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

What do the newcomers make of the deprived British seaside town?

10/25/2021 9:00:00 PM

Ming didn’t expect to become a refugee in her 60s: meet the Hong Kongers starting a new life in a British seaside town

What do the newcomers make of the deprived British seaside town?

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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The Economist todayHandpicked stories, in your inboxA daily newsletter with the best of our journalismSign upBlackpool’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. headtopics.com

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? headtopics.com

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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. headtopics.com

“Down with theCCP!” 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.

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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 skyscrapersIn 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 theCCP. 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 good things to say about her new home. “It’s a wonderful place, it’s a playland.”The average age of Hong Kongers who move to Britain is 37, much older than a typical migrant (only those over 24 are eligible to apply for a

BNOvisa). Just over half have children, so prefer areas with good schools, according to Hong Kongers in Britain, an organisation that supports migrants. Nearly a quarter of the refugees want to live in London. Manchester, Birmingham and Reading are also popular.

Blackpool attracts a different kind of Hong Konger. None of the refugees there has school-age children with them. Like Ming, many have left their families behind, fleeing with little more than the clothes on their backs. They are older (many are retired) and poorer. Cheap accommodation is a priority.

Jessie, a girlish 29-year-old with a bow in her hair, had never heard of Blackpool until she saw Fok and Choi rave about it on YouTube, but was pleased to discover on typing it into Google Maps that it was by the sea. She arrived in the town in June with her mother (and Jessie’s soft-toy dog, Pochacco, which she takes out of her bag to show me). They left Jessie’s father behind – he doesn’t speak English and worried that it would be hard for him to find a job (though as a Manchester United fan he might have appreciated the proximity to Old Trafford).

Like all the guests, Jessie was screened for signs of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party“Hong Kong is very dangerous,” says Jessie as we sit at a dining-room table. It’s getting late, but we’re not the only ones still chatting – the jolly atmosphere and harsh overhead lights mean the party only winds down towards midnight. “We don’t know what the [Chinese] government will do. Because they can do anything...So we needed to escape.” Earlier this year she heard rumours that Hong Kong could close its borders to prevent anyone from leaving. It hasn’t happened yet, but Jessie is relieved to have got out.

“I was very depressed these past two years,” she says. “I can’t do anything to improve the situation and have seen many people die, many people go to jail...It is very dark in Hong Kong right now.” Jessie quit herITjob at a bank to move to Britain. “In Hong Kong we work like cows,” she says with a chuckle. “The

UKis like a big holiday.”Not quite. She spent that day helping her mother open a bank account (the bank was confused by her Cantonese name) and trying to arrange a doctor’s appointment for a 75-year-old refugee with a sore foot whom she refers to affectionately as Uncle Fung. But Jessie says she is far more relaxed than she ever could be in Hong Kong.

Many refugees are concerned that the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party could reach them even in exile. Finnick screens all residents of the Blackpool hotels as to their political allegiance. Guests are initially offered one month of accommodation, during which time he quizzes them about which protests they went to in Hong Kong, whether they have photos or videos to prove it, and what they think of the various opposition figures. (Finnick checks they are familiar with lower-profile campaigners, not just the ones everyone has heard of, like Joshua Wong or Jimmy Lai.)

Finnick also asks them what job they did in Hong Kong. Anything highly paid would raise suspicions: “You can’t believe that a person with a HK$1m salary would come to live in Blackpool,” says Finnick. Only guests who pass this test and generally seem “normal”, as Finnick puts it, are allowed to stay longer.

The screening process makes Jessie feel that she can trust her fellow guests: if there were a Communist Party ally among their number, she worries her freedom could be in jeopardy. Outside the hotel, she avoids talking to Chinese people, even Hong Kongers, because “you don’t know if he or she is from the same party as us.”

“We don’t know what the Chinese government will do. Because they can do anything...So we needed to escape”Ming is careful too. When she chats to her family on WhatsApp, she avoids sharing too many details about herself, scared that theCCPcould be listening. In June she went to a vigil outside the Chinese embassy in London to remember those who died around Tiananmen Square in 1989. “I have to tell myself not to stand at the front, to step back a little...we have to consider our families.”

For now, Ming’s adopted family is in Blackpool. She is waiting to hear back from a Chinese restaurant in London, where she had an interview for a job taking orders over the phone – she is too old to be on her feet all day. A keen student of Britain’s past, Ming spends her downtime reading “A Short History of England” by Simon Jenkins (she’s just got up to Magna Carta: “wonderful”). Jessie wants to work in IT, but is torn between the lack of opportunities in Blackpool and the high cost of living in London. Many refugees fill their time with trips to nearby cities (they were delighted to find dim sum in Manchester) and strolls along the promenade.

Converts to the joy of pubs, they go to Wetherspoons three times a week, attracted by its unlimited hot drinks more than the cheap pints – the British love of binge drinking is one of the few downsides of life here, says Ming, though she says generally locals have been friendly. The only negative encounter so far was on a day trip to the nearby town of Fleetwood, seven miles north along the coast from Blackpool. Some local youths swore at the Hong Kongers, assuming they couldn’t understand. Ming, ever the teacher, told off the “naughty boys”, who skulked away.

When the crowds gather in the evenings to watch the fireworks over the Irish Sea, the bustle reminds Ming of Mong KokMostly though, says Ming, people are polite. “They offer their seats to old people, they queue.” Jessie chimes in: “Hong Kong people also love queueing...the Chinese don’t queue like that. They rush onto trains and push you away.” Ming shares Jessie’s distaste for people from mainland China. “I see no point in communicating with [them]...they are bringing a bad influence to the

UK.” The events of the past two years have exacerbated the long-standing prejudice some Hong Kongers feel towards mainlanders.The day after Finnick’s birthday party, a smartly dressed Scottish couple carrying suitcases knocks on the hotel door. Regular guests, they had made a reservation before the previous owners retired and are bemused to discover that the room they usually stay in is occupied by refugees. Ming holds their coats (she looks as if she might buckle under the weight of the fabric) while Finnick finds a room for them. They are in town for the Blackpool Illuminations, an annual festival of lights in which a six-mile stretch of the promenade is lit up for two months.

This autumn Blackpool is even busier than usual: it’s hosting the World Fireworks Championship. When the crowds gather in the evenings to watch the display in the sky over the Irish Sea, the bustle reminds Ming of Mong Kok, she says, a crowded area of downtown Hong Kong known for its food markets and bric-a-brac stalls. She thinks Blackpool’s beach is more beautiful than Hong Kong’s, although she wonders why the sea is so dark: “Is that why it’s called Blackpool?”

■Some names have been changedAmy Hawkinsis a news editor at Read more: The Economist »

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