Deprivation Binge

“It’s a wonderful place…a playland.” The Hong Kongers fleeing to Blackpool

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In the dining room of a bed and breakfast in Blackpool, a dozen refugees from Hong Kong tuck into Domino’s pizza and Ben & Jerry’s cookie-dough ice-cream. They miss more familiar food, but the Chinese takeaways in Blackpool, a down-at-heel seaside resort in the north-west of England, “just cheat the locals”, says one Hong Konger, laughing.

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Blackpool’s boarded-up shops and run-down hotels are a far cry from Hong Kong’s gleaming storefronts and starchitect-designed skyscrapers. The town has the shortest life expectancy in England. It is also home to eight of England’s ten most deprived neighbourhoods, according to a report published by the British government in 2019. Where Hong Kong has tropical beaches with views of lush mountains, Blackpool has the nippy Irish Sea and amusement arcades.

But the party guests, who range in age from 18 to 75, seem happy to be here. They are celebrating the birthday of the man who brought them together: Finnick, a baby-faced 44-year-old. Two years ago, Finnick (a pseudonym he asked me to use) spent his birthday at a protest outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong, calling for Britain to offer its former colonial subjects more immigration rights.

That summer of 2019, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers had taken to the streets in protest at a proposed extradition law that could let the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spirit away criminal suspects to the mainland. The law was only the latest chapter in what many Hong Kongers saw as a progressive encroachment by China’s government on their personal freedoms and the autonomy of their region. Hong Kong police responded with force to many of the demonstrations; use of tear gas became common.

Ming was a teenage Communist who now believes the Chinese Communist Party is a “cancer on the world”

Many Hong Kongers wanted a way out. Their prayers would be answered: after years of pressure, in February this year the British government changed its immigration rules to make it easy for Hong Kongers to settle in Britain if they were born before the handover in 1997. Their dependents could come too. By June, nearly 65,000 people had applied for a British National (Overseas) (BNO) visa.

Finnick was studying engineering at Hong Kong University when the territory was returned to China in 1997. At the time he had “no feelings” about the handover; only later did he realise that it “changed everything”. He later moved to Britain, studying at Exeter University and Glasgow University. When he returned to Hong Kong in 2013, he got a job in finance and was ready to make his future there. After the events of 2019, however, he concluded, “there was no hope in Hong Kong”. Shortly before the pandemic, he emigrated to Sheffield.

He planned to retrain as a maths teacher. Instead, he inadvertently became something of a relocation expert. After he moved, friends and acquaintances in Hong Kong kept asking for help moving to Britain. They earned good money in Hong Kong but there was nothing to live for, explains Finnick. He tried to find host families for them, but some refugees had “emotional problems” after their experiences and quarrelled with their hosts. The flood of new arrivals was also making it hard to keep up. Finnick had an idea: why not open a cheap hotel for Hong Kongers to stay in until they could find a permanent place to live?

First he needed money. Friends introduced him to Johnny Fok and Tony Choi, two London-based Hong Kongers who make popular YouTube videos criticising the Chinese government. Fok and Choi agreed to stump up the cash; Finnick would manage the hotel and live off his savings.

They settled on Blackpool, which has some of the cheapest property in Britain, and have now bought three hotels there. That morning, Finnick collected the keys to this latest property, a semi-detached pebble-dash-fronted, eight-bedroom hotel a ten-minute walk from the beach. It cost just £114,000 ($160,000). “If you sell a house [in Hong Kong] you can buy five of these bed and breakfasts,” says Finnick.

Each resident pays £250-450 a month to stay, or, if they can’t afford it, nothing. Finnick expects most to be there for two to three months: “We can’t look after them for ever.” He spent most of his birthday scrubbing the place clean for the evening’s arrivals. The mahogany tables are gleaming and the traditional Windsor chairs, left over from the previous owners, have been dusted down. The smell of disinfectant lingers in the air.

Some of the refugees now enjoying the party had been in Blackpool since June, staying in the other two hotels; others, including an 18-year-old asylum-seeker, had just got off the plane. After dinner, the lights dim and someone brings in a Victoria sponge cake with a red tea-light on top. A lively rendition of “Happy Birthday” segues into “Glory to Hong Kong”, a song by an anonymous composer that became the anthem of the pro-democracy demonstrations.

“Down with the CCP!” says a woman in her mid-60s, as the song comes to an end. This is Ming, a retired primary-school teacher whose booming voice belies her birdlike frame. She believes the Chinese government is a “cancer on the world”, but didn’t always feel that way. As a teenager in 1973 she went on a pilgrimage to Mao Zedong’s hometown in south-central China without telling her mother, who had been born in China. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they had confiscated her mother’s family farm in Dongguan, southern China, and the family fled to Hong Kong, where Ming was born.

Ming still carries with her a pen she got as a souvenir on her trip: the gold enamel is worn but the characters for “Respect Chairman Mao’s old home” are etched on the barrel. When Chinese troops fired at pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, Ming thought they had merely made a mistake, she tells me as we chat on a faux-leather sofa at the back of the dining room.

Blackpool’s boarded-up shops and run-down hotels are a far cry from Hong Kong’s gleaming storefronts and starchitect-designed skyscrapers

In middle-age, Ming developed a passion for history. She realised that the Chinese government’s repressive behaviour couldn’t be blamed on occasional lapses of judgment: it was a central feature of the regime. In 2014 she joined the Umbrella Movement, sleeping out on the streets of Hong Kong with other protesters to call for more transparent elections. As the Communist Party tightened its grip on Hong Kong, Ming became increasingly jittery.

For Ming, the breaking point came on June 30th last year, when the mainland government introduced a law that in essence criminalised criticism of the CCP. Within a year, more than 117 people had been arrested under the new powers, most of them pro-democracy politicians, journalists and activists. As soon as the law came into force, says Ming, she “didn’t think Hong Kong would be able to return to normal”.

She set about trying to move her and her husband’s savings overseas, worried that the Chinese government would seize their assets. She was disappointed to discover that most banks required a minimum deposit of HK$3m ($386,000) to open an overseas account; her savings were a fraction of that. So she decided to move to Britain and open a bank account there.

Ming didn’t expect to become a refugee in her 60s. She left Hong Kong in April, but her family has stayed: her husband is looking after his elderly mother; her daughter is studying medicine. “Of course, I miss [them],” she says, uncharacteristically quietly. As she tells me about her experiences, her eyes widen behind her wire-framed spectacles. After an expensive month in a youth hostel in London, she heard about the Blackpool B&Bs on Fok’s and Choi’s YouTube channel and moved north in June. She has only…

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