From this weekend, Britain will start accepting applications from people with British National (Overseas) status for a new visa that would earn them a pathway to citizenship. In the second of a three-part series on the BN(O) visa, we meet families struggling to make the decision to stay or to leave. You can read part one here.
Ivy Cheung recalls the day she told her 71-year-old mother she was making arrangements to leave Hong Kong for Britain with her husband and two sons.
“She was so angry and shouted at me. I really did not expect it,” said Cheung, 52, who arrived in Hong Kong as a three-year-old from mainland China.
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She tried explaining that the family was leaving for the sake of her sons, not because of politics, but her mother was having none of it.
“She disagreed, and made some hurtful comments,” said Cheung, who works in customer service.
Her mother distrusts London’s offer of a special visa for Hongkongers with British National (Overseas) status, believing it a ploy to siphon away money from Hong Kong.
The heated exchange with her mother left her heartbroken, and things are not yet resolved between them.
Her Hong Kong-born husband Johnny Cheung, 56, who works in logistics, would have preferred to stay, but as the only one in the family with BN(O) status, he decided to go for the sake of their sons, aged 17 and 21.
“I want my sons to live in a place where there is a higher degree of freedom,” he said.
The family hopes to be in Britain by the summer, in time for the younger son to start university. The older son has graduated from the University of Lancaster and plans to enrol in a master’s degree programme.
“At my age, it is a big change to adapt to a new life, a totally different lifestyle and culture,” Johnny Cheung said. His parents support his decision and he has four siblings to help care for them, but it will be hard to leave them behind.
“For our generation it is tough. We need to look after our parents and also take care of the young generation … but ultimately we need to decide what is best for the family as a whole,” he said.
The Cheungs’ emotional struggle came after the British government offered Hong Kong residents with BN(O) status and their dependents a path to citizenship. The move followed Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong last June.
From January 31, Hongkongers can apply for BN(O) visas that will allow them to live and work in Britain and, after six years, register for citizenship. As many as 5.4 million of the city’s 7.5 million population are said to be eligible, although far fewer are likely to go.
Those choosing to leave include single adults and families with young children, as well as older people moving the whole family.
At least five families told the Post they were considering settling in Manchester and Birmingham as it would cost less than being in London.
Most of the dozen people who spoke to the Post said they wanted out because they no longer trusted the Hong Kong government.
But making the difficult decision to leave has resulted in arguments and heartache in some families.
Some said that in the end, they chose to stay because they could not bear to leave their elderly parents behind, or realised they could not afford to move.
Easy for some, a struggle for others
The Fong family will take up the British offer even though it means splitting up. Mother and father, both 55, will join their 20-year-old son in Britain where he is in university, but their 23-year-old daughter will remain in Hong Kong where she has just started as a trainee lawyer.
Their son does not have BN(O) status, but their daughter does.
Fong, a retired banker who declined to be identified fully, said it was a difficult decision and he would have preferred if the whole family could move. He hopes his daughter will join the rest of them in Britain eventually.
Pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future with the arrival of the national security law, he said: “I do not see an imminent danger for ordinary citizens like us, unless you are heavily involved in activities which the government doesn’t welcome ... But in the medium to long term, I can only see things deteriorating.”
He admitted his family was among the more fortunate who could leave without much hardship, as both he and his wife were retired and did not need to look for work in Britain.
Betty Liu*, 20, wanted her parents to take up the BN(O) offer so she could move to Britain, but they refused outright.
“My options are limited because I am not born into a rich family,” said the Baptist University student.
She decided she would remain in Hong Kong and save up enough to leave in 10 years. She shared her plan with her parents, saying Hong Kong had changed a lot since the 2019 anti-government protests and Beijing’s imposition of the national security law.
Her parents were unhappy. They told her she was being disrespectful to her country and her reasons for wanting to leave were “ridiculous”.
“It started as a discussion but turned into an argument. I know they are pro-China and believe China treats Hong Kong very well,” she said.
Investment banker Sam Lau*, 26, was hurt when his uncle told him he was “betraying his home” by wanting to leave Hong Kong.
“He said I didn’t see myself as Chinese,” he recalled.
To dissuade him, his uncle said Hongkongers were suppressed by the British during colonial rule and the Chinese were abused by the British in the past.
However, Lau is determined to move to London in March, despite his parents asking him to wait until the Covid-19 situation improved.
He hopes to continue working remotely for the same employer, but will look for a new job if his bosses say no. He plans to take around HK$100,000 with him, and will consider moving to a smaller city to reduce living costs if he cannot find work.
“I’m mentally prepared to face the pandemic or discrimination against Chinese people,” he said.
Equally determined to leave, despite not having a job or accommodation in Britain, is 30-year-old clinic receptionist Chan. She is making plans to move to Birmingham with her husband and three children aged between one and six.
They plan to take about HK$400,000 with them to get settled after arriving there, but she is not worried.
“I don’t think it will be hard to find a job,” she said, adding that she had relatives in Birmingham and could count on them for support.
Chan’s main motivation for leaving is to ensure a better future for her children, including political freedom and education opportunities. By leaving early, she hopes to get her children enrolled in “better schools” and avoid competing with other Hong Kong families also heading there.
“The UK seems less stressful for work and school,” said Chan, who has never visited Britain. “My kids have studied in Hong Kong schools and there’s a lot of homework.”
Choosing to stay
As soon as Britain announced its BN(O) visa offer, Peter Lo* joined numerous social media groups to get information and insight from others considering leaving, as well as those who had gone to Britain over the past year.
The 40-year-old, who works in public relations and is married with a four-year-old daughter, said he was not political and did not take part in the 2019 protests, but was concerned for Hong Kong’s future.
He mulled over moving to Britain for months before he was hit by the reality of relocating to a place he had never visited and where he knew no one.
The sums did not add up either. His wife would have to stop working as an administrator and become a stay-at-home mum, and they would not be able to afford a domestic helper.
Lo and his wife put aside the idea of leaving.
“People who bought property in the past 10 years will have made a huge profit and will have HK$5 million or HK$10 million to take with them. That is not me,” said Lo, adding he did not have a lot of savings either.
Money was not an issue for mother-of-two Wong, 38, whose husband runs his own construction business, but the couple have decided to stay and take care of their parents.
The drama teacher, who has BN(O) status, said she spent many sleepless nights agonising over whether to take up the British government’s offer.
Her parents and in-laws, all in their 70s, were adamant from the start that they would not leave Hong Kong. Wong realised that even if she could persuade them, moving to Britain would be hard for them as they did not speak English well.
“If we moved, they would be alone in Hong Kong. Our kids are important to us, but we are important to our parents too,” she said. “If they get sick, who will look after them? We also need to set a good example to our kids in showing how we deal with our parents.”
‘In their hearts, they want us to stay’
Michael Li* sold his two-bedroom flat in Tseung Kwan O last October for HK$6 million, and plans to move with his wife and year-old son to Britain.
He pointed to Hong Kong’s changing education system, rather than the national security law, as his main reason for going to a country he has never visited.
“The way China wants children to learn is different from the way we learned in school many years ago,” the 33-year-old IT worker said.
The family will leave only after he has secured a job because he wants to use his money to buy property in Britain.
Li said his parents understood his reasons for leaving, but “in their hearts, they want us to stay.” He will be leaving behind his sister, uncles and aunts.
For Ivy Cheung, quarrelling with her mother over her decision to leave remains painful, but she hopes her mother will eventually come round, and visit the family in Britain.
“Even though we are moving, our relationship will not change. She is my mum and I am her daughter, this is forever,” she said.
Other changes lie ahead. Cheung said she is prepared to work as a barista in a cafe or even as a supermarket cashier.
Her husband, Johnny, is considering going back to being a student.
“In Cantonese we say ‘Ngai Gei’,” he said. “It means risk and opportunity. If you look at it one way, taking a risk is also an opportunity. The other way it means an opportunity is also a risk. That is Chinese wisdom.”
*Name changed at the interviewee’s request.
Read part one of the series, in which we look at how some early bird Hongkongers have already left for Britain.
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