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Must watch: Better ‘a beggar here than an emperor there’ — life after Hong Kong, and the struggle to resettle

They left Hong Kong for Britain, a land they had never been to before. The CNA documentary One Way, which made YouTube’s top 10 list in Hong Kong and Singapore, follows the Chow family as they navigate harsh realities as new immigrants.

CREWE, United Kingdom: British mothers never seem to shout at their children, Fiona Lai thought after trips to the supermarket.

The 31-year-old Hongkonger and new arrival in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, was always yelling at her daughter: “Chow Hoi Nam, stop!”

But at a party for Hong Kong immigrants organised by staffing firm KPI Recruiting, British recruiter Charlotte Shaw told Lai that “all parents are the same”.

“If you haven’t seen it, they might just shout when they get home,” Shaw said.

Months earlier, Lai and her husband, Chow Yu Man, 40, had packed their bags and headed to the UK with two children, aged seven and three, in tow.

They were among nearly 90,000 residents — 1.2 per cent of Hong Kong’s population — who left in the 12 months after China passed a national security law in June 2020 aimed at tackling secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in the territory.

The new law came after widespread pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Many who left headed to Britain, which offered residents of its former colony the chance to settle in the UK and to apply for citizenship after six years if they meet the requirements.

“I used to think only the rich can emigrate. I never thought I’d leave,” said Lai.

Fiona Lai was a teacher in Hong Kong, while her husband, Chow Yu Man, was a bus driver.

The Chows flew to the UK before securing their British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) visas, arriving under a concession called Leave Outside the Rules. The concession, which ended last July, allowed individuals to work or study in the UK, but with a shorter expiry date and no recourse to public funds.

“I’d rather be a beggar here than an emperor over there,” Chow declared soon after arriving at the railway town of Crewe, near Manchester.

But making a life in a new land was easier said than done.

The Chows’ story of struggle and resilience, featured in the CNA documentary One Way, has struck a chord with viewers since it premiered last month. The two episodes have each notched over 710,000 views on YouTube alone, with viewers agreeing that the immigrant experience resonated strongly.

The Chows embarking on a new life in the railway town of Crewe.

“As a Hongkonger living in Germany since 2017, I could feel the joys, confusions and all those mixed feelings this documentary has shown,” Chicco Leung commented on YouTube.

Another viewer, chubipower, observed: “The documentary didn’t provide any hard answers, but it led the viewers to ponder various questions.”

Compared with the exodus of Hongkongers leading up to the 1997 handover, the emigrants then were upper-class, or at least upper-middle-class, and spoke better English, said One Way director Wei Du.

This time, after China’s national security law, more countries made it easier for Hongkongers to migrate. Many families have a choice to go elsewhere for the first time if they wish to also escape Hong Kong’s “high property prices, brutal work culture and enormous school pressure” on children, she cited.

“You’re seeing people who just pack up and go … And they’re not going where older generations of migrants went, because they’ve had to look for cheaper rent and less competition from more established Chinese speakers,” she added.

This meant that when she was heading out of London for shoots, drivers were always surprised at where she was going: To parts of Britain that many Londoners had never been to themselves.

MIGRATION AND MARRIED LIFE

In Crewe, Lai’s first job was as a gingerbread packer. But the former teacher’s ability to speak English and flair for helping fellow immigrants soon landed her a white-collar role at KPI Recruiting — an achievement in the span of a few months, observed an immigrant friend in Liverpool.

Lai, whose pluck won viewers over, herself recruited a dentist for a warehousing job and said many Hongkongers at the gingerbread factory where she had worked have master’s degrees.

WATCH PART 1: One Way ticket out of Hong Kong — Our family’s journey (45:46)

Her family life, warts and all, also stood out in the documentary; for instance, Lai and Chow traded barbs when they squabbled over money and housing.

“It’s hard to rent any place. You act like you have millions. You don’t even want to look for a job — you just want to spend money,” Lai fumed.

Before they left Hong Kong, Chow had said what he wanted most was living in a house where he could “get out of bed on either side”. After a viewing, however, he lamented that British homes were “also so small”.

“You don’t remember the bed that pushed against your feet?” Lai asked her husband. “A lot of things are not up to you. Everyone wants to marry actor Daniel Wu, but most of us don’t get to.”

Meeting the neighbours.

In the second episode, Chow remarked to the producer: “Maybe the next time you come, we’d be divorced.” And his wife retorted: “I don’t think we’d divorce. Because we haven’t received our visas … Death would have less impact on our visas than divorce.”

This sparked concern among some viewers. But in an update on the family after the documentary’s release, Du said Chow — who was a bus driver in Hong Kong — has since found a full-time job.

He and Lai are “very much together”, added Du, who spent a year on the documentary and wrapped up filming in November.

A viewer also offered some context for the “candid discussion” of dying and divorce. “(It’s) a very typical scene of Hong Kong married life,” wrote YouTube user, eggsplash.

It just shows they feel comfortable with each other’s nagging and temperament … (People) mostly divorce when they have nothing to bicker about.”

‘I WANT MY CLASSMATES TO KNOW’

Settling in Britain was also a big experience for the Chows’ older child, Hoi Nam.

The sparkly-eyed girl had looked forward to it. “As long as I leave a good impression on the Queen, I’ll have lots of friends,” she told producers.

A hopeful smile and a twinkle in Chow Hoi Nam’s eye.

Her first day at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Middlewich, six weeks after her arrival, went well. She liked her teacher Ms Woolley and won some crayons for good writing. She laughed as she handed treats to the school’s dog, Charlie. And there was no homework except on Fridays.

Hoi Nam had to overcome her reluctance to speak English, however, to make friends. She also wanted to share her life in Hong Kong with schoolmates.

Her teacher said she liked to read Cantonese to her class, and she brought an English-Cantonese newspaper clipping one day. She was “excited” to show the class a story about Hong Kong’s shrinking media freedom, Ms Woolley told Chow. She even explained it English.

As they left, he asked his daughter why she had brought the newspaper clipping to school. Her reply: “Because I want my classmates to know.”

WATCH PART 2: Finding a new home after leaving Hong Kong (47:33)

Uncertainty over the Chows’ visa status hung over them as the series ended. They were still waiting for their BN(O) visas to be processed at the end of last month, Du said.

Another resident featured in One Way, 28-year-old political activist Leon Tse, is still in Hong Kong. Du said he did not leave by the end of last year as he could not afford the cost of shipping his two cats to the UK and was looking to save more money.

Amid calls for a third part to the documentary, she said there will be a follow-up, but it will take at least a year to produce. “We hope to see him and his ‘family’ in the UK in our follow-on,” she said.

Paying tribute to Tse and the Chows, who were not paid to appear in the documentary, she added: “It's a tremendous sacrifice on their part to allow us into their home and their life. I can only hope we weren’t a burden after all.”

Watch the first episode of One Way here and the second one here.

Leon Tse’s cats are his family.
Source: CNA/dp

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