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'Impossible to have a reasoned conversation at home': Canadians in Hong Kong split over protests

With Hong Kong in a fight for its heart and soul, Canadians living there are finding themselves forced to pick sides and in some cases hoping the crisis doesn't tear their families apart.

Most Canadians interviewed sympathize with pro-democracy demonstrators

'It becomes impossible to have a reasoned conversation at home because emotions are just so high,' said a Canadian professional in Hong Kong, named Robbie. He insisted on wearing a mask and using only his first name because much of his extended family disagrees with him. (CBC)

With Hong Kong in a fight for its heart and soul, Canadians living there are finding themselves forced to pick sides and in some cases hoping the crisis doesn't tear their families apart.

Annie Ng, who grew up in Toronto, says she's tried to stay neutral as protesters have staged almost daily events aimed at exerting pressure on Hong Kong's government.

Still, she says she can't agree with their tactics or their main concern that freedoms in Hong Kong are being slowly eroded.

"I don't think the Chinese government will make Hong Kong worse,  as it's still an important city in China that attracts a lot of investors from the world," she told CBC News in an interview.

"I am optimistic about the future."

Ng was born in Shanghai, moved to Hong Kong as a child and then emigrated to Canada as a teenager. Her fluency in Mandarin and Cantonese led her back to Hong Kong, and over the past 19 years she says she has worked for many U.S. and foreign companies.

Nonetheless,  she is concerned about the toll that almost three months of unrest continues to take on her family.

A protester holds a sign reading 'God bless Hong Kong' during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Thursday. High school students thronged a downtown square to debate political reforms. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

She's closer to it than many — her husband is a Hong Kong police officer. And she's especially worried about the impact on her five-year-old daughter.

"When she watched the news, when she sees the violence created by the protesters, she is worried about her daddy," Ng told CBC News in an interview in Hong Kong.

"I also worry about it in the future," she says. Ng worries about possible reactions "from classmates who might be against her if they know her daddy is a policeman."

The conduct of the city's police force has been among the most scrutinized and fiercely debated aspects of the crisis.

One of the key demands by the groups behind the giant rallies in the city is an apology from the city's police for employing what they say are rough tactics, especially the repeated tear gassing of protesters.

They also accuse Hong Kong's police force of enforcing selective justice,  in some cases by letting pro-China gangs attack and injure pro-democracy members instead of intervening and helping them.

Ng says she and her husband don't talk about his job at home,  but she believes when protesters, dressed in black and waving laser pointers, appear about to attack police stations, the police have to do something.

Over 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong

Officially, more than 300,000 Canadians are registered as living in Hong Kong but the actual number is thought to be higher. And it's impossible to know how many side with Hong Kong's administration and how many support the pro-democracy movement.

While Ng claims most of her Hong Kong-Canadian friends sympathize with the police and see the protesters as the instigators of the recent spate of violent incidents, most of the Canadians who talked to CBC News in Hong Kong were more aligned with the demonstrators.

Robbie says while he attends many rallies his most important contribution is helping activists protect themselves by buying and giving them military-style protective gear such as knee and arm pads, and even body armour. (CBC)

Some even said their views are splitting apart their families.

"It becomes impossible to have a reasoned conversation at home because emotions are just so high," one Canadian professional named Robbie told us.

He insisted on wearing a mask and only using his first name during the interview as much of his extended family in Hong Kong disagrees with him — especially his wife,  who is originally from mainland China.

'Very close to getting a divorce'

"We have had some serious arguments that we came very close to getting a divorce,"  he said.

"Fortunately we calmed things down. But I know of other families that have not been able to survive this summer of discontent."

He says they have an agreement that he can only go to a pro-democracy demonstration if his wife attends one for the other side.

"Ever since the protest started in June,  we haven't just been on opposite sides of the fence,  we are worlds apart in terms of what should be done and how to handle it."

While the pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong claim to be leaderless, collectively they have issued a list of five demands from Hong Kong's administration, including greater political freedoms and forever killing legislation that could in theory extends China's justice system into the territory.

Robbie, who is originally from eastern Ontario,  moved to Hong Kong over a decade ago. He and his wife have two elementary-school-aged children.

Seeking a 'stable society'

He says he understands how his wife and her family feel about the situation in Hong Kong,  but can't agree with them.

"They remember the chaos that came about in China during times of political unrest, and they feel that a strong and stable society where everyone knows their place and goes to work and makes money is the ideal that all Hong Kongers should drive for."

He says they feel the younger generation — which makes up a disproportionately large share of the protesters — is destroying everything they have worked to build.

Robbie says while he attends many rallies his most important contribution is helping activists protect themselves by buying and giving them military-style protective gear such as knee and arm pads and even body armour.

He says the experience has helped foster "an intense feeling of belonging and solidarity" and deepened his relationship with his adopted city.

Artist and teacher Rachel Smith, who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years,  sympathizes with the demonstrators. 'I think it's important to engage with where you're living," she said. (CBC)

Many Canadians, especially non-Asians, have also had to confront the question of whether the unfolding fight over Hong Kong's future is really even their battle to take on.

Artist and teacher Rachel Smith,  who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years, said the answer is absolutely, yes.

"I think it's important to engage with where you're living," she said in an interview in her Kowloon art studio,  where she paints portraits and teaches classes.

'I care about what's happening'

"I'm not very interested in just being a tourist here. I care about what's happening. My family is affected by this.  The people that I know and love are in Hong Kong and the city that I know and love is affected by it."

Smith, who grew up in southwestern Ontario, moved to the city after marrying her Hong Kong-born husband.

She says she sympathizes with the demonstrators' calls for less interference from China and has seen the tension building for many years.

"This has been coming for a very long time."

Demonstrators fear a trap

In the aftermath of last weekend's giant million-people rally, Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, offered a dialogue with some of the protesters and other groups.

But the outreach stopped short of promising a full, independent investigation into the conduct of police, prompting many demonstrators to reject it as being a trap.

Smith, too, is critical of how Hong Kong's administration has dealt with the unrest.

"People are angry.  Ask them, why? Maybe have a conversation."

She says people back home often ask her if it's safe in Hong Kong and when she's going to pack up and leave the city.

Her answer is, maybe never.

"We can't just abandon everything we've set up here. We can't just abandon our family and our friends."

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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