Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is it time to leave beloved Hong Kong?

Beijing's decision on democracy has dashed hopes

I believe in Hongkongers' ability to endure, thrive and reinvent ourselves. But I'm not sure I have it in me to stay.

In my family, we like to joke and call my father the "insurance man". An insurance consultant for more than 40 years, he goes to extraordinary lengths to minimise risks in any and every situation. As such, he's tried to ensure the family has a soft landing, should anything untoward happen.

In 1989, amid uncertainty over the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, my parents took out the ultimate insurance policy: they moved me and my sister with them to Canada, where we obtained citizenship first before moving back to our home city.

Now, 25 years later, I am thinking about putting that insurance policy into action and leaving Hong Kong permanently for Canada.

I recently moved to Bonn, Germany, temporarily for research, and like many millennial transplants abroad, I followed Beijing's decision on elections in Hong Kong through online news reports, Facebook posts and Skype calls home.

When I first read the news on my phone during my morning train ride, I couldn't help but get emotional, my eyes welling up with tears right there in a crowd of German commuters.

I wanted to be with my fellow Hongkongers at this vital moment. But, more than that, I was moved to tears out of frustration, because this is the latest in a string of disappointments for our city.

Over the past few years, I have grown steadily less hopeful about Hong Kong. At 30, I should be contemplating buying a flat and starting a family, but neither of these prospects entices me. I resent that being a homeowner in Hong Kong means saving for over a decade to buy a miserable hovel in the boondocks. I cannot contemplate having a child when the only options in education are pressure-cooker local schools and overpriced international institutions.

My friends and I stopped going out - there were too many tourists everywhere. I no longer know where to shop. With affordable stores disappearing and visitors crowding the ones that remain, buying clothes, shoes and basic necessities became a daily battle.

Then, there are the signs of Beijing closing in: the plans for national education in 2011, and the white paper released in June proclaiming China's comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong.

The right to vote for our leaders might not change all the things that are wrong in Hong Kong, but at least, with a ballot in hand, we could take ownership of our problems and try to resolve them. With Beijing's announcement, these hopes have been dashed.

For those of us who moved all those years ago - to Canada, the US, Britain, Australia and beyond - we had a very clear idea of what we were running from. Images of the violence and bloodshed in the Tiananmen crackdown were etched in our memories. The same thing could befall us, we thought. If ever a tank rolled over the Lok Ma Chau border, we could take our passports and run.

What we didn't visualise quite as starkly was a threat of this kind: the gradual encroachment on our way of life, and the sustained restrictions on our ability to decide how our home is governed.

I care a great deal for my city. I believe inherently in Hongkongers' ability to innovate, endure, thrive and reinvent ourselves. But I'm not sure I have it in me to stay.

Leaving is not something that any of us talk about lightly. It feels like desertion and betrayal. But I suspect that many, like me, are starting to have that conversation - not because they do not love Hong Kong, but because they can't bear to see the home they love slip away.

Joyce Man is the author of the blog Criss Cross Culture, at

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Do we leave, or stay to watch our beloved home fade away?

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