It is rare for an education-obsessed Asian mother to let her child drop out of classes in the middle of a school year. But in April, Pauline Choy took her 14-year-old daughter out of secondary school and let her stay home.

Secondary student Hong Kong Victoria Harbour skyline
Hong Kong students. Photo: Supplied.

The teenager is enjoying an extra-long summer holiday before leaving Hong Kong to study in the UK in September. She will be joining her elder brother, who will start at university in England this year.

The children have told their mother they do not want to return to Hong Kong. That factor further hardened Choy’s own determination to leave the city – for the second time.

Choy, who is in her 50s, emigrated to Australia in the 1980s and obtained naturalisation there.

pauline with friends pixelated
Pauline Choy graduating university in Australia. Photo: Supplied.

“I went to Australia to study in 1986, and my family applied to emigrate around the same time. Their application was approved on June 3, 1989. The date was quite symbolic.”

June 3 was the eve of the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown in Beijing, when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters died as the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on the month-long student-led movement.

Hong Kong for years organised candlelight vigils on June 4 to commemorate the victims. But police banned the annual event in 2020 and 2021, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. The rally was not held this year as the group behind the vigil disbanded and its leaders were jailed.

Tiananmen protests 1989
The Tiananmen protests of 1989. Photo: Handout, via Ma Jian.

When the bloody crackdown occurred, Choy was about three years into an accounting degree in Australia and was not very politically active.

“I did join some rallies, marching from the town hall to the Chinese Embassy after the June 4 incident… but the information was not widely available there. We did not know that much,” Choy told HKFP.

Come back for the cash

The 1989 crackdown, and the impending Handover from Britain to China in 1997, prompted a wave of emigration from Hong Kong. But Choy came back in January 1991, after graduating and securing Australian citizenship.

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Pauline Choy said it was difficult for Asian students to find work in Australia. Photo: Supplied.

“I did not feel the threat at that time,” said Choy, recalling that 1989 in Beijing seemed far away. “There was the reform and opening up [of China], the economy was growing. [The nation] seemed to be more open-minded. The party was going on in Hong Kong, money could be made easily.”

Job-hunting and earning a living were her main concerns at that time. She was not alone. Many “returners,” a term coined to describe returning emigrants, came back to Hong Kong to share in its prosperity.

Wong, who wished to be identified by his surname only, emigrated to Canada with his wife’s family in 1993. Departure from Kai Tak airport was not particularly sad “because I knew I would come back,” said Wong, now 56.

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Wong emigrated to Canada with his wife in 1993. Photo: Supplied.

Wong said his in-laws’ decision to leave Hong Kong was not politically motivated, but he himself was planning ahead. “It was for my future children. Having a foreign passport would be easier for them. They could have the option of coming back or not,” he said.

Wong, a University of Hong Kong graduate, said he had always been interested in studying Chinese history and literature. He even produced a varsity drama about the Cultural Revolution, the decade-long hiatus between 1966 to 1976 aimed at purging all forms of traditional culture and foreign influence.

A poster about the Cultural Revolution. Photo: Flickr

Wong said his studies enlightened him not only about culture but also about the Chinese Communist Party.

“Once you understand what the Chinese Communist Party is, how they think, you realise the severity of the problem [of living under its rule],” he said.

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Wong decided to return to Hong Kong. Photo: Supplied.

But he and his wife still came back to Hong Kong months before the 1997 Handover. He even started his own accounting firm later on.

“Hong Kong was developing quite well at that time, alongside China’s reform and opening up… There were more opportunities in Hong Kong back then,” Wong said. He described the time as a “golden age” to earn money.

Lapse of education system

In recent years, however, they realised that the environment had altered for their children. Choy’s decision to withdraw her secondary three daughter from school came after Hong Kong’s education system start to change.

“She once asked me, ‘Mom, how come I was taught there was separation of powers in primary six, but was later told Hong Kong is a unique place without separation of powers when I was in secondary two?'”

Court of Final Appeal
Court of Final Appeal. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Choy said her daughter had taken part in peaceful rallies such as the annual July 1 Handover march. The teenager had also joined Choy at some of the anti-extradition demonstrations that started in 2019.

“Obviously, she was not one of the radical ones… but her classmates would call her ‘cockroach,’ knowing she was ‘yellow’.”

The colours “yellow” and “blue” came to represent the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps respectively while anti-government protesters were labelled “cockroaches” by the rival camp.

yellow umbrellas protest causeway bay 1 July 2020
An anti-extradition protest in Hong Kong in 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The culture of “snitching” at school also made Choy uncomfortable. She learned that one of her daughter’s schoolmates ratted a teacher out after the flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan were shown alongside those of nations.

“The classmate said she had filed a report to the Office for Safeguarding National Security against the teacher, and bragged about it by circulating the email.”

The 2047 promise

Wearing an Apple watch with a yellow strap, Wong joked about how “yellow” he is, saying even his surname translates into “yellow” in Chinese. Speaking of his pro-democracy stance, Wong said he once had been a “great China plastic,” a phrase used to describe people who believe in China’s reform and progress towards becoming more democratic.

“That part of me no longer exists,” Wong said.

“The vibe during the first 10-odd years after the Handover was different… even on the mainland, people could freely talk about the government, there were free discussions. A lot of things could still be said on mainland soil, until Xi Jinping took the helm. Thought started to be tightly constrained,” he added.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

The accountant said he had expected Hong Kong’s system to endure until the years close to 2047, after China promised that the city’s way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years.

But changes were taking place slowly and subtly to better assimilate Hong Kong into China. One of the attempts that was strongly resisted by Hongkongers was in 2003, when the government tried to introduce its own national security law as decreed by Article 23 of the Basic Law. Half a million people took to the streets, causing the authorities to bow to pressure and eventually axe the bill.

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A banner against Article 23 security law. FIle Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

“Hongkongers have tried using mass movements, and we so-called won when 500,000 people marched to protest against Article 23. Precisely because we won that time, with that experience, the public wished to bring change through mass movements. But unfortunately, those [in power] … since 1989, they have consciously planned to control people and their thoughts,” Wong said.

Reconsider relocation

Choy said her political awakening began in 2012 when the government tried to make national education a compulsory subject for students. Protesters slammed the curriculum, which sang the praises of China and omitted historical events such as the Tiananmen crackdown, as brainwashing.

Choy said that as a mother she felt obliged to speak out.

Anti-national education curriculum protest.
Anti-national education curriculum protest in 2012. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The mother-of-two also took part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when pro-democracy protesters blocked some major thoroughfares for 79 days.

Occupy Central
The Umbrella Movement in 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

However, the anti-extradition protests in 2019 were the main trigger for Choy to revisit the idea of moving back to Australia.

“In 2012, you realised they wanted to change the education… As for 2014, it sort of ended peacefully. It just made you feel like you would not succeed in fighting for what is promised in the Basic Law even when you do it peacefully. But there were no visible sweeping changes to the system in 2014,” Choy said.

“In 2022, there is nothing you can do. You need to leave your home town to voice your opinions. I think that is quite difficult. Things that you were familiar with changed,” Choy said tearfully. “Someone tried to forcefully erase your understanding and memories. You were telling me Hong Kong was never a colony? So what was the Queen’s icon, the stamps with the Queen’s head, that I saw in the past?” she said.

In June, it was revealed that textbooks for the new high school subject Citizenship and Social Development denied Hong Kong’s status as a former British colony.

Choy is pessimistic about the future. By 2025 she expects more large-scale digital surveillance by authorities, with civil groups no longer daring to march or make demands.

Hong Kong International Airport travel immigration emigration
File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Wong felt the same way. He originally planned to move back to Canada upon retirement but may consider leaving in two years’ time if the crackdown intensifies.

Tens of thousands have already made their decision. According to the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong recorded a net outflow of 252,100 people between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021. The peak was at the end of 2020, with 96,400 people leaving the city.

The government has played down the outflow. It has said different factors may affect the net outflow figure, such as people who chose to live elsewhere temporarily or were unable to return to Hong Kong during the Covid pandemic.

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Pauline Choy said she is pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Now that Choy has made plans for her children to stay abroad, she said that once her elderly parents pass away of old age, she can also leave Hong Kong without qualms. But it is still a hard decision to make.

“I always say ‘home is wherever I feel safe.’ Of course it is hard to let go. It is a bitter feeling… We have put so much time to help build Hong Kong, but now we are being uprooted – my career, my family, my friends,” she said.

Choy said it was sad that so many Hongkongers had chosen to leave their home town, but she believed they would strive to preserve the Hong Kong story for future generations.

“Some things are impossible to forget. I believe Hongkongers will not forget.”

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Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.