'Too scared to buy ice cream for my son': Hong Kong protests leave some residents looking for an exit
SINGAPORE: It was a regular weekend for Hong Kong resident Maggie Man, a 39-year-old roadshow project coordinator.
She had been generally nonchalant about the ongoing extradition Bill protests, which she felt had been largely peaceful, save for a small group of radicals who seemed bent on “creating mayhem”.
Her movements had so far not been hindered too much; she was still able to go about her daily duties – albeit with some inconvenience because of protest-related train disruptions – and she wasn’t concerned for her safety.
The first weekend of August, however, was a turning point for her: On that Saturday evening, she was having dinner with her 5-year-old son at a Thai restaurant in Kowloon City when she received news that a group of protesters were on their way to demonstrate at the nearby police station.
Concerned the protests would cause a traffic jam, she quickly finished her meal and ordered an Uber.
On the way home, however, as their Uber passed by scores of black-clad demonstrators who had spilled onto the roads, she felt at risk for the first time since the massive protests began in June.
“Our Uber was so close to them as we drove past and at that point, I realised that this could be dangerous,” Ms Man told CNA.
“Most importantly because my son was in the car with me. I was very afraid that they might suddenly become crazy and take over the lane we were in. I thought to myself: ‘If that happened, what would I do? Should we get off the car and run, or wait for the whole thing to be over before I returned home?’ I was very worried at that time,” she said.
READ: 'Hong Kong has no future like this': Singaporeans living in Hong Kong share their concerns about escalating protests
The next day, Ms Man, her son and her firefighter husband got an even closer look at the protesters - when a horde of them rushed into the train they were on.
“During the whole train ride, I was scared that my son would say something wrong and upset them. The protesters had their whole faces covered with bandanas, gas masks and helmets. They looked extremely scary,” she added.
“CHAOS WITH PEOPLE RUNNING, SCREAMING”
Across the harbour in Admiralty - home to many of Hong Kong's government buildings - Ms Stephanie Shiu had just knocked off work one June evening, when she was unexpectedly hit by tear gas.
“My office is in Lippo Centre and the demonstrators had taken over most of Harcourt Road and were surrounding the Legislative Council Complex,” recalled Ms Shiu, editor-in-chief of a spa magazine.
“It kicked off right as my colleagues and I were leaving work so we were exposed to tear gas. It was chaos with people running, screaming through Pacific Place shopping mall and ambulances arriving to tend to those injured,” she added.
Ms Man and Ms Shiu are among a growing number of residents who are considering leaving Hong Kong permanently, after being caught in the crossfire of increasingly violent protests.
As the city enters its 11th week of protests, the two women say they find it unthinkable that their home – which until recently enjoyed a reputation as one of the world’s safest cities – has become a place of danger and mistrust.
The protests, which erupted over opposition to a Bill allowing extradition to mainland China, have morphed into a broader movement, with escalating violence from both the demonstrators and the police.
The city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that the Bill is “dead”, but it has yet to be withdrawn.
Of seven Hong Kong residents who spoke to CNA, five said they have plans to emigrate, with at least one already searching for a residence in Canada.
“It’s unthinkable that tear gas and rubber bullets have become a daily occurrence,” said Ms Shiu.
“The current situation only reinforces my desire to leave Hong Kong. I love this city, and it will always be my home, but I’d like to experience a more relaxed, affordable and democratic lifestyle,” she said, adding that she is likely to move to the United States, where she has family.
For Ms Man, who has family in Australia, Sydney would be her choice for an alternative safe haven.
“I am too scared to even go downstairs with my son to buy an ice cream to eat,” said Ms Man, who resides in the Sau Mau Ping Disciplined Services Quarters, where police officers and other civil servants such as firefighters live with their families.
The estate she lives in has been the site of multiple violent clashes in recent weeks, with radical protesters besieging police stations and starting fires outside the quarters and authorities fighting back with tear gas.
“What the protesters don’t realise is that not only the police live in the quarters - there are firefighters and their family members as well. But they don’t seem to care anymore. They’ve gone mad.
“I’m afraid that if I leave the apartment with my son to buy something to eat, the protesters may suddenly storm in without warning and I won’t be able to get home,” said Ms Man.
A SAFE HAVEN OUTSIDE HONG KONG
Hong Kong migration specialists told CNA they have seen an increase in enquiries and sales since the protests began escalating in June, with the majority asking about Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand.
Andrew Lo, CEO of immigration agency Anlex Consultants, said migration enquiries have jumped 400 per cent since the massive protests began in June, with many people citing concern over the future of their children as a reason to relocate.
His agency, which was set up in 1992, currently receives about 50 queries a day.
Similarly, Australian lawyer and migration consultant Paul Bernadou said the number of Hong Kongers calling to ask for information about alternative residence has doubled over the past two months.
“There has always been an interest in migration by Hong Kong people looking for a better way of life for their children, educational opportunities, work and business, (or because of the) high cost of housing in Hong Kong,” said Mr Bernadou, who set up Paul Bernadou & Co in 1993.
“In the past, the lead-up to the handover, the financial crisis and SARS were all motivators. At the moment, they are more and more concerned about the political future of Hong Kong,” he said.
John Hu, founder and principal consultant of John Hu Migration Consulting, said his team has also seen double the number of enquiries, while sales have improved by 40 to 50 per cent.
The callers, said Mr Hu, “sound very determined”.
His company, which was set up about 10 years ago, charges between HK$50,000 (US$6,380) and HK$300,000 for migration packages, which include services from documentation to sourcing for lodging in the client’s country of choice.
And although Singapore is not top on the list of Hong Kongers’ choices, the ISS International School here said it has seen a 60 per cent increase in the number of enquiries from Hong Kong families since June compared to previous years.
On average, the school – which has about 600 students – takes in about one new Hong Kong student at the start of a new academic year. But the next intake will see four new students from the city, with several others waiting to confirm, said Mr Paul Adamberry, director of marketing communications and admissions at the international school.
“We expect this number to climb over the year,” said Mr Adamberry, adding that the enquiries have come from both Western and Cantonese families in Hong Kong.
Some property agents in Singapore have also seen an increase in interest from potential buyers from Hong Kong. The protests could also spur some mainland Chinese buyers to liquidate their assets in Hong Kong, potentially bumping up their share of the residential market here, said Mr Nicholas Mak, head of research and consultancy at ERA Realty.
READ: Chinese official urged Hong Kong villagers to drive off protesters before violence at train station
“Based on ground observations, we have seen more potential buyers coming in from Hong Kong making enquiries about private properties here especially condominiums in the luxury segment,” said Ms Christine Sun, head of research and consultancy at OrangeTee.
“With the growing political uncertainties and social unrest in Hong Kong, some investors may shift their funds to other countries. Singapore is likely to be on their radar as we are known to be a safe haven for property investment,” she added.
PROTESTS ARE A CATALYST
Mr Hu said that the recent protests are a catalyst for people who have been wanting to migrate overseas because of what he said are “structural problems” in Hong Kong, such as unaffordable home prices and medical services, public housing allocation policies and a stressful education system.
"You can probably survive if you are rich in Hong Kong, but not everyone is rich," said Mr Hu.
"The young people don’t think that the Hong Kong government is listening to them. That’s the problem."
“We have lost faith in the government,” said advertising professional Penelope Yau, 36.
She plans to eventually leave Hong Kong, although has not made any concrete plans to do so yet.
Ms Mandy Soh, 33, managing partner of public relations agency Qi Communications, said many Hong Kongers in her circle are talking about whether their long-term future is in the city.
“It really breaks my heart to see the state that Hong Kong is in. I definitely don’t agree with any of the violence or harmful activities that have been taking place. But I understand where it stems from, the people just want their demands to be heard,” said Ms Soh.
“Never in a million years have I ever thought about an exit plan, because to me there’s nowhere else better. But lately, a lot of conversations, whether it is with my husband or among close friends, is ‘Where to next?’ I guess much of the worry stems from the fear of not knowing what will happen to Hong Kong next,” she added.
SCENES OF VIOLENCE
Recent weeks have seen some of the most violent scenes in Hong Kong, with protesters setting fires outside police stations, damaging traffic lights and throwing petrol bombs at police officers.
In an attack at the Hong Kong airport on Tuesday, several men attacked a police officer with batons, leading him to draw his gun and point it at them.
The police, on their part, have also been accused of using excessive force to disperse protesters, which only served to inflame them.
Besides the clashes between protesters and the police, there have also been mob attacks from groups of men who are thought to be from triad gangs.
In an attack last month in Yuen Long, 45 people were wounded after large groups of men wielding sticks and clad in white T-shirts stormed a train and indiscriminately attacked black-clad protesters and regular commuters.
“The city has never been more dangerous before. Many people fear that they may be attacked by triad gangsters out of the blue simply for wearing a wrong colour,” said Mr Derek Yiu, 32, who works in the media industry.
“There’s no turning back for Hong Kong now,” said Mr Ricky Li, 45, managing director of garment manufacturer Regalearn.
“No one has died yet, but things will only get worse,” he said.
Mr Li, who used to live in Toronto and moved back to Hong Kong with his family after the 1997 handover, is planning to emigrate to Canada again.
His family flew over last month to check out business opportunities and lodging.
“If there’s a chance to leave, everyone is planning to leave. Even after the protests are over, the economy will have suffered and it will be very hard to do business in Hong Kong,” said Mr Li.