huan-06.jpg Huen Lam checks her camera at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2024.
amity-11 Amity Chan shows off her artwork in her makeshift bedroom in Washington, D.C., March. 8, 2024.
fraances-48 Frances Hui prays at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2024.
baggio-25 Baggio Leung streams his stock market advice program to YouTube from his apartment in North Bethesda, Maryland, Feb. 23, 2024.

Five years after a summer of protest,
Hong Kong exiles are still rebuilding their lives

Four expats watch from afar as China tightens its grip on a city they love.

June 7, 2024

By Jim Snyder, Amelia Loi and Gemunu Amarasinghe for RFA

As she stood across the street from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Washington, D.C., Frances Hui couldn’t quite suppress a smile, despite the bounty on her head.

“Behind this building is a regime that is still actively trying to hunt activists down,” said Hui, who grew up in Hong Kong but now lives in the U.S. capital. “One of them is me.”

In her spare time, Hui, 24, attends church, sings Hong Kong love songs, and makes YouTube videos from a bed crowded with stuffed animals – not typical behaviors of a hardened criminal.

Her offense, according to Hong Kong security police, had been to criticize Beijing’s increasingly tight hold over her hometown, including through national security laws that have expansive definitions for things like treason, subversion and collusion with foreign powers. Last December police added Hui’s name to its most wanted list and put out the HK $1 million (US $128,074) reward for her return.

Hui’s smile – a version of which can also be seen in her photo on the most wanted poster – reflected the “weird” circumstances of the immediate situation. (She was protesting outside the economic office building on World Press Freedom Day to draw attention to new restrictions on speech in Hong Kong. “I mean, they have a camera right there,” she said, pausing to turn around.)

The smile also serves as a way to cope with the suddenness, and completeness, in which her life has changed.

Hong Kong democracy activist Frances Hui stands outside the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Washington, D.C., during a protest to mark World Press Freedom Day, May 2, 2024.

Five years ago this month, more than 1 million residents took to the streets to protest a plan to extradite Hong Kongers to mainland China. Critics viewed the proposal as a further merging of Hong Kong with China, despite Beijing’s “one country, two systems” pledge when Great Britain handed over its former colony in 1997.

By June 12, a crackdown on the protests had begun, even though freedom of speech and expression are protected under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Since then, thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, news outlets and bureaus have shut down (including Radio Free Asia’s), and civil society groups have been disbanded. This March, Beijing tightened the reins further by forcing Hong Kong to adopt a new security law known as Article 23, a reference to the amended section of the Basic Law.

In the past five years, many Hong Kongers have fled. RFA spoke with four exiles about their old lives in Hong Kong and their new ones in the United States. They talked about what they were protesting against, the things they miss (good barbecue pork), and what they worry about.

Only Hui has been granted asylum. The three other cases are pending, though they don’t face deportation until February 2025 thanks to a program called the Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED, for Hong Kongers that President Biden initiated in response to the 2019 crackdown.

What they don’t discuss are their relatives and friends back home, other than in general terms of how they’re trying to cope with their absences. National security laws mean people believed to have aided activists – by giving, say, $50 as a birthday present – could be harassed by authorities and even imprisoned.

As “Baggio” Leung, a pro-democracy advocate who now lives outside of Washington, put it: “It’s hard to know where the red line is.” Better then, he said, to sever ties altogether.

‘All of a sudden these freedoms became illegal’

fraances-56 Frances Hui speaks on the implications of Hong Kong’s Article 23 national security legislation outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2024.
fraances-26 Frances Hui and fellow Hong Kongers enjoy their monthly gathering in Bethesda, Maryland, Jan. 13, 2024.
fraances-17 Frances Hui shares her Washington, D.C., apartment with her cats, Tiger and Hazel, Jan. 13, 2024.
fraances-37 Frances Hui at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2024.


Hui always planned to come to the United States. She wanted to study journalism, work in Washington for a few years and then return home as a foreign correspondent in a city where a free press flourished.

As a student at Emerson College in Boston, Hui wrote a column for the campus paper in April 2019 called “I am from Hong Kong, not China.” In it, she criticized the extradition proposal and explained why she felt Hong Kongers were different from Chinese mainlanders.

The piece went viral, and the reaction was swift and, at times, threatening. The Washington Post profiled her. She used her new platform to help lead efforts to organize solidarity protests around the world.

In November 2019, Hui returned home and volunteered to help cover the protests for the online outlet Truth Media Hong Kong. She returned again in March and stayed for a few months. But friends warned her she would be one of the first people arrested if she stayed, so at 21, she made a life-altering decision to leave.

She has since become a forceful and thoughtful advocate for the cause and is a popular witness before congressional panels. In May, she said the Hong Kong trade office was an “outpost” for spying and should be shut down in testimony before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington denied the charge.

Hui’s poise, like her smile, covers a deep sadness. She says she’s often lonely and feels more introverted here, careful not to share too much of herself for fear the other person may not share her views.

She misses the opportunity to grow and mature along with the friends she grew up with. Her family will miss the big moments to come, like marriage and children.

“Not being able to share a life with them, it’s really difficult.”

But while she sometimes questions her decision, she also knows life in Hong Kong wouldn’t be comfortable for her either, given the restrictions on expression.

“I think a lot of the people who are in jail right now, they're accidental activists for freedom,” she said. “All they want to do is use … the rights that they have been guaranteed and that they have been practicing using for a long time for years since they were born. All of a sudden these freedoms became illegal.”

‘There’s a sense of longing’

huan-01 Huen Lam, who once volunteered for a pro-democracy candidate for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, is seen at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2024.
huan-09 Huen Lam walks along the Tidal Basin amid blossoming cherry trees in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2024.


In her former world, Huen Lam, 25, might be seeing patients right now.

Lam’s aspiration as a student in Hong Kong was to work as a psychologist. After she graduated from college in 2020, she got a job as an assistant at a clinic near Victoria Harbor.

She was walking home from the interview, she said, when she first noticed someone behind her. For months after, she kept noticing someone following her – not always the same person, but always the same type. Short hair. Dark suit. Conspicuous.

“At first I thought it was, you know, perverts,” Lam said. “But it happened more and more. I didn’t think there could be that many perverts around.”

Worn down by the stress of being followed by what she soon assumed were Hong Kong security police and scared she’d eventually be arrested, Lam left for the United States. She also managed to get her mother and her younger brother out (she doesn’t want to say where they ended up, but they aren’t with her in the United States.)

Lam had grown up in a Hong Kong where protests were not uncommon. She has vague memories of demonstrations in 2002 against initial efforts to limit speech through national security law, an early effort to pass Article 23 and for protesters a rare success.

In 2012, demonstrators rallied against curriculum changes that would promote “patriotic education.” Lam attended university lectures to learn about the different points of view.

In 2014, as the Umbrella protests called for universal suffrage, Lam was old enough to take part in the discussions. Her high school allowed students to skip class and made the auditorium available for debate.

In 2019, Lam joined the demonstrators. But as she was never arrested, she believes it was her work as a volunteer for a pro-democracy candidate for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that put her on the security force’s radar.

She arrived in the U.S. in July 2021, but trauma followed her here. Unable to work without an employment permit, she kept to herself mostly in an apartment in the Washington suburbs. She worried over her future and a friend who had been arrested in September.

“I was dealing with anxiety about the future and guilt of leaving,” she said. “I have friends who are in jail who I won't be able to see anymore.”

She now works as a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Democracy Council, an advocacy group, and has a photography business on the side. She’s applied for asylum. As she waits, likely years, for her case to be resolved, she’s able to work and stay in the United States due to DED.

Huen Lam visits the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., March 30, 2024.

She misses the food and the subway trains that run later and more frequently back home. Men didn’t constantly ask where she was from.

She’s considering going back to school for psychology though the prospect seems daunting. In Hong Kong, she could practice with a master’s, but here she’d need a Ph.D. But she’d like to help other people like her: exiles dealing with a particular source of trauma that she knows intimately.

“There’s a huge need in the Hong Kong community,” she said. “I always felt like Hong Kong was my home, but it doesn’t really hit until you leave.

“There’s a sense of longing.”

‘OK. I’m still living’

Former Hong Kong legislator Baggio Leung waves a flag during the annual DC Dragon Boat Festival on the Potomac River in Washington, May 18, 2024.


As the violence escalated in 2019, Leung helped to organize a make-shift ambulance service to ferry wounded protesters to improvised emergency rooms.

“A lot of protesters would not dare go to the hospital for treatment even though they are injured” because of police stationed there, he said.

They also created ride-share groups so people wouldn’t be stranded at places if authorities shut down public transportation access to sites where they had gathered.

When demonstrators occupied the airport, and police shut down buses and trains that served it in response, so many Hong Kongers responded that they created a traffic jam.

“It was a very touching moment that we Hong Kongers shared our solidarity toward the same direction,” he said.

Bespectacled and rail thin, Leung, 38, doesn’t give off an immediate impression of rabble-rouser. But in 2015, worried that Hong Kong was coming deeper under Beijing’s control, he helped found a political party called Youngspiration that advocated for independence. And his first act as a newly elected member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council in 2016 was one of defiance.

At his swearing in, Leung draped a flag with the words “Hong Kong is Not China” over his shoulders, an act for which he was later stripped of his office. He was later arrested when he tried to attend a legislative hearing.

In 2020, he spent four weeks in jail. On his release, like Lam, Leung noticed that he was being followed by what he suspected were security officials. Believing his next arrest would lead to a longer imprisonment, he fled to Washington, where he immediately announced he was severing ties with family and friends back home and stepping down from any involvement in his political party.

dragon-boat-race-04-blur.jpg Frances Hui, Baggio Leung and fellow Hong Kongers who are taking part in the race at the annual DC Dragon Boat Festival in Washington walk to the starting point, May 18, 2024. RFA has blurred the face of one participant to protect their privacy.
baggio-09 Baggio Leung walks a dog in Bethesda, Maryland, Feb. 23, 2024.
baggio-02 Baggio Leung streams his stock market advice program to YouTube from his apartment in North Bethesda, Maryland, Feb. 23, 2024.

The United Kingdom has pledged to offer residency for 3 million Hong Kongers, a nod to its historic connection to the city. Hong Kong residents born before 1997 can stay for five years on a British National (Overseas), or BNO, passport, when they become eligible for permanent residency. The U.K. government later extended it to the children of passport holders born after 1997.

But Leung chose a harder path in part because of a gnawing “survivor’s guilt” and a desire to continue his advocacy. With its greater global influence, the United States was the better place to do it, he reasoned.

He’s applied for asylum and is eligible to work. But with the question of residency hanging over his head, he said there’s little likelihood he could find work in marketing, his profession back home. He instead earns money by trading commodities, as he works with the State Department to try to help activists still back home.

In the YouTube videos he makes, he provides trading tips rather than political opinions. There’s also a particular, unspoken message for his friends and family.

“I know they are suffering, but I don’t know how to help,” he said, in reference to his absence. “The only thing that I can do is to record some YouTube videos daily … to let people know, ‘OK. I’m still living and to not worry.’”

‘Do you want to die?’

amity-05 Amity Chan, an artist who supported Hong Kong protesters, is seen at The Phillips Collection gallery during an exhibition in Washington, D.C., Feb. 13, 2024.
amity-17 Amity Chan sits in the living room of the two-bedroom apartment she shares with two other women in Washington, D.C., March. 8, 2024. Her bedroom is behind the curtain.


Amity Chan watched the protests from afar as a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Not particularly politically active but angered by the scenes of police beating protesters, she created a “Lennon Wall” to give herself and other students a chance to show solidarity with the movement.

“I couldn’t participate in person, so I used my own way to show support,” she said.

But there were consequences here, too. The worst was when a group of Chinese students surrounded her on campus as she handed out fliers for a protest in Washington. “They pushed me and said, ‘Do you want to die?’ I ran to campus security. I didn’t get hit. But that experience made me feel very unsafe.”

Chan had come to the United States in 2017 to study. By now, the U.S. feels as much like home as Hong Kong did. It remains an open question, however, if she’ll be allowed to stay.

She’s safe at least until 2025 with the DED extension, but her asylum application, which she filled out herself, was sent to immigration court, sometimes an early sign that an application will be rejected.

She was struck at an immigration hearing watching desperate young mothers who didn’t speak English trying to quiet crying babies out of fear of angering the immigration judge. She called the process “very painful.”

“If I were deported, it would be like kicking me out of my home,” she said.

Chan now has an attorney helping her. But that’s a $10,000 expense. She can’t ask her parents for help because it would put them in jeopardy. She saves money by living in the main room of a two-bedroom apartment with three other young women outside of Washington, a sheet hung for privacy.

She works at a local gallery and her financial situation is improving. Chan also can use its studio for her own work, which continues to have a political edge. During the protest she made a print screen of yellow handcuffs on a cherry red background to represent the Chinese government.

“I hope people from other countries will understand the situation in Hong Kong better. Now Hong Kong is no longer on the front page of mainstream media, but there are still people oppressed by the government, and there are still many people who are jailed or going through trial.

“I hope that through my art work, people can better understand the situation of Hong Kong people and care about the situation of immigrants.”

Amity Chan displays artwork she created in Washington, D.C., March. 8, 2024.

Photos by Gemunu Amarasinghe
Edited by Boer Deng, Mat Pennington
Produced by Gemunu Amarasinghe, Charlie Dharapak, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
© 2024 RFA
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