How one of the UK’s poorest cities became a haven for Hong Kongers fleeing China

After a rare sunny day in the middle of a gray British winter, around 30 Hongkongers gather for an all-you-can-eat buffet in Blackpool, the city with the highest concentration of deprived neighborhoods in the UK.

Some of them are in the country for months, but most of them only a couple of weeks. To my left sits a middle-aged woman who arrived in Blackpool with her 20-something son just 11 days ago.

“My English is not very good,” she apologizes with a big smile. Around us everyone continues their conversations in Cantonese. I do not understand anything.

“We’re talking about Hong Kong: we always end up talking about Hong Kong,” explains Johnny, sitting across from me, seeing my puzzled face.

The ages and socioeconomic status of the group vary, but they all share having seen “forced to flee” from Hong Kong after Beijing approved the controversial National Security Law in 2020, seen by its detractors as a definitive blow against the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong under the principle of “one country, two systems” and defended by the Chinese government, which argues that the norm is necessary for stability in the region.

“The situation in Hong Kong deteriorated rapidly and the actions of the CCP (Communist Party of China) made me realize that Hong Kong is no longer a good place to live if you are young,” Kent,  27, told me in the afternoon from his new home: a hotel in the center of Blackpool.

Hong Kong is no longer a democracy and I want to live in freedom. Now I have at least hope of a better future here in England,” he adds.

Kent arrived in the country in early December last year. He is one of more than 100,000 Hong Kongers who have applied for a special visa created in early 2021 by the British government.

The objective is to give residency to those Hongkongers with a British Overseas Passport (BNO) and their relatives who want to leave the territory after the approval of the severe security law because, according to London, the rule “restricts the rights and freedoms” of the people of Hong Kong.

Norberto Paredes / BBC World

Only Hong Kongers who registered as British citizens before July 1, 1997, when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China, can obtain a BNO passport and their respective visa to study and live in the European nation.

Insisting that Hong Kong affairs are an internal problem and that the UK should not meddle, China stopped recognizing BNO passports as valid identity or travel documents, warning last year that it would “reserve the right to take additional measures”.

The vast majority of BNO visa applications have been approved (97,057 as of December 31, 2021, according to government data) and many Hong Kongers have already moved to the UK. Blackpool has become a good option because of how expensive it is to live in the country.

A disgraced resort

“It’s cheap and there’s plenty of space,” Chi, a 40-year-old farmer, tells me as we pull up to another hotel where a dozen Hongkongers are staying.

It was precisely the prices of the city that attracted the attention of Johnny and Tony, who created this small community by buying three hotels in the center of Blackpool in order to host their newly arrived compatriots who dream of starting a new life under the democratic values ​​in which they believe.

“We searched the internet where we could get a better bargain and where we could afford a property and we found the hotels in Blackpool,” explains Johnny, who had to live with Airbnb for six months after arriving in the UK in June 2020.

“Then we considered starting a project here, buying a property and help other Hongkongers to come to live here,” he continues.

Blackpool was for much of the 19th and 20th centuries an important and iconic tourist destination, due to its attractions and sandy beach.

But like many other English seaside resorts, it fell out of favor with the rise in popularity of low-cost airlines and packages to the Mediterranean in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, eight out of ten most disadvantaged neighborhoods in England are concentrated in Blackpool, according to British government statistics published in 2019, making it one of the poorest cities in the country.

“It was dangerous for us to stay”

Unemployment in the city is high. About 22% of its inhabitants of working age claim Universal Credit, a social security payment received by people with low incomes in the United Kingdom.

And, according to research from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, men in Blackpool live an average of 68.3 years. That’s it 27 less than in Kensington and Chelsea (95.3), one of the wealthiest districts in London.

Blackpool.

Norberto Paredes / BBC World
Family attractions in the center of Blackpool.

Johnny, who turned 40 last year, was a lawyer in Hong Kong. He volunteered to help protesters who were arrested during the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 obtain bail.

But when the government passed the National Security Law five years later, he had no choice but to pack his bags, he says.

“It was dangerous for us to stay. We have a program in Youtube in which we protest against the government. The regime does not want us and that law was created to arrest those who, like us, say things that the government does not like”, says the activist.

Since the implementation of the law, more than 120 people have been arrested, mostly students, journalists, activists and pro-democracy politicians. They have been accused of acts of secession, subversion, terrorism or other crimes punishable by law.

Asked about this, Jie Fu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in the United Kingdom, defends that the National Security Law aims to “cover the legal loopholes” in Hong Kong’s national security and is aimed at “a very small number of criminals who put her in danger.”

“The rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are protected in accordance with the law. Meanwhile, no one can conduct criminal activities with the pretext of defending human rights, he tells BBC Mundo.

“As is the case in any society under the rule of law, everyone is equal before the law, and those who break it will be brought to justice.”

$400 USD per month per room

Thanks to the podcast “Tuesday Road Media” (升旗易得道), hosted by Johnny and his partner Tony, many Hongkongers found a place to stay when immigrating to the UK.

“I’m a huge fan of Johnny and Tony, I listen to their podcast on YouTube every day,” Anne, a translator in her 50s who is in Blackpool for a month, tells me.

In the podcast, both activists talk about economics, politics and any topic that may interest their compatriots.

Blackpool.

BBC World

“I heard them talking about these hotels in Blackpool and I thought if I came to the UK I wanted to stay here. The fact that they are managed by Hong Kongers is positive for us who have just arrived”, Anne adds.

Johnny and Tony bought the first two hotels in February 2020 and a third in September of the same year.

Migrants pay around US$400 per month, less than what hotels in the area charge. And, according to Johnny, those who really can’t afford the rent are exempt.

“The truth is that we are all very grateful to Johnny and Tony. They have done a lot for us and for our community,” Anne murmurs.

Chi gives me a tour of the hotel, which she describes as “the most English of all”, covered in rugs and upholstered walls. He also got there after learning about the hotels on the podcast “Tuesday Road“.

One of three hotels where Hongkongers live in Blackpool.

Norberto Paredes / BBC World
One of three hotels where Hongkongers live in Blackpool.

The 40-year-old Hong Konger became manager of all three outlets when Johnny and Tony moved to London in August last year.

“Life is so much fun in Blackpool”

Unlike most, for whom Blackpool is just a stepping stone to another city that may offer more opportunities, Chi intends to make life in the seaside resort.

“I really like Blackpool and I want to stay here, Chi says.

“Life is very relaxed and fun in Blackpool. People seem to enjoy life. Not only do they work, but they also have time to spend with family and friends, and this is the life I want.”

Chi was one of millions of Hong Kongers who took to the streets in 2019 to protest against the National Security Law and feared for his freedom.

“Since I worked for the government as a farmer it was just a matter of time that they find me,” he explains.

“I was afraid to express my opinions on politics with other colleagues in the office because I was afraid that I would be reported to the government,” he tells me as he shows me one of the rooms.

They are small and have all the basics. Most have a single bed, a bedside table, a wardrobe and a kettle.

Hotel room.

Norberto Paredes / BBC World
Hotel room.

On the first floor of the hotel there is a tiny gym, with an exercise bike in the middle and a 16 year old teenager playing with his phone.

“It saddens me that there aren’t many job opportunities in Blackpool, maybe if there were people would stay,” says Chi.

“Rent is more difficult than getting a job”

Johnny and Tony’s hotels are currently hosting about 30 Hong Kongers, but almost 100 have already passed through them.

“They stay here for one or two months. Some stay longer, half a year or more. Others are still here since they arrived”, explains Johnny.

Hotel in Blackpool.

Norberto Paredes / BBC World
The reception room of one of the hotels.

Some of the current tenants already have a departure date. Kent is about to move to Preston, a town about 25km from Blackpool, and Viny, who arrived in the town at the end of November, has already secured accommodation in Nottingham, in the English Midlands, thanks to a friend.

Yip, a 32-year-old mechanic and builder, with just 10 days in the UK, confirms that renting a house in the country is “more difficult than getting a job”.

They do too many checks And they ask too many things. The government gives us the visa, but that’s it. Then they set us adrift,” he adds.

A British government spokesman told BBC Mundo that the United Kingdom has supported the tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who have arrived in the country through a “welcome programme” with funds of up to 43.1 million sterling pounds (US $56 million). millions).

“We announced more than £2.6 million of funding for projects across the UK, including skills-skinning training, initiatives to find work and start a business, English classes, mental health support and local events to help them get settled in their new communities.”

Chi, who manages the hotels, says he hasn’t seen or benefited from “any welcome programme” since he arrived, but acknowledges that many of his compatriots have benefited from free English courses offered by Blackpool Council, the local authority.

Despite how “difficult” it has been to start over, his compatriot Johnny is grateful to the British government.

“They approved the BNO visa and thanks to that we can stay here. The other option we have is to apply for asylum, for political persecution,” he adds.

5.4 million are visa eligible

Tony, his partner, never had a BNO passport. He arrived in the UK in July 2020 and is still waiting for your political asylum application to be approved.

Blackpool beach.

Norberto Paredes / BBC World
Blackpool beach.

“Some Hongkongers can’t get a BNO visa and still need help from the British government. They are in Hong Kong, many are very young and are being persecuted, but they cannot come because they do not have a BNO passport.

He hopes that the British government will open a migratory route for the youngest.

The UK estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kong residents are eligible for the scheme, that’s about 72% of the territory’s population of 7.5 million.

This figure includes 2.9 million Hongkongers who hold a BNO passport, as well as their dependents (2.3 million), and about 187,000 young people aged 18 to 23 with at least one passport-holding parent.

A government report published in 2020 estimated that around 300,000 Hong Kongers would take the migration route during the first five years.

“I never planned to live here until the British government announced the BNO visa,” admits Viny, a Hong Kong teacher in her 60s. She left her job in Macau, a special region in southwestern China close to Hong Kong, and plans to retire soon.

He assures that he is concerned about the future of the youngest who stayed in Hong Kong, since “there is no hope” for a change.

“Liberties are being reduced (…) the media are being closed. We don’t know when all of Hong Kong is going to be closed and by that time there will be no options; (people) will be stuck there,” he adds.

“I hope to return”

According to a British Home Office survey published on January 31 – exactly one year after the visa program was launched – the majority of Hong Kongers who obtained it have a university education and 96% of them do not plan to return to live in the territory.

Holders have the possibility of obtaining British citizenship after serving six years living in the UK.

Although she says she feels safe in England, Viny prefers to hide her identity. “I still plan and hope to return to Hong Kong to visit my family,” she explains.

Like Viny, most migrants in Blackpool confess that they miss Hong Kong, as well as the friends and relatives they left behind, but are happy for the chance to start over in a “free, open and democratic” place.

“But as for buffets, Hong Kong is better. In Hong Kong you can get any cuisine in the world, Japanese, Thai…” Chi intervenes.

“Here in Blackpool you only get fish and chips,” he jokes.

With information from BBC.