men a bustling park cafe in Colchester on a sunny November day, a chatty group of women is busy serving up Hong Kong delicacies (milk tea, pineapple scones, noodles) to a steady stream of local customers.
They are not paid staff, but volunteers, honing their English skills and accumulating experience for their résumés, and they are here in this sleepy Essex town because each one of them made the drastic decision to leave their homeland of Hong Kong and start a new life in the UK.
More than 130,000 Hong Kongers made that leap in the first 18 months after the government opened up a special visa program last January in response to the increasingly authoritarian political climate in the former British territory.
That’s a significant collective migration: for comparison, the highest number of citizens arriving in the UK in a single year from the EU8 accession countries of Poland, Hungary etc. was 112,000 in 2007.
Christy Lee, 53, left over concerns about her daughter’s future. “Hong Kong’s chaos is famous chaos,” she says, referring to waves of pro-democracy protests in recent years as Beijing has tightened its grip.
She feared that her daughter could fall victim to the draconian security law passed in 2020. “My daughter is at a dangerous age,” she says. “They grab you, they put something in your bag and then they accuse you. As a mother, I had to find a way for her to run away.”
The couple first moved to Taiwan, before coming to England when Lee’s daughter won a place to study at the University of Essex.
In all, experts expect some 300,000 people to come from Hong Kong under the scheme. British National (Overseas) was a special category made available to Hong Kongers after the territory was returned to Beijing in 1997.
Status holders were already entitled to a British passport; but under the visa scheme introduced by then Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in 2020, they can apply to come to the UK, either for two and a half years or five years, and can then apply to become permanent residents.
The decision to open the visa route came as relations with Beijing worsened significantly, halting a charm offensive during which former foreign minister George Osborne vowed in 2015 that Britain would “stick together” with China and “create a decade gold for both of us.” countries”.
Rishi Sunak was expected to use a meeting with President Xi Jinping this week to initiate a rapprochement; but it was canceled amid the chaos over the missile attack in Poland.
Heather Rolfe, of the British Future think tank, which has researched newcomers for an umbrella group called the Hong Kongers Welcome Committee, says most of them have no intention of returning.
“The most important thing is that they want their children to grow up British,” she says. They are here to stay, indefinitely, unless things change drastically in Hong Kong.”
“Raising children in a different environment is really important to them,” she adds. “That is what is behind the interest in settling in areas with good and outstanding schools.” She cites Sutton and Kingston in London, Trafford and Warrington in the North West of England, and Solihull in the West Midlands as popular destinations.
Here in Colchester, another volunteer, Iris Yip, 46, has opened an online bakery, churning out little mooncakes and other treats, alongside her shifts in the cafeteria.
“In Hong Kong, I was an accountant and baking was just my interest. And then I found it was easy for me to apply for a home bakery license in the UK, so I started my online shop,” she says.
Like Lee, when asked why she moved to the UK, she mentions her children’s future. “I have two daughters, they are 13 and 11 years old. I think it’s dangerous for them to grow up in Hong Kong,” she says.
She and her family made the quick decision to leave, opting for Colchester because a close friend, with children the same age as her, was also going there. “We arrived in Colchester the same day,” she says, adding, “both my sons enjoy school life – it’s very friendly”.
The coffee project is run by Kitty Ng, 49, who is also involved in organizing a number of other activities to help Hong Kongers integrate into the local community, with the help of £30,000 of funding. governmental.
Language classes and cultural events are offered through an online Hong Kong welcome center for Essex, which also includes jobs and volunteer opportunities.
“It’s very difficult for Hong Kong people to find work here,” Ng says, citing his own experience. “I worked at a university for 15 years, I also studied in the UK: but when I got here, a lot of people asked me, ‘what is your experience in the UK?’”
She hopes the coffee shifts can help. “We have six or seven volunteers. We hire new people and we say, ‘Maybe you’ll work here for three months and gain some experience, then go find another job.'”
The government recently announced £6.6m in additional support for projects like this across the UK, as well as a network of virtual welcome centres.
A government spokesperson said: “Our BN(O) Welcome Program supports newcomers through projects that provide skills training, initiatives to find work and start a business, mental health support and a wide range of local events to help BN(O)s settle into their new communities.”
Recent community events here in Colchester, including a mid-autumn festival, have involved the local Chinese community group, despite initial concerns that some members may be sympathetic to Beijing.
“They are Chinese from different countries: Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore. Some of them came to the UK over 40 years ago – they know the culture here,” says Ng.
Lee echoes Ng’s concerns about having a hard time finding a job. She hopes that the experience and, more importantly, the language skills gained at the café will help. “I can practice my English better, become more fluent,” she says. “I enjoy it, I keep talking, talking.”
As with many exiles from warmer climes, the weather is a frequent topic of conversation. Ng chose not to return to Bristol, where he studied many years ago, because he says, “Bristol is too windy. All week, wind and rain.”
Lee has spent some time in Warrington in recent months, where another community of Hong Kongers has sprung up, but he did not enjoy the humid northwest climate. “It’s always raining, raining, and even when it’s not raining, the floor is all wet,” he complains.
Throughout the afternoon, the food keeps arriving on the tables: neat little chicken pies, buttered French toast, pineapple shortbread cookies. “Food is a very good entry into our culture,” says Ng.
The idea of volunteering came from a relationship he struck up with the café’s charismatic co-director, Pepi Sánchez, who runs a local community garden, along with this social enterprise, called GO4 Café, located in a former sports arena in the park.
Sanchez had already been using the cafe to train local people with learning difficulties or mental health issues in hospitality. After meeting Ng and his plans, he extended the same principle to newcomers when they find themselves in a strange country.
“I want to give them a little community base, so everyone can feel safe and not be afraid to say what they want,” he says.