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How Hong Kong’s small business owners are helping protesters in this Beijing-ruled city

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The tumult that has enveloped Hong Kong for the past three years has left an indelible mark on the city’s young protesters — literally, in some cases. 

Many of them have chosen to preserve memories of their fight for freedom by inking their skin with one of Hong Kong tattoo artist Kirian’s designs. 

Kirian — who asked to be known only by her first name — opened her studio in Kowloon in 2019, the same year millions of anti-extradition bill protesters swept the streets of Hong Kong.

Several activists have since been prosecuted, and punished, under Beijing’s controversial National Security Law, or they have fled their home altogether. 

Kirian’s bauhinia flower tattoo was based on the Black Bauhinia Flag, which is often flown by pro-democracy activists.(Supplied)

By integrating themes that are emblematic of the city, such as bauhinia flowers and masks, Kirian’s tattoos serve as visual reflections of the Hongkonger identity.

“Some of my clients were going through trials,” she said.

A woman is doing hand-poking tattoos
Kirian opened her studio in 2019, during the time of successful protests against the proposed Anti-Extradition Bill. (Supplied)

Banyantree Aid — one of the only remaining humanitarian funds that supports those who get jailed and their families — receives 10 per cent of the profits from Kirian’s Hong Kong-related designs.

The former Australian National University student said her clients also included those who planned to migrate. 

“I would ask people who [plan to] leave about what they think was the thing they would miss about this place, and I’d use those elements [in the] design,” she said.

She said many realised the things they loved most about the city, they no longer saw. 

Hong Kong’s broken promise

Friday, July 1, marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British rule to Chinese governance.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the city this week to commemorate the quarter-century anniversary.

It was his first departure from the Chinese mainland since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

One of the significant moments in the ceremony was John Ka-Chiu Lee — the island state’s former security chief who is accused of violently suppressing pro-democracy protests — stepping in as Hone Kong’s new Chief Executive.

Masked man waves whilst holding floral bouquet.
John Lee became Hong Kong’s Chief Executive after gaining more than 99 per cent of the votes cast by the election committee.(Reuters: Lam Yik)

Under the agreed “One Country, Two Systems” framework, Hong Kong was handed to China by the United Kingdom on July 1, 1997, with Beijing promising that “Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life will stay intact for 50 years”. 

However, under Mr Lee’s predecessor, Carrie Lam, the National Security Law was eventually passed in 2020, allowing for sentences of life in prison for crimes such as promoting “secession” or colluding with foreign countries.

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Critics say the passage of that law — and the accompanying wave of mass arrests — have broken that promise.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested since 2019 on charges relating to protests, according to data released by Hong Kong’s Security Bureau in April. 

A tattoo on a young man's arm. The image is a man with gas mask holding a camera. An apple is on the side of his body.
One of Kirian’s client requested a tattoo of a photographer in a gas mask — another iconic symbol of the protests.(Supplied)

Kirian was concerned that she may be arrested “for just doing what normal people do” while navigating the legal system as an artist.

“This is just a place where I’m staying until I can’t.”

A hamlet, gasmask and posters are displayed in a shop.
Items symbolising Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement are on display in Kirian’s shop.(Supplied)

Despite the harsh laws and potential risks, many small business owners such as Kirian continue to provide former protesters with financial support or jobs.

Locals referred to these pro-democracy businesses as “yellow shops” (Wong-Dim) in honour of the defining colour of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. 

A spokesperson at Lemon Map, an app that provides details and user reviews of yellow shops, told the ABC there were more than 3,500 stores like this in the city.

Several small business owners told the ABC their operations had become more challenging as a result of the authority’s frequent checks and the city’s shifting COVID-19 rules.

The ABC has contacted the Hong Kong government for comment. 

Jobs for charged protesters

A couple looking into each others' eyes with fried Nepali dumplings in front of them
Carrie Poon and her Hong Kong-born Nepalese partner support the protests through their restaurant.(Supplied)

Since she opened her Nepali restaurant in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town in 2020, Carrie Poon has been offering jobs to protesters who have been charged under the National Security Law.

“I think it’s hard for them to get a job. As soon as people know, they can’t commit [for] long to work in a company, as sometimes they need to go to court for trial,” she said. 

“I just want them to know there’re still choices in Hong Kong, that you can find an employer, or a business that has the same belief.

A poster with candles on it is put on a yellow wall
A poster commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre hangs on the wall of Carrie Poon’s restaurant.(Supplied)

She said some of the young people who came to her shop were “really traumatised”, so she never inquired too deeply into what they had experienced during the protests.

Ms Poon said she would remain in Hong Kong for her business and for other pro-democracy Hongkongers who were unable to leave.

However, Sugar Leung, who had also hired protesters to work in his cafe, made the decision to depart for the UK in July last year.

“I [made the decision to migrate], primarily because I didn’t want my child to be brainwashed by the Hong Kong authorities,” he said. 

Mr Leung standing in the front of his shop with a friend
Since moving to the UK, Sugar Leung (left) has been missing his family, friends and Hong Kong food.(Supplied)

One of Mr Leung’s former employees had been charged with “rioting”, a crime that could carry a sentence of up to 14 years. 

Mr Leung wishes he could open another Hong Kong-style cafe in London in the future and hire protesters again.

“They have sacrificed themselves, fighting for democracy and freedom. I just want to help them as much as I can.”

Divided opinion in Australia

A woman wearing a mask holds a sign saying Hong Kong jurisdiction is dead with people gathered behind her.
Freedom House says Hong Kong’s freedoms deteriorated further in 2022.(Reuters: Tyrone Siu)

According to data from Hong Kong’s Census of Statistics Department, between 2016 and 2022, the city’s population growth rate declined by 0.5 per cent — the first time since 2006 that its growth had shrunk.

Hong Kong residents have been given access to permanent residency in other countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia.

The British National Overseas (BNO) visa — which was introduced last January — saw more than 88,000 applications from Hongkongers, according to data from the UK’s Home Office. 

Since November last year, more than 5,000 Hong Kong citizens have arrived in Australia on a range of visas.

However, opinions about Hong Kong’s situation vary within Australia’s Hongkonger community.

James Lo, who relocated to Australia in 2014 during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, sympathises with young protesters who have immigrated to Australia since 2019.

A man taking a photo in the found of some cartoon status.
James Lo first visited Australia in 1992 and settled here during the Umbrella Movement of 2014.(Supplied)

He manages OzStarter, a website that links newly-migrated Hongkongers with Australian employers, many of whom also have a background in Hong Kong. So far this year, they have helped 30 people secure job interviews. 

Mr Lo believes that things will get worse in Hong Kong over the next few years and more Hongkongers will come to Australia.

A picture of a man with grey hair and glasses smiling.
Sam Wong was born in Hong Kong in 1949 and moved to Australia in 1964.(Supplied)

However, Sam Wong, who migrated to Australia in 1969 and visited China multiple times as a Chinese Australian community leader, disagrees.

“I was brought up in Hong Kong under colonial rule. I was treated as a third-class citizen because we were native-born Chinese,” he said. 

“John Lee, he has a very good team now to get everything working together to rebuild Hong Kong.”

Remembering the handover

A wide shot of Jiang Zemin standing behind a podium at a ceremony.
The 1997 ceremony marked the official transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China.(AFP: Torsten Blackwood)

As a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times in 1997, Tony Walker — who is now an adjunct professor at La Trobe University in its school of communications — covered the handover from Beijing and witnessed the celebrations in Tiananmen Square.

“There were fireworks displays in the square,” he recalled. 

At that point, Mr Walker hadn’t anticipated that Beijing would disrespect the agreements with the British government.

A man visiting the exhibition for the 25th handover anniversary
Hong Kong authorities banned more than 10 journalists from covering the anniversary, citing “security reasons”.(AP: Kin Cheung)

But now, he is not optimistic about Hong Kong’s future.

“The situation will probably continue more or less as it is,” he said. 

“John Lee is effectively a Beijing appointee. I don’t see him taking a different course from his predecessor, Carrie Lam.”

A man staring at the camera
From Beijing, Tony Walker reported on Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 as the Financial Times’s China correspondent. (Supplied)

Mr Walker said Beijing increased its control over Hong Kong to prevent “copycat protests across Chinese cities”.

However, he was nevertheless surprised by the flourishing of yellow shops.

“I had assumed that instability was not in the interests of the business community, including small businesspeople,” he said. 

“I think the population has been intimidated into, if not silence, then not actively protesting, as it did.

“But, I have to say, I was surprised how widespread the protests were, and how persistent they were, and, frankly, how courageous people were.”

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Hong Kong authorities crack down on Tiananmen Square commemorations.

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