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Anna Kwok, 25, and friends her age remember visiting Hong Kong Disneyland in 2007 – specifically, the free ticket they were able to scoop on the government-backed company dime.
Her friend, T – who, like Kwok, was born and raised in Hong Kong – took Disney up on their offer, he tells her as they catch up over Zoom. (NPR has agreed to allow T to use the initial of his last name out of fear of potential reprisal from Hong Kong’s government.)
“It was boring,” he chuckles.
The yearlong pass mostly served as a nicety to Kwok, T, and others born in 1997, the year the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to Chinese control. They were constantly told by the adults in the room how special they were: they are the “handover babies.”
Billy HC Kwok / Getty Images
“It sounds like a joke,” T says. “I don’t take being born in 1997 as something very special, to be honest. Maybe it’s just inevitable for our generation to deal with such events.”
On Thursday, the handover reaches a critical halfway point, as Hong Kong will officially become a part of China in 2047. Hong Kong is coming right off the heels of a COVID-19 health crisis, adding to the somber tone that still hangs over the city following the pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2019, and subsequent government crackdowns against dissidents and political organizers through the 2020 national security law.
With this turbulent backdrop, the “handover babies” who inherited this political arrangement that they never had a say in, now turn 25 this year.
A decade after they initially met in high school Model United Nations, Kwok and T now lead drastically different lives. Kwok helps with pro-democracy activism work as a strategy and campaign director at the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington. T has remained in the city as he works at one of the top financial centers there.
Their diverging life paths are the product of political turmoil in the 25 years since the handover, as they have had to reevaluate their relationship to Hong Kong and their communities.
Starting on the same page in childhood
As a child, Kwok said she still had a sense of optimism towards China.
Her school took her and other students on a tour of China in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. “Back then, there were still phases where people were hopeful that change could happen,” she said.
By the time she and T met in high school, their lives revolved around their extracurriculars or studying for exams. A similar sort of hope stayed with the two of them back then. In their friend group, politics took up little real estate, and for the time being, it did not need to.
But with the Umbrella Movement in 2014 came a rupture in their social circles. Some did not hold similar views, which became apparent soon enough through pro-police posts on their Instagram stories and casual comments on the need to follow the law.
“We didn’t want to provoke anything” in the friend group or in their schools, T said. “So friendships began filtering [themselves] quite naturally. But I questioned where their priorities were. “
Amidst the social fissures caused by the pro-democracy demonstrations, Kwok and T still knew they could trust each other.
“We knew who we supported, and why we were supporting them,” T said. “We knew we were on the same page.”
Diverging lives after high school
It was toward the end of high school that T and Kwok’s lives splintered off. T stayed in Hong Kong, going to university studying business and finance.
When the protest hit in 2019, both of their divergent worlds erupted once again.
Friends studying at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, one of the main backdrops of the clashes between protestors and the police, were trapped on campus. Others who marched in the demonstrations were missing, taken away by the police.
Anthony Kwan / Getty Images
T said he was on the phone, constantly calling and trying to find his friends. He had just started his summer internship.
“I don’t remember much of what happened,” T said. “All that I remember is the next day, I immediately handed in my resignation. I couldn’t deal with it all.”
Several of his friends are still in jail, either already convicted or waiting for their hearing under the national security law that the government has used against political dissidents, activists and journalists for the past two years.
“It could have potentially been any one of us” that went to jail, he said. “Seeing people – my friends – who could have had a bright future, get jailed, gives me some sort of survivors’ guilt.”
Isaac Lawrence / AFP via Getty Images
Survivors’ guilt plagued Kwok, too. But with being away from home due to her studies abroad, the guilt conflated with her longing to be back.
Whenever she saw images on social media of protestors sprayed with tear gas, “I had this huge sense of guilt,” Kwok said. “I wasn’t there to taste it with my people.”
Kwok became glued to the TV, watching every livestream whenever she could. All the guilt that she had begun to harbor then fueled her interest in pro-democracy activism work.
“I was watching like ten live streams at once,” Kwok said. “I was trying to check where the police are stationed. And once I saw anything, I would report on group chats or networks and channels.”
That work naturally grew, to the point that she was organizing Hong Kong human rights campaigns for G-20. She continued to collaborate with her political networks, but with the national security law, more members from her communities were arrested in a flurry during 2020 and 2021.
Anthony Kwan / Getty Images
The arrests hit too close. If she went back home, she would most certainly share the same fate as her friends.
“Some people in Hong Kong even asked me not to go back because they knew what would be waiting for me,” she said. “They told me I should try my best and do whatever I have to do overseas to really pave the path for Hong Kong.”
More of T’s social circles have left Hong Kong.
“In the last 25 years, what Hong Kong has really lost is the genuine trust between people in society,” Kwok said. “We thought we could make this work, that we could fight the good fight. But with all of the crackdowns and people being arrested … people lost trust with each other.”
The events from the past eight years sobers T deeply. But he still holds onto a tempered optimism.
“In the long term – it could take decades – but still, I believe things will go right. Maybe not at our prime age,” he said. “But I have to believe in this, otherwise there would be nothing.”
Politics weighs on each conversation between them
It is unclear when Kwok will be able to safely return to Hong Kong. She and T occasionally keep in touch, but far less frequently compared to when they were in high school.
“Politics now bears a weight in every conversation, so that’s why in most of our conversations, we try to make it about nothing, really,” T said.
They’re happy for each other, and still worry about the other’s wellbeing.
“Sometimes, I wish on a friend level, she could quit this work,” T said about Kwok. “But I know she is doing well and will do well.”
They’re both unsure of what remains ahead, and don’t want to instill so much hope in the future.
“I don’t want to predict what’s actually going to happen in 25 years’ time, ”Kwok said. “For now, though, what’s for sure is there will be different Hong Kongs,” — the ones abroad and within the city.
“Part of the reason why I didn’t leave Hong Kong is because I’m waiting for my friends in jail,” he said. “I still feel so connected to them. I’m not willing to give up just yet. I want to be here when they come out. I want to play mahjong with them again.”