’ says Grandma
Muriel Elaine Bux, 75, was sad to see her elder son, former district councillor Anthony Sheikh Bux, 51, leave Hong Kong last week to join his wife and two sons who moved to Liverpool in 2018 and have British citizenship.
He resigned as a local politician last month citing a health condition he preferred not to disclose, and lived with his parents in their two-bedroom flat in Kai Tak district before leaving.
“I don’t think he will come back again,” said his mother, who is Portuguese-Eurasian and born in the city. “I cannot be so selfish, because his family is over there, but in my heart, I feel a lot of pain.”
She and her husband of 55 years, Hong Kong-born Eurasian Abdul Rahman Bux, 87, do not want to leave Hong Kong, saying they know the city well and it has many benefits for elderly people.
“England is so cold,” she said, dreading the idea of being confined indoors there, whereas she was free in Hong Kong to walk to the market for her groceries.
“Here, we have food, money to spend and a nice house to stay in,” she added.
The couple’s younger son, aged 46, and his family are still in Hong Kong too. He has five children aged between 18 and two years old, and they see their grandparents regularly.
Muriel Bux also has her 97-year-old mother and four sisters living in the city, making up the extended family that keeps her in Hong Kong.
But, glancing at two photographs of her grandsons aged 17 and 13 in Liverpool, she admits the distance is painful, and the calls have become fewer since they left.
“It is very sad,” she said. “I always say, ‘Forget me not’.”
Hou Mei-young, 80, could not accept it when her 51-year-old daughter, a property agent, broke the news two months ago that she was emigrating to Britain with her husband, 56, and their daughter, 21.
The widowed mother of two tried her best to get her daughter to change her mind.
“I told her, ‘Everyone you know is in Hong Kong and you do not know anyone in Britain.’ But my daughter said she will meet new people there,” she said.
She will miss her daughter, who used to accompany her to hospital for her appointments and helped her at home in Sha Tin.
She has a son who works in Shanghai, with his wife and child in Hong Kong. Hou said she never expected that both her children would leave Hong Kong.
Originally from Shandong province, she has lived in Hong Kong since childhood and has no desire to be anywhere else. “I can live freely in Hong Kong. The transport is convenient, so I can go anywhere easily,” she said.
Her brother, Victor Hou, 82, who lives in the building next door with his wife, said he was upset when his niece decided to emigrate, and tried dissuading her too.
“Of course I am not very happy because we are separating,” he said, close to tears.
He was worried whether his niece and her husband would find jobs, housing and support in an unfamiliar new country.
“I told them, but they wouldn’t listen,” he said. “They want to go there and see what it is like.”
A loss of financial, emotional support
The current wave of migration has produced a situation that is not normal for Hong Kong families, according to Ng Wai-tung, community organiser of the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), an NGO that helps the underprivileged.
Older people have always been able to count on their adult children to be present, caring for them, taking them to the doctor and providing financial and emotional support.
Most of the elderly parents left behind could not have expected their children to leave Hong Kong in such a hurry, yet few would tell their children not to go, wanting them to have a better future.
“But in their heart, they will feel hopeless,” he said.
Ng said children usually visited their parents between twice a week and at least once a month, but with families starting new lives overseas from scratch, it could be years before they returned to Hong Kong.
The time difference between the city and Europe or Canada also made it difficult to stay in touch over the phone, he added.
HKU’s Paul Yip warned that the current wave of emigration would put pressure on social systems as carers were leaving a city already coping with an ageing population.
At the end of last year, 19 per cent of the city’s 7.5 million population was aged 65 or above, and this is expected to rise to 31 per cent in 2039, according to government figures.
Without family support, more of the elderly would need help from elsewhere, Yip said.
“That will leave the government to do the job. Is it prepared to do it?” he asked.
There are about 74,500 elderly people living in about 750 care homes in Hong Kong. SoCO said the average waiting time for government nursing homes was more than three years, with private care homes costing around HK$8,000 per month.
HSU associate professor of social science Lucille Ngan Lok-sun, who specialises in migration, said the traditional Chinese value of filial piety meant that some struggled with guilt and ambivalence when deciding whether to leave their ageing parents.
She has also come across families where the parents did not agree with their children’s migration plans, but the children went ahead anyway, dismissing their parents’ dependency as an unnecessary cultural expectation.
“They feel they are emigrating for their family, and their ageing parents can still visit them from time to time,” she said.
Lisa Wong*, 46, did not want to leave Hong Kong, her family and friends, but her husband persuaded her to go, saying that the situation was getting worse and he wanted to take up Britain’s emigration offer for the sake of their sons, aged 12 and 16.
The couple quit their jobs in IT and plan to move to Nottingham, where they have a friend.
The eldest of three, Wong said she always thought it her responsibility to take care of her ageing parents, and it was a struggle deciding to leave Hong Kong.
“If they get sick I won‘t be able to do anything but my brother and sister will help to look after them,” she said, adding that her 44-year-old sister was also planning to emigrate.
“It has been so difficult, but I have two kids, so I am also worrying about their future in Hong Kong,” she said.
Additional reporting by Mimosa Ngai and Emily Tsang
*Names changed at interviewees’ request.
More from South China Morning Post: