25 years on: Hong Kong diaspora fights for freedom

A quarter of a century has passed since the UK handed Hong Kong back to China. At the time, Beijing pledged that the city's freedoms would be protected under what it called the "one country, two systems" framework. But the implementation of the 2020 national security law essentially amounted to a breach of that framework.

Now some Hong Kongers in Japan are vowing to do what they can in the struggle for freedom back home.

Cafe lovers in Tokyo will have noticed the proliferation of Cha Chaan Teng -- Hong Kong-style cafes -- in recent months. The cheap and cheerful eateries have become a hub for Hong Kongers longing for a taste of home.

Kelvin Cheng, the owner of one such café, says Hong Kongers are attracted by the personal freedoms they enjoy in the Japanese capital.

"There are not many places in Asia where free speech is protected," he says. "I think more and more people are choosing Japan."

Food culture

Software engineer Chan Wing In relocated to Japan four years ago and is now hoping to obtain permanent residency.

But she still misses things from home. So, she and her friends set up a group to promote Hong Kong culture in Japan, including its distinctive cuisine.

Just like the territory itself, Hong Kong cuisine is a melting pot of cultures -- Western, regional and mainland Chinese.

For "French Toast à la Hong Kong", take fried bread—a typical Chinese breakfast food—and add a western touch: peanut butter. And Hong Kong style milk tea? First pour hot tea, then mix in coffee, and add condensed milk.

"French Toast à la Hong Kong" served at a café in Tokyo.

Chan's group hopes to organize Hong Kong food workshops. "It seems like Hong Kong is losing more and more of its culture," she says. "Even if it's here in Japan, I hope Hong Kongers can get together and pass down our culture."

Passion for freedom

Food is a passion for the diaspora. But more important these days is their drive to protect Hong Kong's freedom. In mid-June, more than 150 people marched in central Tokyo. Since the introduction of the national security law, demonstrations are outlawed back home.

"If I return home, I might get arrested, so I'm scared," said one protester.

"The chances of me getting arrested are growing. I want to go back to Hong Kong, but I can't," said another.

Willian Lee
William Lee took part in a demonstration in Tokyo in June.

William Lee is one of a handful who do not conceal their identities when protesting abroad. While he concedes that marching in Japan may not achieve much, he believes he is doing what his friends at home cannot.

"I feel huge disappointment when I think I can't ever go back to Hong Kong," he says. "For now, I have to carry on abroad."

Free press attacked

Freedom in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate. In December last year, police raided the office of Stand News, the last pro-democracy online media outlet. Its editors were arrested, its reporters laid off, and Stand News was shut down.

Lian Yi-Zheng was on the board of directors of the company that owned the outlet. Based in Japan since 2012, he has also been teaching at universities here.

Late last year, local pro-government media reported that Hong Kong police have issued an arrest warrant for him.

Lian sees the warrant as a warning from the authorities telling him to shut up or be careful. He says, "I'm certain, pretty certain, if I go back to Hong Kong, at the airport, they would arrest me."

Lian has little doubt about the future of the one-country, two systems concept. He sees the Hong Kong government and the Chinese authorities as making it clear that there's no democracy. "In fact, it's not just no democracy—there would essentially be totalitarianism in society," he says.

With no intention of keeping quiet, Lian has organized a network of overseas journalists from Hong Kong.

Lian Yi-Zheng
Lian Yi-Zheng

While the political outlook for the territory is grim, some expats in Japan are carrying on the struggle to keep their identity alive. As part of that, Lian believes it is essential to keep the world informed about events back in Hong Kong.