Over 120,000 Hong Kong nationals have moved to the UK after the British government opened a five-year visa programme in response to new security laws introduced by the Chinese in Hong Kong last year.
Britain accused China of breaking the terms of the agreement under which the former colony was handed back to Beijing in 1997.
One of those to make the move is Lucifer Cheung, and earlier this year he opened Asgard Groceries, a new shop on Stamford New Road in Altrincham town centre.
Mike Gaughan spoke to him about his reasons for leaving Hong Kong, and how he was settling into his new home.
ALTRINCHAM TODAY: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your store.
LUCIFER CHEUNG: I’m from Hong Kong, obviously, actually I’m from Tuen Mun of the New Territories, which a north-west region in Hong Kong geographically, so it amuses me that we have moved from the North-West of Hong Kong to the North-West of England!
AT: What is the idea behind the name of the store?
LC: It’s from one of the lines of a Marvel film which talks about the God Thor and his home – which is Asgard. In one of the scenes, he sees his father, Oden, and Oden says “Asgard is not a place, it is where the people are”. I think this idea resembles the situation of Hongkongers, as many of us have to leave our home. Maybe for decades. For most of us we cannot easily go back to Hong Kong, or we will face jail. We left our home, but the people matter.
AT: When did you leave Hong Kong and who did you travel to the UK with?
LC: I left Hong Kong last February with my girlfriend and her family. My step-parents are still in Hong Kong.
AT: Why did you leave?
LC: Because I was a civil servant and worked for the government. After the National Security Law was passed, we were forced to take a vow for the government, to pledge our loyalty to the government, which doesn’t make sense in a civilised society, where civil servants are supposed to work for the people, not for the government. If the government wants us to fight against our own people, we would have to do it.
I said no, this is not rational, we get paid from taxpayers’ money so we are supposed to answer to people, not the government. Which is worse in HK’s case as the government is not even elected, they are selected by Beijing. I said no, this is not what I signed up for – working for the people, not fighting them. This is why I left my job. So yeah, I took a huge leap of faith and took a fresh start here.
AT: I can see that you sell an eclectic mix of products, can you tell me more about what you sell?
LC: In some sense my shop is divided into two areas. Half of it is groceries from Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan, Korea and Japan. We are trying to promote to the ever-growing HK population and a taste of home, as well as to promote our culture to the neighbourhood and show them what HK people actually eat and drink in their daily lives.
The other half of the shop is protest related. The reason behind this is that many of us have taken a huge sacrifice, so for the others, the thousands of Hongkongers that were able to make it to the UK safely, I say to them, let’s not forget those who have sacrificed themselves so we could be here.
AT: You live in Sale and own a shop in Altrincham. Why did you choose to begin your new life in Trafford?
LC: When we first came here, we actually knew very little about the UK, so we asked “which is the safest place to live in Manchester?”. I think this is the most Googled question in Hong Kong for the people that would like to move to the UK! We had so little information about the UK – for me personally this is the first time I have stepped foot on UK soil, and I will be spending decades here! So no, most of us don’t know England very much, we just Googled what the safest place is, and as Trafford has a relatively low crime rate in Greater Manchester, we decided to come here!
Our families also looked for properties near the Metrolink, because many Hongkongers don’t know how to drive, so we must survive within walking distance of a Metrolink station.
AT: What have been the biggest challenges of moving to the UK?
LC: I would say the biggest barrier has been the language. Most Hongkongers know how to speak English, but that English is not the English here. We follow the textbooks, and say “How are you”, and “I’m fine thank you”, but actually this is not how we do it here in Manchester. We say “Hiya, Y’alright!”. I thought, how am I supposed to answer that? Am I supposed to say “I am fine, and you?” No, most of the time that isn’t the case; that isn’t how English works in Greater Manchester. So, yes, I think the language is one challenge.
The lifestyle is also completely different. When I first came here, I Googled, what is council tax, why is it so expensive. What is it for? Is this a regular thing? Is this a one-off thing? We don’t have that or something similar back in Hong Kong. So I said no, I don’t know what that is! So, yes, it is a lot to take in – it’s completely different. So, the culture and the language are new to many Hongkongers who have moved here recently.
AT: What was it like to live through the protest movement in Hong Kong?
LC: The tension was so high. People on the internet said that if we did not protest this time, Hong Kong would be lost. We were so nervous. You feel like the pressure is squeezing you in. We had a lot on our shoulders.
On the street at the beginning, it was so peaceful. People would ask how they could help, if people wanted drinking water.
But then it went sideways when the police began shooting at us with tear gas. People were crying, shouting, you could see clothes wet from pepper spray on the street, wearing gas masks. This was part of our daily lives in Hong Kong for more than half a year.
AT: When did you know you needed to leave Hong Kong?
LC: I’d say when the National Security Law was passed. On the eve it was passed, I was searching the internet for specific details. I thought “Can they really do that? Can they really extradite people to China? Can you not have an open court?” I thought Hong Kong was under common law! Suddenly, the law says there will be no open court. I thought, is this Hong Kong, is this the international finance centre, is this the famous Hong Kong, the same Hong Kong we have lived in, but no it is not.
The law was passed on July 1st, and on July 2nd the UK government announced a new visa scheme called the BNO visa, which allows us to be here for five years once you get your visa. I said, “let’s do it!”. I had lost my job anyway, so I thought let’s take a fresh start. I thought at least I can be doing something in the UK, where I am safe and free from political prosecution.
AT: What was it like leaving Hong Kong? How did you feel?
LC: The most difficult part was with my mum. If my mum did not cry I thought maybe I could take it. But I saw one of my best friends start crying. I said “don’t look at her” – if I can see them crying, my mother would cry, and everyone would cry.
It was the most emotional part of leaving Hong Kong, because I had to abandon everything I had and start a new life where I have never stepped foot and where I have no idea how things work. So, it was a lot to take, but I have to try and see if I can do something. This voice won the battle in my heart.
AT: What are your hopes for the future?
LC: I think I will stick to protest-related things, and try to tell my fellow Hongkongers to not forget our past and history, and try to tell our story to the neighbourhood. I hope I can do this. In the meantime I would say the most important thing is to not go broke! It is difficult, because I have no experience in setting up a store, so that makes it even more difficult starting up 6,000 miles away. I hope I can manage. I guess the most important thing is not to starve!
Asgard Groceries, Unit B, 1-3 Stamford New Road, Altrincham, WA14 1BD
Photography: Laura Marie Linck