Matthew Brooker

The Hard Way Home to the UK From Hong Kong

The light on the harbor; the hum of escalators on the MTR; the battered orange Ikea sofa that I will leave behind. Even the most mundane sights and sounds have become invested recently with the rare and precious significance that impending loss brings. More than 100,000 Hong Kong people have taken steps to move to the UK in the past year. Sometime in the next two months or so, I will join them.

Hong Kong isn’t what it was. The exuberantly free and pluralist society that I knew for 28 years has largely vanished. Activists for a kaleidoscope of political and social causes no longer line the road outside Causeway Bay station. People who were part of the fabric of public life for decades are in prison; others have fled. Walls have been scrubbed clean of graffiti. Hong Kong officials say the national security law that China imposed on the city in 2020 ended the chaos and violence of the 2019 pro-democracy protests and restored order. It did a lot more than that.

“It was as if, in order to fix a leaky pipe, the builders had pulled down the entire house and plowed up the land under its foundations,” as Louisa Lim writes in Indelible City, published last month. After three years marked by the worst unrest since the return to Chinese rule, an unprecedented security crackdown and political purge, and the enforced isolation of draconian Covid restrictions, Hong Kong is a city with PTSD. To that, add the mental pressure of feeling gaslighted almost constantly. On Sunday, Hong Kong held an “election” for its next leader, with one candidate approved by a committee of 1,500 Beijing loyalists, hailed by officials and state media as an example of the city’s “improved” electoral system in action.

In April, I marked the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Hong Kong. The decision to leave is nerve-wracking, and not without pain and doubt. British bureaucracy and London property prices are providing a fair share of each. There’s also the stress of uprooting my family from a stable life when no one is forcing me to. Am I sure about what I’m doing?

There’s a sense of being suspended between two netherworlds: the Hong Kong that has disappeared; and the land of my birth, a country that I no longer know in any meaningful way after so long away. The UK is still more of an idea than a reality to me, apprehended through endless Rightmove searches, school application emails and the occasional Zoom call. I wait for the day when I will have solid ground under my feet once again.

There are personal reasons for leaving. My mother will be 86 this year, and I have a three-year-old boy, a late-life addition that I couldn’t have expected a few years ago. Filial duty is only part of it, though. To contemplate remaining would be a bittersweet prospect, knowing what Hong Kong was and what it has become. It would be so easy to stay. The guilty secret is that this city is kind to foreigners like me, and probably will continue to be — as long as they serve its functions of being an international financial and business center. Taxes are low, domestic help is cheap and available, transport connections are fast and efficient.

These comforts have started to weigh more heavily. It was one thing to accept all that Hong Kong had to offer when the city was, in effect, a benign autocracy — one that didn’t offer meaningful democracy, but where individuals were subject to minimal interference by the state, and where a vigorous civil society flourished. Now the benign part has gone. To continue enjoying the ease of life when the people of Hong Kong have had so many of their freedoms stripped away feels like complicity.

Yet even now, I am torn. Some might argue that the braver course would be to stay in Hong Kong and keep bearing witness. But I ask myself: Is this the society that I wish my three-year-old half-Chinese boy to grow up in? And the answer has to be no.

The financial implications of moving to Britain are bracing. Hong Kong’s standard tax rate is 15%. The UK’s starts at 20% and goes up to 45%. Hong Kong also has an array of allowances and deductions (for children, for example) that can reduce your tax bill. The UK, as far as I can gather, has no such equivalents. It’s hard to look at the figures and not imagine that this will mean a financial sacrifice. Liberty has a price, as one Hong Kong local who’s relocating to the UK remarked to me ruefully.

It wouldn’t be so bad if cheaper property prices balanced out one of Hong Kong’s standout expenses. Outside London, that’s certainly the case. In London, not so much. The cost of renting in the capital looks dizzying to me, relative to the quality of what is within my budget. Hong Kong has famously unaffordable housing prices, yet considering the differences in tax rates, London looks possibly even more extreme. It doesn’t seem to add up. I find myself wondering about the size of the black economy.

To buy would make more sense, but that depends on being able to sell our apartment in Hong Kong first. We put our suburban mass-residential unit on the market at the beginning of December, thinking that was plenty of time and wanting to stay in our marital home for as long as possible. Then Hong Kong’s fifth wave came along and Russia invaded Ukraine. Now the US is raising interest rates, a key factor for the city’s property market because of the currency peg. We are making contingency plans in case we can’t sell before we leave. It feels like a bare-knuckle ride.

Then there’s shipping. Container freight rates have increased by about five times since the start of the pandemic, rendering it uneconomic to move many of our belongings. I have been quoted the equivalent of more than $9,000 to ship even a reduced volume of goods. As a result, I am busy disposing of three decades’ worth of accumulated books. So many people are leaving Hong Kong that most second-hand bookshops have stopped accepting donations. Luckily, I have found one that’s still interested in my eclectic (and often faded) collection of China, World War II, business, spiritual and fiction texts.

Beyond finances, there is the issue of culture shock. My wife, my 15-year-old stepson and my three-year-old will all have to go through their own adjustment. I may not be immune myself. By choice, I would probably go to live somewhere in southwest London, an area I know well enough. The exigencies of school placement mean that we will probably be heading to the outskirts of north London, an area that is not part of my mental geography. It may be on the tube, but using Google Maps’ street view to cruise around the neighborhood, it looks almost rural.

The Hong Kong writer Karen Cheung describes having a near-panic attack when she left the city for the first time for an exchange semester in Glasgow. “Where are all the people?” she writes in The Impossible City, another outstanding Hong Kong memoir that was published this year. “There was less than a tenth of the crowd I would see back home.” I’ve been in Hong Kong for so long. Will I be struck by pangs of anxiety one day on my suburban street, wondering where all the crowds, all that familiar “frenzied energy” and “language of alienation and impatience” have gone?

Besides being densely packed, Hong Kong also moves fast. Red tape is minimal. Already, I can see this may be a challenge. We applied for UK family visas for my wife and stepson in January. We’re still waiting, with the clock ticking until our planned departure (more bare knuckles). The process itself is worth recalling. To apply for a UK visa, gather: a computer that doesn’t tend to crash (do as I say, not as I do); a print or scan of every official document that everyone in your extended family has ever handled or been named in since the dawn of time; a lot of money (9,000 pounds, or about $11,300, in my case). And set aside the rest of the day.

What follows several weeks later is an appointment at a nondescript industrial building on Hong Kong island, where a private sector agency checks all the documents that you have been told to produce. I arrive with a sheaf of them as thick as my thumb. An elderly Hong Kong employee with a kindly manner helps to arrange the papers into folders to save time once our number is called. The first document he asks for is one I don’t have. The second document he asks for is one I don’t have. Where’s your document checklist, he asks. I show him the list. Not that list, the other list – the one that the UK government website shows you. I have no recollection of the other list. Don’t even ask me about Ecctis letters. I suspect there will be plenty more such experiences after arrival in England.

I have no right to gripe. I may be waking up regularly in a cold sweat, wondering if I am making a terrible mistake. But the challenges I face have solutions, even if I haven’t found all of them yet. At least we have some resources. So many Hong Kong people have left for the UK with far less, seeking a better life in a country they don’t know at all. Their intrepidity should put me to shame.

A March documentary by Singapore’s Channel News Asia focused on a Hong Kong family with two young children who emigrate. They land at Heathrow and drive to an Airbnb house in Crewe in the northwest. An immigration consultant tells the camera that he gives them only a 50-50 chance of being able to adjust to life in the UK. Several months later they have spent half their HK$1 million ($127,000) savings and no longer meet the financial requirements for the British National (Overseas) visa, which they hadn’t obtained before leaving. I stopped watching, my heart sinking and fearing the worst.

I needn’t have worried. When I went back to complete the program, I discovered it was ultimately uplifting rather than depressing. They form networks, find better jobs, look to buy their own house. By the end, they appear to be flourishing. The wife, Fiona Lai, is a classic Hong Kong character: smart, resilient, adaptable. Each part of the two-part documentary has more than 1 million viewers on YouTube; the second has more than 4,000 comments.

They call it the Lion Rock spirit, after a TV show about the lives of everyday Hong Kong citizens that started in the 1970s. The series, named after an iconic Kowloon mountain, embodied the Hong Kong values of perseverance and solidarity that underpinned the city’s rise to prosperity.

I’ve always, from the depth of my soul, admired that spirit: the humor, the irreverence, the will to live and endure of Hong Kong people. If I take one thing with me when I leave, let it be that.