Toronto

A world away from Hong Kong, a 'Lennon Wall' supporting pro-democracy demonstrators springs up in Toronto

Maria Leung was just a few years old when her father decided to whisk her and her family away from Hong Kong and bring them to Canada — but even a world away, worry over the fate of the city where she was born remains with her.

Colourful display of support outside Union Station meant to show protesters 'they're not alone'

Mimi Lee, left, and Kenny Yu, right, helped organize a 'Lennon Wall' in support of pro-democracy protesters outside Toronto's Union Station. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

Maria Leung was just a few years old when her father decided to whisk her and her family away from Hong Kong and bring them to Canada — but even a world away, worry over the fate of the city where she was born remains with her.

It was the mid-1990s and the city that had been under British colonial rule for 156 years was about to be handed back to the People's Republic of China.

The promise: one country, two systems. It was an arrangement that in theory would allow the approximately 6.5 million people of Hong Kong to hold on to freedoms otherwise not accessible in mainland China, such as an independent judiciary.

Under the terms of the agreement, Hong Kong would be guaranteed the right to retain its own legal and political system for 50 years from the time of the handover. 

At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong reverted back to Chinese rule.

Leung's father didn't want any part of it.

"My dad decided, 'You know what, before that even happens, just move. Just get out of here,'" she recalls.

Kill the bill entirely, say demonstrators

It's a story familiar to many Canadians of Hong Kong origin, who immigrated during that time of uncertainty, when it wasn't clear what daily life might look with the new system. In 1994, migration from Hong Kong peaked with 48,000 people moving from the city to Canada.

Less than 25 years later, fear over China's tightening grip over the city has prompted hundreds of thousands in Hong Kong to take to the streets in protest, making headlines around the world. 
Tens of thousands of protesters carried posters and banners through the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the extradition bill. (Associated Press/Kin Cheung)

The latest demonstrations, which saw a group of protesters shatter glass to break into Hong Kong's legislative building — condemned by China as "violent" and "serious illegal attacks" — came in response to a proposed amendment to an extradition law that would allow for suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial there.

Police meanwhile, used tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators, sparking criticism they were too heavy handed. 

This week, after months of protest, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam deemed the bill "dead," saying the government's work on the legislation had been a "total failure." 

But that's little comfort to Mimi Lee, who on Thursday, set up a "Lennon Wall" outside Toronto's Union Station to show demonstrators in Hong Kong "they're not alone."

'A very empty promise'

It's a colourful display of sticky notes for passersby to write messages of support to those protesting in the city — inspired by a wall in Prague dedicated to the memory of John Lennon during the Velvet Revolution against communist rule. One like it became a fixture during Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests in 2014.

Lee says Lam must do much more than just declare the extradition bill dead.

"She has to say it will be withdrawn," she said. "That's the word, we need that word."

I'm Chinese and I understood freedom after I came here.- Lydia Zhang

Like many, Lee wants to see Hong Kong's government put the final nail in the bill to make sure it can't be brought back. Until that happens, she worries extradition to China might not be off the table.

"We know the two Michaels from Canada, what happened to them," she said, referring to detained businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig, in Chinese custody since December 2018. "There's no concrete evidence of anything and they got detained."

Kenny Yu, who moved to Canada from Hong Kong six months ago, isn't convinced either.

"I don't know how the world perceives the message that the bill is dead, but from my point of view ... it is actually a very rubbish idea," Yu said. "This is something that's a very empty promise to us."
On July 1, protesters smashed glass doors and windows to break into the parliament chamber of Legislative Council Complex. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

'Taking away our freedom'

Among others who turned out to the Lennon Wall in Toronto Thursday was Lydia Zhang.

Zhang has been in Canada 12 years and says she was inspired to stop to write a message of support for the pro-democracy movement because of her experience living in mainland China.
The colourful display of sticky notes for passersby to write messages of support to those protesting in the city was inspired by a wall in Prague dedicated to the memory of John Lennon during the Velvet Revolution against communist rule, and became a fixture during Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests in 2014. (Kelda Yuen/CBC )

"I'm Chinese and I understood freedom after I came here. Looking back to my country and then knowing it is important for them to speak up for what is right, what is wrong ... It's not that authority equals right." 

The concern for Lee and many others watching the developments in Hong Kong from their home in Canada is that the city where they were born will soon just be a memory, with the rights and freedoms they remember lost to China's iron-clad rule. 

For Leung, who came to Canada as a child just before the handover, it's that worry that made her stop to show her support.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.