For many Australians living in Hong Kong, the uncertainty of the civil unrest is frustrating but they say they are staying put.
For many Australians living in Hong Kong, the uncertainty of the civil unrest is frustrating but they say they are staying put.

Aussie expats caught up in Hong Kong turmoil

In 2003, there was a joke among expat Aussies living in Hong Kong when the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS broke out in the territory.

It went along the lines that SARS really stood for Single Again Really Smashed as wives and children were sent home to Australia to escape the outbreak, leaving husbands and fathers to work and play on through the crisis.

"That's pretty much the attitude now," finance worker Gary Lam formerly from Sydney said of the current crisis engulfing Hong Kong, the one-time Asian financial powerhouse now at its biggest crossroads since the territory's 1997 handover to China.

"Most Aussies here will stay on even if families take a break back at home for a bit, no-one's looking to totally cut and run just yet."

Hong Kong bounced back post World War II, post the 1967 riots against British colonial rule, post SARS and post every financial crash and with there not being a lot of international capital moving into Shanghai because of the US-China trade war, it remains essential and important and is expected to get through the current crisis.

Firefighters search through an area used for making molotov cocktails inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University where police were in a standoff with pro-democracy demonstrators. Picture: Getty
Firefighters search through an area used for making molotov cocktails inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University where police were in a standoff with pro-democracy demonstrators. Picture: Getty

But just how and when the city will bounce back remains unknown with local elections this week and a landslide victory to pro-democracy candidates still leaving the territory a long way from resolving deep underlining issues that continue to divide the community.

That has left many expats to consider their long-term future here, some advancing plans to return early to Australia with others looking to move their businesses and families elsewhere in Asia like Singapore.

For the past six months the territory has been dogged by multiple daily flash mob protests, co-ordinated via social media and secure Telegram messaging, that at times have turned into violent running battles with police who resort to firing live ammunition.

Since June 9 there have been 900 demonstrations, 2600 people including 470 police have been hospitalised and 5800 people arrested with 932 actually charged.

Buildings have been set on fire or trashed, improvised explosive devices planted and individuals from both sides actively looking to main and harm.

Australian expat Gregory Simpson and his wife Abby say they have no intention to leave Hong Kong. Picture: Isaac Lawrence
Australian expat Gregory Simpson and his wife Abby say they have no intention to leave Hong Kong. Picture: Isaac Lawrence

At the heart of the crisis, the perceived slipping of democratic rights that began from when China took back the territory in 1997.

"That is one thing that has surprised me is that level of anger and hate," medical instruments technician and former Cairns man Greg Simpson said.

"When you see the violence on the street you can see that, they really want to hurt each other."

But Mr Simpson, who has lived in Hong Kong for seven years, said while the uncertainty was frustrating he had no intention of leaving if for nothing else out of loyalty for local friends who have no ability to leave or a plan B.

"This is such a wonderful place and while there have been scary moments and there is a level of fear on the street we have no intention of leaving," he said.

"For me it's just so sad, Hong Kong is a fantastic place, fantastic health care, it's safe, clean and cheap and we have some wonderful friends but these ructions could take years to heal, it has divided the community even families particularly those who have police officers."

Local council elections, largely seen as a quasi-referendum, this week saw pro-democracy parties win almost 90 per cent of the 452 seats in the city's 18 districts.

It is a turning point or at least a fork in the road for Hong Kong.

 

Australian businessman Nick Wilshire believes Beijing will listen and will try and react in a positive manner. Picture: Isaac Lawrence
Australian businessman Nick Wilshire believes Beijing will listen and will try and react in a positive manner. Picture: Isaac Lawrence

"Hong Kong feels different today," prominent Australian businessman Nick Wilshire said.

"It is almost like alchemy to see the difference those elections have made, it's revitalised Hong Kong and people on the street are genuinely smiling again. It was a sombre moment for the government and Beijing has received the message, they are not stupid and they are not benevolent, Beijing will listen and will try and react in a positive manner and I think you will see greater engagement from mainland China into here."

Wiltshire has a solid understand having lived 17 years on the mainland China-Hong Kong border in Shenzhen, speaking fluent Mandarin and setting up a busy corporate and legal services businesses promoting bilateral trade.

He has also now established in the last three months a timely migration service to help local Chinese people who want to migrate to Australia.

"They have a number of reasons, some don't see a future in Hong Kong, their kids looking at constant violence on television and they maybe don't have faith things will resolve," he said.

But he added there were just as many people also wanting to migrate here for rewarding potential business opportunities.

Some calm has been restored with the local elections providing the right platform for democratic protest.

 

 

The city is being cleaned up, on Wednesday the cross harbour tunnel connecting Hong Kong island to the mainland which had been shut since November 13 after being trashed by protesters reopened and the polytechnic university which had been an infamous battleground earlier this month is being cleaned up.

But daily lunchtime protests, attracting up to a 1000 people at a time, continue with people chanting and raising an open palm and five fingers to remind authorities things won't resolve until five demands are met.

Those five include the full withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the crisis, an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retracting classification of protesters as rioters, amnesty for those arrested and universal suffrage for all levels of elections including to chose the chief executive.

Chief executive Carrie Lam has so far rejected them all and everyone waits to see who will flinch first and accept concessions.

Former Sydney inner west mother of two, who out of fear of reprisals asked to be identified only as Leah said the uncertainty and potential for further violence was a worry and she knew of at least two families who had returned to Australia early because of it.

But she said she felt safe for her family and was staying on.

Nick Wilshire is helping local Chinese people who want to migrate to Australia. Picture: Isaac Lawrence
Nick Wilshire is helping local Chinese people who want to migrate to Australia. Picture: Isaac Lawrence

"I would feel quite guilt leaving, Hong Kong people have been very welcoming to us and made our life super easy here and to walk away when things got a little bit tough would be wrong, especially with colleagues who don't have a second passport and can't just leave, it would be the pits. We've all talked about that amongst our friends, we would all feel a little guilty."

Perhaps highlighting the fear that persists in Hong Kong, despite a dozen independent Australian families interviewed for this article claiming to feel totally safe, most asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from China who they felt would target them over any views they had.

"We have to live and work here and so we wouldn't want to be identified and our views either way known," said engineer Geoffrey formerly from Brisbane.

Lawyer and father of two Mark said times were uncertain and people wanted to be cautious and not be seen to be either pro-establishment (Beijing) or protest supporter.

"One of the problems is being categorised as either for the government or for the violence which I don't think is correct," he said.

"I don't agree with the violence but I have some sympathy for the protesters. To a lot of people what the protesters are doing is creating inconvenience. They are happy with the way things are, and what protests are doing is just creating an inconvenience to them.

"It is inconvenient no doubt but at the end of the day protesters are just fighting for their city so what's a bit of inconvenience for me."


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