Hong Kongers flock to Taiwan to savor milk tea and freedom

Many head for Hong Kong-run or pro-democracy businesses, as Cantonese is increasingly spoken on Taipei's streets.
By Jojo Man for RFA Cantonese
2023.08.18
Taipei, Taiwan
Hong Kongers flock to Taiwan to savor milk tea and freedom People visit a night market in Taipei, Taiwan, June 29, 2023.
Credit: Chiang Ying-ying/AP

They are flocking to Taiwan, in search of milk tea and freedom.

While Hong Kong recently fell out of favor with tourists from Taiwan, the opposite is true in the other direction, with Hong Kongers making up the largest single group of tourists visiting the island.

When they land, some head straight for night markets and protest-themed cafes, pro-democracy bookshops and other small businesses in the "yellow economic circle" started during the 2019 protest movement.

Others dive into working-class cafes of the kind still ubiquitous in Hong Kong to drink mugs of strong milk tea, tall glasses of iced lemon tea and snack on toast or ham-and-egg sandwiches made with mass-produced, crustless white bread.

Some 420,000 Hong Kongers have made the trip to Taiwan in the first half of the year, 95,000 more than the numbers opting to visit Japan.

From April through June, more than 100,000 were arriving every month.

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New Bloom, a cafe in Taipei, Taiwan, that runs an online magazine and holds events covering youth culture and politics is seen in March 2023. Credit: Ann Wang/Reuters

Wu Hao, who runs the "cdou" Hong Kong-style bar and cafe, whose name means "Lion Fighting" in an apparent reference to the "Lion Rock spirit" invoked by the former British colony in times of trouble, said many of them wind up in his establishment.

"I don't really get it," he said. "They spend two or three hours flying here, just to eat the same food they could get in a Hong Kong-style cafe."

"Some of them emigrated here and now run their own businesses, while others are just visitors from Hong Kong," Wu said. "They talk very freely about everything – a lot of it is about emigrating to Taiwan, and what it's like to live here."

Yellow-themed businesses

Plenty of Hong Kongers have already made the move, braving Taiwan's opaque immigration rules in search of life in an environment that still has the old freedoms they once enjoyed back home.

Others content themselves with making short trips to Taipei's night markets, out to Jioufen village or just hang out in the city's plethora of cute themed coffee shops, as well as spending money at "yellow economic circle" themed businesses.

The color yellow has been associated with the pro-democracy movement since the 2014 umbrella movement, while pro-government and pro-police views are described as "blue."

But since Beijing – which blames the 2019 protests on "hostile foreign forces" seeking to foment a "color revolution" in the city – imposed the national security law, such businesses have been seen as subversive.

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People look at a drink vendor at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan, June 29, 2023. Credit: Chiang Ying-ying/AP

"I hear Cantonese being spoken in every night market I go to," a Hong Kong tourist who gave only the nickname A Fung told Radio Free Asia. "As soon as I'm at a loose end, I fly to Taiwan."

"It's not too expensive, and I feel happy around the traditional Chinese characters," he said, in a reference to the style of Chinese writing used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, rather than the simplified writing style of the Chinese mainland.

Family-friendly

For young families, Taiwan isn't too far away for a short visit.

"The flight's short, and it's fairly easy to take the kids along," a Hong Kong surnamed Tse said.

A Hong Konger who has lived in Taiwan for 10 years, who gave only the nickname Ting Ting, brought their friends to cdou while they were on a business trip from Hong Kong.

"So many Hong Kongers have emigrated to Taiwan to do business, open shops or eateries, and they really wanted to try some of these restaurants," Ting Ting said.

While some may come for the food and the convenience, there's another item that is now on Hong Kongers' itinerary – pro-democracy businesses and protest tourism.

Like David, who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals under a draconian national security law, they make sure to visit and spend money at small businesses with a pro-democracy theme. 

‘Speaking out for freedom’

Like the Chiu Yue Teahouse in Huangdian, decorated throughout with memorabilia of the 2019 protest movement.

"A lot of my friends have left [Hong Kong] for elsewhere now," David said. "So I feel a bit happier if I seek out shops run by people who share my beliefs."

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A tourist poses for photos in a shopping district in Taipei, Taiwan, July 25, 2023. Credit: Ann Wang/Reuters

"I can still see some voices speaking out for freedom here," he said of the teahouse. "It's somewhere you can speak freely and don't have to worry about propaganda, which is a kind of spiritual comfort."

Taiwan's government recently warned its nationals to avoid "provocative" actions and even T-shirts while visiting Hong Kong, which is currently in the throes of a crackdown on public dissent.

Conversely, David enjoys being able to wear whatever he likes during his stay in Taiwan -- without the fear of police attention.

The boss of a Hong Kong-style cafe who gave only the nickname Andy said his restaurant offers Hong Kongers a nostalgic return to the city as it was before the crackdown.

"Why do they eat Hong Kong food when they come to Taiwan? Because they can see stuff here that doesn't exist in Hong Kong any more," Andy said, in a reference to recent changes to the city's electoral system. "Some get quite emotional when they see all of the electoral materials, saying 'that's what Hong Kong used to be like'."

"They all talk to each other, and offer encouragement, and help each other to keep going forward together," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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