David Adamson speaks with Hong Kongers about setting up new lives across the city
“My parents asked me why I had to leave Hong Kong, but they also understood that I was not living happily there: the political oppression, the fear of police knocking on your door at 5am and arresting you, with no media to warn you or expose them, where you can basically vanish from the system.”
In the stock room of Asgard Groceries in Altrincham, Luci Cheung tells me about why in 2021 he left his home in Hong Kong to come to Manchester. At 30-years-old he can view not only what his future may hold, but also the life he left behind.
I think this is the culture here: people accept you, no matter what your background is. As long as you accept their values, and you respect what they are doing, they will see you as one of their own.
“Most of the people from Hong Kong decide to work for the government because it's basically a job for life,” he said. “So I got into a career for about seven years, but I had to leave because otherwise I would have to take a vow to pledge my loyalty to the government, which is not even elected by the people.
“It was obviously working against the people of Hong Kong, so I thought ‘No, I won’t do that.' When I signed up for the civil service, I thought I was working for the people, not working against them.
“Every few months you’d say, ‘Oh, this news agency was shut down’, and then six months later another one goes, and then another, until you ask, ‘Is there even news in Hong Kong?’ No. It’s all government ‘blah blah blah’ because all the news agencies left are pro-government, have had their access frozen or have been forced to shut down. And it’s only getting worse. So now, two years after I moved to the UK, I think it’s a good choice that I left.”
Surrounded by shelves stacked with everything from sauces and sweets to comics and calendars, Luci offers me the only seat and goes on to explain, in the kind of fluent and nuanced English common to many Hong Kongers, how he has rebuilt his life since arriving on a cold night one February.
“When we landed at Heathrow it was about midnight and freezing cold, then we got a car and drove straight to Manchester,” he said. “My girlfriend’s parents had arrived about two months earlier and we were all staying in an Airbnb until we completed the transaction for a house.
“My girlfriend and I had a long debate for about six months about setting up a business, and I could see some people shipping merchandise from the UK to Hong Kong, so I thought I could do it the other way around.
We asked ourselves these questions: “Are there products made in Hong Kong that we should be proud of and be introducing into the UK market; products that give people an idea of the actual taste of Hong Kong? People back home always make jokes about how British food isn’t great and people don’t have many choices.”
Finding himself in what he thought might be the land of endless steak and ale pies, Luci wondered how receptive his new neighbours would be to his glarishl-packaged products, but found people were not only open but often in-the-know.
“Making a connection was actually easier than I thought,” he said. “Obviously most people in Hong Kong have studied English but also a lot of people in the UK have a historical connection with Hong Kong as well. When I’m running the shop people will come in and say ‘How are things there now?’ or say how they studied there or worked there for five years."
“I once met a man who’d retired from the army," continues Luci, "and he said he was there when the handover was in process. I was five years old when that happened and watched it on the telly, but he was there. It was amazing. I don't know the British culture nearly as well in comparison with how much they know about the Hong Kong culture, so to my surprise I didn’t need to make a lot of extra effort - they know it very well.
“Regulars come in and check out new stuff, saying ‘I don't feel like something too hot today, what do you recommend?’ Rather than being just a traditional shop where you go in with a list and take this, take that, check, check, check, it’s about building a relationship with the community. That’s how it works.”
Further up the tram line in Sale, opposite that most British of institutions, Sainsbury’s, sits Fusion Plate. A combined shop and restaurant, it’s alive with the aromas of what you see on the shelves but are perhaps too baffled to put together.
Owner Ka Shun Fan, the picture of a sunny demeanour, shows a shade of sadness when asked whether he had always intended to build a life abroad.
“No one wants to leave their own home for no reason, there has to be something,” he said. “And actually we feel the situation in Hong Kong is getting worse, for ourselves and for the next generation. So my wife and I decided to move here and now my parents are also here."
“My situation is a bit different from the Hong Kong people who've come recently," says Ka Shun Fan. In the past my father joined the army in Hong Kong and so he got a British passport, therefore I also got one as well.
“So it was a little bit easier for me to come here, and we did in 2018.”
With staff including local lads making milk tea, tending to woks and unloading vanloads of products, Shun buzzes with a keen positivity for the local community and what he can contribute.
“I think food can connect people,” he said. “It’s a good way to share our story and talk to people, because we are new here. We started this business because we want to show our attitude and work really hard to show that we are not outsiders; we want to fit in this community and show local people what we are.
“We don’t identify this shop as a ‘Chinese shop’, we want to be local," he continues. "You can see with our name, Fusion Plate, it’s not like other Chinese supermarkets, and I think this is very important because we need to respect the culture here. We don’t want to pretend but we want to be one of you.”
One aspect of British culture that Shun has embraced is the importance of free time, and how the hours with family, hobbies, or even just being at leisure, can enrich your life. It has also introduced him to what he sees as the jewel in the crown of British life, which is its people.
“You can make more money in Hong Kong, but you have no life outside of working, working, working,” he said. “I'm still very busy here but I have time with my family. My little girl is just one year old so I have time to be with her, and I can't imagine I could do that in Hong Kong.
Ka Shun Fun has made a real effort to join in UK life as the next sentence really.
“I’ve also joined the reserve army and completed phase one of training and you meet real local people there, which I think is why I really love this country.
“I think this is the culture here: people accept you, no matter what your background is. As long as you accept their values, and you respect what they are doing, they will see you as one of their own. That makes me feel accepted because I want to do something for this great country. Not come here to take but to give whatever I have.”
Back in the thrum of the city centre I met with Selma Masood, a lawyer and former deputy magistrate at the Eastern Magistracy Court, who hopes that her beloved city can regain its former glory sometime soon.
“Hong Kong has always been an amazing international, financial and global city that attracted a lot of talent,” she said. “It was a vibrant city not just for the locals but for expats as well. It was thriving. The past few years have seen many changes, especially with the protests that shook the city as well as having one of the strictest Covid regulations and restrictions in place.
“I can’t vouch for others," says Selma, "but I can only presume that it made a lot of people have second thoughts about whether this environment would be conducive and viable to live in and especially for bringing up children and hence, a lot of the people I knew decided to leave.
“China and Hong Kong are finally opening up again, but it still feels very different. It’s like the city has lost some of its well-known spark. I think the quarantine regulations that were in place, the leave home safe app and QR code system as well as the compulsory wearing of masks put a lot of people off. Only recently have they lifted the wearing of masks so I would hope that things are now picking up again.
“Hong Kongers are very resilient and whatever they do and wherever they end up, the strength of their Lion Rock spirit will always shine brightly, no matter what they have had to endure.”
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