When I visited my parents the other day, they were watching Hong Kong’s mass rally unfold on TV. Millions clogged the winding streets of the city, tiny dots marching towards the city’s parliament in sticky mid-summer heat. My dad asked if I’ve been following the news.
“This is why we moved to Australia,” he said.
At the time I had little idea what the protests were about, let alone how it related to our migration story.
Quickly I caught up. I learnt that Hong Kong people were against the proposed changes to extradition law, which in short, would give more power to the Communist Chinese government. This moves Hong Kong closer to Chinese control and away from the British systems built on Western ideals like democracy, rule of law, free speech and press.
The Hong Kong people are fearful (at worst) and uncertain (at best) of what life would be like under greater Chinese control.
The same fear and uncertainty my parents felt just before Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, after 150 years of British rule. And the reason why they gave up everything they knew about life to start a new one in a place so far away.
On a humid July day some 30 years ago, our entire extended family came to see us off at the airport. My family of four were moving from Hong Kong to a foreign country called Australia. I was eight years old and my sister was seven.
My mum cried as she held on to her brother. “I know we have to go. I just know,” she said in Cantonese.
We arrived to a cold, wet Melbourne winter. My dad, while lugging our bags up and down a flight of stairs slipped and fell. We spent our first night in the emergency department. My mum cried again.
That was how our new lives began.
As migrants, we are often asked where we come from, but seldom why we’re here. The question of why comes up so rarely that I don’t really think about it. Or else it’s easy to default to the short answer: “for a better future”. After all, isn’t that why anyone moves?
When news of the mass rally in Hong Kong first broke last week, I paid little attention. Protests were not uncommon in my hometown. There was a series of them in 2014 called the Umbrella Movement, where citizens staged a 79-day occupation demanding a more transparent election process. Children joined their parents in taking to the streets -- some reportedly bringing their homework -- to fight against changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. The protests ended, the government didn’t budge and everyone more or less got on with whatever they were doing before.
But the latest series of protests demanded all of our attention. Coverage of the demonstrations dominated my social media feed. My cousin closed her jewellery shop in downtown Hong Kong. More than two million people took to the street. Leaders around the world released public statements.
We’d moved to Australia for the promise of political and economic stability. Even with the musical chair of prime ministers, you can exercise your right to vote and call politicians bastards without fear of reprisal.
There is a genuine belief in a fair go, in social justice and in human rights. When we think the government has got it wrong, we can joke about taking refuge in New Zealand.
For my parents and thousands of displaced Hong Kong families, we didn’t joke about moving. We did it. For those who couldn’t move or didn’t want to move, they remained in Hong Kong where life only got harder in the last 30 years.
Suddenly, the images on TV had a new meaning. I had a sliding door moment where we didn’t get on that Qantas flight bound for Australia. Instead of being in suburbia Melbourne, penning this piece without fear of persecution, I was on the streets of Hong Kong, in face mask and goggles, marching for stability, certainty and a better future, for the future that I already have today.