In a bustling park cafe in Colchester, on a sunny November day, a group of chatty women are busy serving up Hong Kong delicacies – milk tea, pineapple buns, noodles – to a steady stream of local customers.
They’re not paid staff, but volunteers, honing their English skills and clocking up experience for their CVs – and they are here in this quiet Essex town, because each of them has made the drastic decision to quit their homeland of Hong Kong, and start a new life in the UK.
More than 130,000 Hongkongers made that leap in the first 18 months after the government opened a special visa scheme last January in response to the increasingly authoritarian political climate in the former British territory.
That’s a significant collective migration – by way of comparison, the highest number of citizens who arrived in the UK in a single year from the EU8 accession countries of Poland, Hungary and so on was 112,000, in 2007.
Christy Lee, 53, left because of concerns about her daughter’s future. “Hong Kong chaos is a famous chaos,” she says, referring to the waves of pro-democracy protests over recent years, as Beijing has tightened its grip.
She feared that her daughter could fall victim to the draconian security law passed in 2020. “My daughter is at a dangerous age,” she says. “They grab you, put something in your bag, then you will be charged. As a mother, I had to find a way for her to flee.”
The pair first moved to Taiwan, before coming to England when Lee’s daughter won a place to study at Essex University.
In total, experts expect about 300,000 people to come from Hong Kong under the scheme. British National (Overseas) was a special category made available to Hongkongers after the territory was handed back to Beijing in 1997.
Holders of the status were already entitled to a British passport; but under the visa scheme unveiled by then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, in 2020, they can apply to come to the UK, either for two-and-a-half or five years – and can then apply to become a permanent resident.
The decision to open up the visa route came as relations with Beijing worsened significantly, halting a charm offensive during which the former chancellor George Osborne promised in 2015 that Britain would “stick together” with China, and “create a golden decade for both of our countries”.
Rishi Sunak had been expected to use a meeting with President Xi Jinping this week to begin a rapprochement; but it was cancelled amid the chaos over the missile strike on Poland.
Heather Rolfe, of the thinktank British Future, who has researched the new arrivals for an umbrella group called the Welcoming Committee for Hong Kongers, says most of them have no intention of going back.
“The big thing is, they want their children to grow up British,” she says. They’re here to stay, indefinitely, unless things change dramatically in Hong Kong.”
“To bring kids up in a different environment is really important for them,” she adds. “That’s what’s behind the interest in settling in areas with good and outstanding schools.” She cites Sutton and Kingston in London, Trafford and Warrington in north-west England, and Solihull in the West Midlands, as popular destinations.
Here in Colchester, another volunteer, Iris Yip, 46, has started an online bakery, turning out little mooncakes and other delicacies, alongside her shifts in the café.
“In Hong Kong, I was an accountant, and baking was just my interest. And then I found it was easy for me to apply for a home bakery licence in the UK, and so I start my online shop,” she says.
Like Lee, when asked why she made the move to the UK, she cites her children’s future. “I have two daughters, they are 13 and 11 years old. I think it’s dangerous for them to grow up in Hong Kong,” she says.
She and her family made a quick decision to leave – and plumped for Colchester because a close friend, with children the same age as her own, was going there too. “We arrived in Colchester on the same day,” she says, adding, “my two children enjoy their school life: it’s very friendly”.
The café project is run by Kitty Ng, 49, who is also involved in organising a string of other activities to help Hongkongers integrate in the local community, with the help of £30,000 of government funding.
Language classes and cultural events are offered through an online Hong Kong Welcome Hub for Essex, which also includes jobs and volunteering opportunities.
“It’s very difficult for Hong Kong people to find jobs here,” Ng says, citing her own experience. “I worked in a university for 15 years, I also studied in the UK: but when I came here, many people asked me, ‘what’s your experience in the UK?’”
She hopes the café shifts may help. “We have six or seven volunteers. We recruit new people and we tell them, ‘maybe you work here for three months, and earn some experience – then you go out to find another job’.”
The government recently announced £6.6m in additional support for projects such as this across the UK, as well as a network of virtual welcome hubs.
A government spokesperson said, “Our BN(O) Welcome Programme is providing support for new arrivals via projects delivering skills training, initiatives to find a job and set up a business, mental health support, and a wide range of local events to help BN(O)s settle into their new communities.”
Recent community events here in Colchester, including a mid-autumn festival, have involved the local Chinese community group, despite initial worries some members might be sympathetic to Beijing.
“It’s Chinese people from different countries: Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore. Some of them came to the UK more than 40 years ago: they know about the culture here,” says Ng.
Lee echoes Ng’s concerns about the difficulties of finding work.She hopes the experience, and crucially the language skills, gained in the café will help. “I can practise my English better, get more fluent,” she says. “I enjoy it – I keep on talking, talking”.
As with many exiles from warmer climes, the weather is a frequent topic of conversation. Ng opted not to return to Bristol, where she studied many years ago, because, she says, “Bristol is too windy. All week, wind and rain.”
Lee spent some time in Warrington in recent months, where another community of Hongkongers has sprung up, but didn’t enjoy the north-west’s damp climate. “It’s always raining, raining – and even when not raining, the floor is all wet,” she complains.
Throughout the afternoon, food keeps arriving at the tables – neat little chicken pies, buttery French toast, pineapple shortbread. “Food is a very good entrance to our culture,” says Ng.
The volunteering idea emerged from a relationship she struck up with the café’s charismatic co-director, Pepi Sanchez, who runs a local community garden, alongside this social enterprise, called GO4 Café, sited in a former park sports pavilion.
Sanchez had already been using the café to train local people with learning difficulties or mental health issues in hospitality. After getting to know Ng and her plans, she extended the same principle to the new arrivals as they find their feet in a strange country.
“I want to give them a small community base, so that everyone can feel safe, and not be afraid of saying whatever they want to,” she says.