Hong Kong has long been the Asian hub of finance and tourism, and home to more than 13,000 South Koreans.
However, mass anti-China, anti-extradition bill protests and mainland China’s introduction of a controversial security law on the city have led many South Koreans to rethink Hong Kong as a place of residence in the long term.
A month after the Hong Kong National Security Law went into force on June 30, South Koreans say that as the city is on its way to becoming just another major Chinese city, it is no longer a promising place for those who don’t speak Mandarin or have no business with the mainland Chinese.
Koreans engaged in restaurant or tourism businesses, for example, began to leave the city last year, according to Joseph Oh who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years.
“Many of those who have been here long are in the restaurant or tourism businesses, which have been suffering since the mass protests in June last year. In the beginning of this year, they had hopes that tourists will return around April, but then came the coronavirus,” Oh told The Korea Herald by telephone.
“The main reasons they reside in Hong Kong were their children’s education, relatively safe environment and closeness to Korea, but the schools and businesses kept on closing. … Many Koreans have moved to Taiwan or Canada since late last year.”
Oh’s youngest child started university in Hong Kong in September which she attended for about three months.
As the protests intensified in early November, she went to Korea where her two older siblings are working, and returned to Hong Kong in early January, only to go back to Korea a month later as COVID-19 struck China.
She is taking online classes now, and had planned to return to Hong Kong in early August, but recently canceled her flight as her school decided to continue with virtual courses in the fall semester.
“Some boys are choosing to join the (South Korean) military as school closures continue. Boys who cannot be enlisted for reasons such as history of surgery can neither join the army nor leave Hong Kong to be exchange students,” he said.
Oh, who teaches Korean to office workers in their late 20s and 30s, said most of his students appeared neutral to the anti-Chinese protests.
“They don’t support the students’ protests. They’re not pro-China either, but their lives have been affected by the protests – and not in a good way,” he said.
Jang Se-hun (not his real name), 29, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, said he has begun to think that he will eventually have to leave the city at some point in the future.
“It no longer feels safe to live in this city,” Jang said, adding that a friend of his went out to buy cigarettes wearing a black T-shirt and was stopped by the police.
“They let him go when they found out that he was Korean, but had he been a local, they could have taken him.”
He also felt wary when the value of the Hong Kong dollar dropped while the cost of living such as the city’s notoriously high rent did not change.
The Australian government called on all Australians residing in Hong Kong to return home, added Jang who currently works at an Australian bank in the city.
“If things get bad, I can go work in Korea, but my local friends cannot. As someone who grew up here, I feel bad,” he said.
Another 29-year-old office worker who wished to be identified only by her surname Hong said she no longer wants to live in Hong Kong in the long run.
“There are more merits for me to live here in the short term, but I would want to leave at some point as Hong Kong is becoming China – lack of respect for human rights, no freedom of press or even private life,” Hong said.
“The number of people who want to leave Hong Kong has definitely increased, probably because of the protests and the growing influence of China.”
Hong said she experienced panic one evening last year when she went out for a walk after dinner and suddenly came across protesters and police use of tear gas.
“I didn’t know where to go as the whole area was surrounded by police and protesters, and I don’t understand Cantonese,” she said.
Among those who most immediately find Hong Kong no longer attractive are parents with schoolchildren.
Kim Mi-young (not her real name), a 40-year-old officer worker and mother of two kids, is considering moving to Singapore.
“Hong Kong was a good place for my children because it was international and diverse,” said Kim, who works in the investment business.
She said that while Hong Kong’s path toward becoming another major Chinese city would be beneficial for China, and not bad for the Chinese people in her business, it would deal a blow to all the non-Chinese workers in Hong Kong, including Koreans.
Most of the profitable stocks in Hong Kong are now Chinese companies, and all the Chinese tech companies that got delisted in the US are returning to get listed in Hong Kong, she added.
“All my Chinese acquaintances acquired permanent residency in Hong Kong after seven years in order to get Hong Kong passports and spend the rest of their lives as Hong Kong citizens. For them, Hong Kong is worth staying as it is more attractive than other Chinese cities,” Kim said.
“But for all the non-Chinese workforce including Hong Kong locals, there will be nothing left for them to excel in.”
Reporter Lim Jeong-yeo contributed to this report. -- Ed.
By Kim So-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org)