SUTTON, England — The days were short, and so much colder than they had known, when Eric Wong and his family set foot in London in the winter of 2020 to start a new life.
In Hong Kong, Mr. Wong owned a successful business selling milk tea and his wife was a school administrator. In England, as the coronavirus lockdown dragged on, he was playing with their daughter, Trini, in their flat and worried his English was too poor to get him a job. It was hard to make friends. And he missed the sun.
‘I couldn’t see the direction ahead of me,’ said Mr Wong, 46, who was a beneficiary of a visa scheme which gives holders of British overseas passports in Hong Kong a path to citizenship . “Nothing was clear.”
A year and a half later, Mr. Wong has found his footing and is doing what he loves most: making and selling Hong Kong-style milk tea – which he hopes will gain traction in the country of tea drinkers – and bring a taste of a home to newcomers from Hong Kong who have taken advantage of the new visa scheme.
Britain called the program a post-colonial humanitarian responsibility after a crackdown in Hong Kong by the Chinese government, saying Beijing was breaching the terms of a 1997 handover agreement that would leave the former British colony politically intact.
From bustling cities like Birmingham in the Midlands to vibrant towns like Kingston, south London, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have spent the last year looking for jobs and new accommodation. They settled in fast-growing communities of other Hong Kong people, a comfort to many, but at the cost of leaving behind a city where they had once hoped to grow old with their children, often having to say painful goodbyes to their relatives. .
“You grow up in a place and you don’t recognize it. It becomes a stranger,” Mr Wong said one recent afternoon, reflecting on the changes in Hong Kong as he stirred evaporated milk in a steaming kettle of tea. “When you think about it, you just want to cry.”
He said he was forced to leave his sick father behind in Hong Kong, but concern for the future of his 4-year-old daughter, after whom he named his new business in England, took over. not on other concerns. “People say I brought Trini to England,” he said, “but I think it’s the opposite: Trini brought me here.”
So far, new arrivals have been mostly welcomed in Britain. This contrasts with efforts by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Even a program for refugees from Ukraine has become mired in bureaucratic delays.
“It is expected to be a rather peculiar wave of migration because of its high qualification and the kind of contribution it can make to the knowledge economy,” said Peter William Walsh, senior research fellow at Migration Migration from Oxford University. Observatory, said of those arriving from Hong Kong.
According to government statistics released in May, there have been 123,400 visa applications by people from Hong Kong since its introduction, with as many as 322,400 people expected in the first five years of the program.
In Sutton, about 15 miles south of central London, hundreds of families from Hong Kong have passed through the same residential towers, advising friends back home who are considering moving.
There, former Hong Kong firefighters drive Amazon delivery trucks as they plan their next moves. Old school friends pass each other on the streets of Sutton. Others have attended campaign events together ahead of local elections, spurred on by the novelty of being eligible to vote in England, even as the democratic process shrinks in Hong Kong.
“It’s changed the face of our cultural mix in Sutton, which is wonderful,” said Hannah Miles, associate pastor at a local church, of the newcomers. “We should take this opportunity to make these people feel like family.”
So far, newcomers say they have felt welcome.
Before Kago Ng, a former designer, arrived in London last year with her husband and 4-year-old son Kaspar, she said she cried every night fearing they would not find a job or don’t like the city. “They said in the UK we would be second-class citizens, but in Hong Kong we didn’t feel like first-class citizens,” she said, referring to feelings that they had read online and in the news.
London, Ms Ng said, was much better than she imagined. She accepts freelance work and stays home to take care of Kaspar, while her husband has found a job repairing watches for Rolex.
But like many others, Ms Ng worries about a backlash. House prices in the area, as elsewhere in much of Britain, have risen during the pandemic, and it is difficult for children to find coveted places in one of the area’s schools, it said. she declared.
“Maybe the local people will think we’re watering down the resources,” Ms Ng said, as she played with Kaspar in their apartment before a hot pot dinner, a popular meal in Hong Kong. His forehead creased in concern. “Maybe they will hate us.”
Settling into their new life in England was not without difficulties.
The arrival of all the newcomers from Hong Kong, fleeing Chinese repression, has caused rifts with Chinese in Britain who support the government in Beijing.
Hong Kong pro-democracy groups have staged protests in British cities, but say they are regularly harangued online by Beijing supporters. Some people in Hong Kong are afraid to speak publicly about their political views and say they avoid restaurants where the menu is in the simplified Chinese used on the mainland.
People in Hong Kong have a strong sense of identity that is very distinct from people in mainland China, said Richard Choi, a community leader from Sutton.
As part of a broad effort to help newcomers settle, the Reverend Kan Yu, a minister who immigrated from Hong Kong two decades ago, recently launched a church service for residents of the city they gather. “I wanted to be there to walk alongside them,” she said.
That service has grown to more than 200 congregants, many of whom on a recent Sunday stood in pews, singing hymns in Cantonese. Ms. Yu said her goal was to help newcomers gain self-confidence and provide psychological support.
“How do you deal with your grief and loss? ” she says. “You have to give up a place you’ve called home for so many years.”
Ms. Yu co-founded a nonprofit organization that connects children and parents with Cantonese-speaking therapists to guide them through their new lives. Another group offers art therapy to children to express their feelings. Sports groups are also popular among newcomers to Hong Kong.
“It’s a lot of mental stress,” said Kenneth Chu, who used to sell photocopiers for Xerox but now hosts a popular men’s basketball game on Friday nights. “It’s a good idea for them to have a place to relax.”
David Wong, a cellist who played alongside pro-democracy protesters on the streets during protests in 2014, said he loved the sense of community and support he found in Sutton. He often encourages Mr. Wong, the tea maker, to practice his English more.
“If you’re not connecting with each other and helping each other and doing things for each other, what are you doing?” he said.
The two strangers struck up a friendship when they were neighbors living in the same apartment tower.
“We think it’s Hong Kong – the community is here,” said Mr. Wong, the cellist. “Wherever I am is Hong Kong.”