As It Happens

Toronto family on vacation in Hong Kong 'hunker down' as protests rock city

James Tse and his family have been in Hong Kong on vacation since Aug. 8, just one day before massive protests took over the airport.

'There are riot police in groups going down our street' says James Tse

Toronto photographer James Tse and his son, Fallon in Hong Kong. (Submitted by James Tse)


James Tse's family trip to Hong Kong to visit relatives has turned into a "watch, listen and avoid, kind of vacation." 

The Toronto photographer, his wife and their two children arrived in the city on Aug. 8, just one day before protests started at the Hong Kong International Airport. They are set to leave on Aug. 14. 

Flights were cancelled for the second day on Tuesday, after violent clashes broke out between police and anti-government protesters in the airport. 

The city is in its 10th week of unrest, as people take to the streets to protest allegations of police violence and a now suspended bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. 

On Aug. 8, the federal government raised its travel warning to Hong Kong urging Canadians to exercise "a high degree of caution" because of the escalating protests in the city.

Tse spoke with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about what it's been like in the city, and how he's explaining the protests to his young children. Here is part of their conversation. 

This was meant to be a family holiday in Hong Kong, James, and I suspect it's turned into something else. 

It's a bit of a "watch, listen and avoid" kind of vacation. 

James Tse says his wife is nervous about him going out at night to take photos of the protests, but he was able to snap some photos of riot police in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood. (Submitted by James Tse)

Tell me a little bit about what you've seen in the last little while? 

We've been getting updates … on where the protests are going to be in the morning so we can avoid certain areas. 

We've seen riot police in and around our hotel, which is in Tsim Sha Tsui which is like a touristy area in Hong Kong.

You're a photographer. Certainly there have been many dramatic scenes that we've seen unfold. What have you captured with your lens? 

I so want to go out and shoot. But me and my wife have different views on these things and she would rather me stay safe and stay in the hotel. 

Basically I've given in. I've stayed at the hotel in the evening. We come back a little early to the hotel and we hunker down. Maybe eat just a few doors over. 

A police officer sprays pepper spray at anti-government protesters during clashes at the airport in Hong Kong August 13. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

You're worried about being in the thick of it.

We are. Because there are riot police in groups going down our street here.

And I know myself — [from] sneaking out for a little bit the other night — there are obviously groups of riot police in vans, outside of vans, getting ready to be, I guess deployed to whatever direction the protests are taking. 

What's your sense of what [the protesters] are trying to achieve? 

They're fighting for Hong Kong. They're fighting for the freedoms that China's taking away. 

I believe in them and I believe what they're doing. And will they get it? I don't know if they'll get it. China probably will not let them achieve what they're after.

You mentioned how your wife's been feeling. You have children with you too. Your kids are 11 and 8 years old. Are they asking you about what's going on? What are you telling them?

We've been trying to get them up to date on how this all came about. How the process came about in terms of the "one country, two systems" and how Hong Kong wants to keep their freedoms and how China most likely [is] trying to suppress those.

"The only way it doesn't end in violence is if everyone in Hong Kong protests and comes out in mass," says Tse. (Submitted by James Tse)

Not to make light of it, but they're "What I did on my summer vacation" reports, if they still do that in school, is going to be quite remarkable. 

Yeah I know. I'm interested in seeing how they talk about this in a year, two years from now. How they remember it.

I know I was just speaking with them a few minutes ago about it and ... they just don't want anyone to be hurt. That's the main thing.

And they understand that voices aren't being heard. So, you know, the protesters … want everyone to hear their voices so they have to speak a little louder and that's why they're at the airports now. 

Do you feel like you're witnessing a moment in history? 

It's definitely history here and I think it's probably going to be history for the next little bit and probably far, far more ... violent. 

I hope I'm wrong.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


  • An earlier version of this story stated that the federal government raised its travel warning to Hong Kong on the week of Aug. 12 to urge "a high degree of caution." In fact, they raised it the previous week, on Aug. 8.
    Aug 14, 2019 12:04 PM ET


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.