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Parallel lives

My parents immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada and I was born in Toronto. Years later, I moved back to Hong Kong and finally understood what it must have been like for them to immigrate.

Katherine Cheng holds out a photo that documents her family’s journey from Hong Kong to Canada.Katherine Cheng

This First Person column is written by photojournalist Katherine Cheng who is based in Toronto and Hong Kong. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Growing up, the birthplace of my ancestral roots seemed distant to me.

“Hong Kong. 香港. Fragrant Harbour.”

I was the youngest of my family and the only one born in Canada, after my parents immigrated to Toronto in 1990. It was on the other side of the planet, 12 hours ahead during daylight savings time, and my connection to it felt weak.

Growing up in Canadian suburbia, I first got to learn about Hong Kong as a child through the dusty photo albums hidden in an attic. My parents had decided in the mid-1980s to move to Canada in pursuit of the promise of opportunities and a better life for me and my sisters, just as their parents had migrated from a small village in eastern China to Hong Kong.

My parents’ move coincided with a wave of migration in the years leading up to Britain’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to China. For more than 150 years, Hong Kong had been a colony of the British Empire. With uncertainty looming about this impending change, it incited a wave of emigration from Hong Kong. For some, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre stoked fear and exacerbated people’s decision to move.

Flipping through the yellowing 4x6 memories and one-inch transparent slides, the lives of my family in Hong Kong seemed unrecognizable and unrelatable at times. Formal black-and-white posed studio portraits of my parents as children standing stiffly with my grandparents. Later newly married and carefree, not yet burdened by the toll of time. Smiling faces gathered around a round table for shared dinners served from a rotating centre turntable, many of them complete strangers to me.

My own life in Canada must have felt foreign to them at times too, filled with school pizza lunches and dinners at friends’ homes where dishes were passed from hand to hand.

Katherine Cheng’s family has a collection of photos from their time in Hong Kong. (Katherine Cheng)

I. Return

After graduating with a master’s degree, I got the chance to spend some time in Hong Kong to visit some family as I worked remotely. Up until that point, I was only able to sneak in visits during my summer breaks in between school. Those two months turned into two years as life in Hong Kong captivated me.

Katherine Cheng snapped this photo of a sign displaying “We love HK” on a building on the same evening that the National Security Law was passed on June 30, 2020. Hong Kong had become home for her over the course of two years. (Katherine Cheng)

It was a decision that would forever change my relationship to Hong Kong.

In 2019, protests broke out across Hong Kong following the introduction of legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminals back to mainland China.

The demonstrations had quickly evolved into a greater movement calling for democracy and police accountability, fuelled by an underlying current of political and cultural tensions between mainland China and Hong Kong given its status under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.

Though my parents did not like to talk about the past extensively, their memories of the 1967 riots and 1989 protests in Hong Kong surfaced occasionally in conversations comparing current events.

In 1967, demonstrations that started out as a minor labour dispute quickly escalated into large-scale protests against British colonial rule. My dad and his parents lived right across the street from where the initial demonstrations began at a plastic factory. My grandfather worked at the time at a nearby factory that produced headbands.

But whenever I would ask my dad about these memories, he’d say, “It’s no longer our business.”

Throughout searches of my family’s archives, I have found only a single image in the photo albums that documented the entirety of these experiences. Their use of expensive film to capture a moment other than a family memory hinted at their shock and the significance of the events.

The years of 1989 and 2019 in Hong Kong saw massive pro-democracy and human rights protests across the city. The first was a response to the Tiananmen Square massacre while the second was triggered by a proposed extradition bill. The image on the left was the sole image of the protests that Cheng found in her family’s photo albums, while the image on the right was taken by her on the six-month anniversary of the 2019 protests.

Feeling the same sense of disbelief and responsibility in now capturing the 21st-century movement, I wanted to stay and document as many of the protests, press conferences, and police arrests as I could.

Though the shell of the city appeared virtually unchanged on the surface during weekdays, it felt as if a perpetual shadow hung over the city. People went to work and shopped for groceries, but they did it amid a backdrop of spray-painted protest slogans. On weekends, tension between protesters and police would erupt on those same streets, growing at a scale and speed that nobody expected, until the city was no longer recognizable. As a burgeoning photographer, I became acutely aware of the historical significance of each day, with graffiti being washed away and posters ripped down on a daily basis. Each click of the camera felt like the only way to archive a moment before it would be inevitably erased by a bucket of white paint.

This was one of the earliest photographs Katherine Cheng took of the protests in Hong Kong in 2019. She was looking on from a nearby cafe when tensions erupted as protesters passed a police station. This moment motivated her to extend her stay as a photojournalist in the city. (Katherine Cheng)

These physical displays of tension peaked with “sieges” at local universities, resulting in a citywide blanket of tear gas residue and broken glass. History quickly took another sharp turn as a national security law in 2020 transformed modern rallies into court trials and COVID-19 lockdowns turned into a global pandemic. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the protests suddenly felt like a fever dream.

Reeling from the aftershock of a tumultuous year and struggling to process all that had happened, I found that I had inadvertently built up new memories and connections of my own, twisted together with the myths from my family’s memories. Living among the restaurants, parks, and streets that I had grown up hearing stories of, the framed photos of my childhood had come to life. The office building where my parents met for the first time. The hospital where my mom walked during labour to give birth to my sister when she couldn’t catch a taxi. The shipdock where my dad first set foot to be a sailor. These were the physical markers of my family’s history that I hadn’t known I was missing from my Canadian upbringing.

These same streets would be the ones where I would be tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, where I would meet friends for dinner and where I would film late into the night. In two short years that felt like an eternity, I realized that Hong had become my home — and not just my parents’.

images expandClockwise from top left, a media liaison from the police force wearing a gas mask urges the media to stand back from the road, protesters carrying a banner with a slogan that has since been banned march down a major street in Hong Kong, two people look up at a display of Hong Kong and Chinese flags on the 2021 National Day of the People’s Republic of China, and a police officer puts up tape restricting access to a banned annual Tiananmen Square vigil in 2021.

II. Return again

In October 2021, I decided it was time to return home to Canada to reunite with my family whom I hadn’t seen for over two years.

Katherine Cheng snapped this image at the airport on the day she left Hong Kong in 2021. (Katherine Cheng)

As I checked in my bags, I realized I was witnessing a second historical mass exodus from the city as Hongkongers left for other shores. It had begun with the 2019 protests and continued throughout the pandemic. Tearful families filled up an otherwise empty airport with their packed belongings, saying final goodbyes at the airport.

It felt as if I was travelling back in time and witnessing the departure of my own family three decades earlier, the first of their generation to make the move overseas.

Looking out onto the tarmac, I thought about the new memories and trauma I experienced in this coastal city, finding a second home along the way. I thought about the young parents leaving behind elderly grandparents, uncertain of when or if they will see each other again. The separated friends and couples, exiled students and scattered families.

I saw my own family’s experiences of migration awaiting them, my childhood in the fate of their future children.

Landing back at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I arrived home in a country that felt oddly unfamiliar, filtered by a heavy presence of the ongoing global pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian sentiment.

Cheng’s family snapped the left-hand photo of Toronto’s Chinatown in the 1990s shortly after they immigrated to Canada. Cheng saw the same neighbourhood with a fresh lens after she retraced her parents’ journey.

Witnessing the turmoil in Hong Kong and then making the decision to leave has changed how I see my family and their own experience of moving across the world in hopes of a safer and more stable life. I gained a new appreciation for the sacrifices that they made. The familiarity that they gave up. The comfort of walking into a room speaking your own language, and not having to worry about being treated as a second-class citizen. The small joys of being able to walk across the street to have dinner with your family, rather than waiting years for a few days of reunion.

images expandImages from Katherine Cheng’s family photo albums document the last few years of her parents and sisters in Hong Kong and their first few years of living in Canada. From left clockwise, Cheng’s dad experiences his first Canadian winter, Cheng’s sister in front of an airport gate heading to Hong Kong after a regional family trip, Cheng’s family celebrates her dad’s 46th birthday, Cheng’s older sisters and cousin play in the snow.

When I returned from Hong Kong, my mom said she could finally breathe because I was safe. But she also revealed how much she missed the city. She shared that from the moment she first stepped foot off the plane, she had previously dreamed of one day returning home to Hong Kong. Now, it no longer seemed possible.

After a couple of months of slowly adjusting to life back in Toronto, I decided to sift through the same photo albums and slides once more. And this time, they didn’t feel like strangers. It felt as if I was seeing my family’s history through new eyes.

Life in a new home, running parallel throughout history.

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