Hong Kongers, Don’t Idolize the U.K.

I was born in London, and I know that it isn’t the welcoming place many seem to think it is.

Pro-democracy protesters wave flags outside of the UK Embassy in Hong Kong in September 2019.
Pro-democracy protesters wave flags outside of the UK Embassy in Hong Kong on September 15, 2019. (Chris McGrath / Getty)

During this uncertain and unstable year, I’ve learned not to take Hong Kong’s freedom for granted. Prodemocracy protests consumed the city for months starting in early 2019, but the political climate changed abruptly in the spring, when Beijing passed a wide-ranging security law that many see as a crackdown on dissent. At the end of June, a few hours before the law went into effect, I walked outside to catch the last glimpses of protest around my neighborhood in Hong Kong. A local barber was removing a gas mask and goggles from the mannequin in his window; I noticed that a coffee shop had already taken down all of its protest figurines and posters. The citywide self-censorship was swift.

The next day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that, in response to Beijing’s actions, the United Kingdom would alter its existing visa policies, essentially paving the way to naturalized British citizenship for 3 million Hong Kongers. Some of my friends and acquaintances felt a great sense of relief—the U.K. could be their haven, a place to restart. Rattled by arrests of demonstrators, journalists, and academics in Hong Kong, several people have already left for the U.K.; the prodemocracy activist Nathan Law announced in early July that he had fled Hong Kong and would continue his activism in London.

The U.K. has not yet explained how it will accommodate mass migration amid struggles with Brexit negotiations, COVID-19, budget cuts, and a shrinking economy. Personally, I’m less focused on these logistical issues than the possibility that Hong Kongers have an overly romantic view of life in the U.K. Everywhere I go in Hong Kong, I notice hints of colonial rule. Streets bear the names of dead monarchs; high tea with scones and Darjeeling is common in five-star hotels; the Union Jack flies at protests; some consider a British accent the ultimate status symbol. To many people here, the U.K. is an alternative motherland, an idyllic place of opportunity where one can, in fact, take freedom for granted. Although the U.K. may be more politically stable than Hong Kong, I know that it isn’t the welcoming place many Hong Kongers seem to think it is.

I was born in 1989 in London to Hong Kong immigrants. My parents were part of a large wave of migration that took place in the decade before the 1997 handover, when the U.K. transferred control of Hong Kong to mainland China. An estimated 503,800 people left Hong Kong from 1987 to 1996, and by 2011 some 111,733 people born in Hong Kong were living in the U.K. Despite the long connection between Hong Kong and the U.K. and the large number of Chinese people in the country, our diaspora was not very unified or politically active. One illustration of this is that no person of British Chinese heritage was a member of Parliament until 2015. When Alan Mak finally broke that barrier, many in the Asian diaspora community rejoiced, seeing his victory as a win for cultural representation. However, Mak seemed frustrated that his ethnicity was overshadowing his achievements as a politician; he told the South China Morning Post magazine that if “Chinese for Labour think I am going to be representing every Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean—and there are many in my constituency—they are mistaken. It’s a stupid story. I am not standing for the Chinese population of Britain. I am standing for the people of Havant and my country.” His comments were tough to read for those, like me, hoping to hear pride in his dual identity. Yet I could empathize with Mak’s desire to announce himself as a British citizen first and foremost.

Like many in the British Chinese diaspora, I was taught by people both inside and outside my community, in ways both implicit and explicit, that I should ignore my Chinese identity in order to conform and prove my “Britishness.” One of my earliest memories is of a teacher warning my mother that if I continued to speak Cantonese at home, I would be considered a bad student and possibly never learn to read or write in English. I was only 5. In response, my mother stopped sending me to Cantonese school on Saturdays. (Later, I learned that bilingualism is an advantage, not a hindrance, in overall literacy.)

A Hong Kong man poses with his UK passport.
Reese Tan, a 25-year old living in Hong Kong, poses with his British National passport on June 3, 2020. (Anthony Wallace /AFP / Getty)

At primary school, I was taught how to think, act, and speak in the proper British way, and to love the monarchy. During Princess Diana’s memorial service, in 1997, I was among the many students at my school who were asked to participate in a filmed event for a news station. Our task was to carry mourning flowers in and out of the park and, our teachers gently hinted, to cry. As I grew older, teachers fed me facts about Queen Victoria’s “impressive” 64-year rule and her proclivity for tea and potatoes, among other quaint details. But they either didn’t cover or only vaguely mentioned the darker realities of the British empire: the trauma of the Opium Wars, the slave trade in British India, and Hong Kong’s colonization.

I never questioned my lessons, and, more importantly, I never spoke about Chinese culture at school. I tried to assimilate. And yet I still felt out of place, never truly at home even though London was the only home I knew. I began to ask myself why I felt like an alien hiding among neighbors. Was I British or Cantonese?

I couldn’t be both, I discovered, because no space was available for discourse on dual identities. When white acquaintances made fun of my Chinese friends, I was acutely aware that, despite comments that I “wasn’t like them,” I was vulnerable to the same treatment. At boarding school, these two groups fractured at the canteen: one table for white students, and one for Hong Kong exchange students. Both asked me to sit with them, and I would stand at the front of the large hall, thinking over my alliances, only to go back to my dorm room and skip the meal entirely.

The stereotyping was relentless. Strangers would yell “egg fried lice” and “wok face” at me, or, worse, call me “Suzie Wong” (a fictional Hong Kong prostitute from a novel of the same title) or comment on my “exotic looks.” People in the U.K. like to pass off such microaggressions as ignorance or humor, relabeling them as ethnic banter. “They don’t know any better” is one excuse I’ve heard. Another: “It’s just a joke.” This derisive focus on my identity—and the minimization of my discomfort—eroded my self-confidence. Was I being overly sensitive? Why did I feel so much shame about who I was, and why did I feel powerless to defend myself?

In my first year of university, several of my white flatmates pranked me by leaving in our kitchen a note written by a fake Chinese exchange student named Fung Ting. In it, she expressed that she was feeling overwhelmed and wanted to say hello. For days, I knocked on the door of an empty flat, worried about why this student never appeared. I wrote a note back: “I’m from Hong Kong too,” I said. “Can’t wait to meet you!” When the ruse was revealed, I was on the verge of tears. My flatmates’ laughter was cruel; the joke was calculated and pointed. They understood my internal conflict so well that they were able to identify its core element: To empathize with those who look like you is to make a fool of yourself.

In February, a tweet by an Imperial College London professor went viral after he recounted how an ethnically Chinese teenager deflected racist COVID-19 remarks in Italy. “There you go, we are all going to be infected,” a passenger said as the teen boarded a train. The boy responded in Italian: “Ma’am, in my whole life I’ve seen China only on Google Maps.” People on the train applauded. In the retweets from those of Chinese descent, I noticed a certain air of pride, of winning. But who has won what, in the game of assimilation? Why did the teenager stress that he had never traveled to China, instead of pointing out the explicit racism of the passenger? Was he trying to reject a part of his identity?

I wouldn’t have questioned his response when I was growing up. Only with some distance have I been able to reflect on the push and pull of my two worlds. After I graduated from university, I moved to Hong Kong for work and to connect with my roots. I made friends with other Hong Kongers who had grown up abroad and, for the first time in my life, began to accept my complicated upbringing. I read the poems of Sarah Howe and listened to the music of Emmy the Great, who are both British Chinese. In 2015, I worked for a year and a half in New York and joined communities that celebrated their American and Asian identities. Once I realized that my diaspora identity was complex—not definitive, but fluid—I also accepted my British side, this time on my own terms. These experiences away from the U.K. made me who I am today: someone who can embrace all aspects of her identity.

Now when I look at the U.K., I feel frustrated that the British Chinese diaspora hasn’t come together as a community. We are less visible in activism and politics than our Asian American counterparts in the U.S. In the New Statesman in 2013, the writer Lu-Hai Liang noted that “young grassroots activism among second generation Chinese is still almost unheard of.” He followed up this year with an article discussing the rise in Sinophobia, noting that British Chinese “are now asking themselves about their place in British life and why it has been low-profile for so long.” Tweeting in July, the parliamentary candidate Johnny Luk urged “the British Chinese to confront our identity, step up & not sit on the fence so much.”

I believe people in the community don’t speak up as a group for many reasons, including a deep-rooted fear of social exclusion and learned helplessness. Although it may be unacceptable for public figures to be openly racist—the Duke of Edinburgh’s 1986 remarks on the “slitty eyed” Chinese might be contended with now—racist aggression still occurs regularly. The Metropolitan Police reported 267 hate crimes against British East Asians—including violent assault, robbery, and verbal abuse—in the first three months of 2020 alone, compared with 375 in all of 2019. These crimes have mostly been greeted with silence. I have seen no large-scale protests; even the fairly prominent COVID-19 Anti-Racism Group, which distributed a petition calling for the government to investigate these hate crimes, hasn’t managed to secure more than 5,000 signatures after four months. And while Asians have had to struggle with a rise in Sinophobia everywhere since the outbreak of COVID-19, the difference in the U.K. is that the country presents itself as a long-term partner of Hong Kong, opening its borders to political refugees while doing little to make them feel welcome once they arrive.

I recognize that I speak from a place of privilege to even be able to write this essay and examine these concerns. Circumstances have changed dramatically since 1997. The next mass migration from Hong Kong to the U.K. is being motivated not by a looming threat but by a very concrete one. And I know that this threat is hardly equal to the one of feeling unwelcome in the U.K. However, leaving unexamined these romantic notions of the U.K. would be naive. I know that for myself, wherever I end up, I cannot imagine returning to a place of assimilation.