How political protests in Hong Kong are fracturing families in Canada

Sora Chan’s mornings follow a similar routine, predominantly filled with Chan hunched over her laptop, scrolling through Facebook and Hong Kong forums to get the latest updates on the civil unrest erupting in the region.

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents have been filling the streets in protest of a local government they believe has become too friendly with Beijing, and what they see as the Chinese government’s attempt to strip the people of Hong Kong of their political autonomy and freedoms.

Protests began months ago after Hong Kong tried to pass an extradition bill that would have allow those accused of crimes against mainland China to be transported. But protestors believe China is trying to tighten its control over the region. In recent days, the fight has become about the protestors’ greater desire for democracy.

It’s a fight Chan believes in.

“I can see they [the protestors] are just fearless. They help out each other and they’re way younger than me, too. I’m proud of them, quite honestly,” says Chan from her Burnaby home.

But it’s not a consensus shared by all, especially in the Chan household. Several of her relatives, including her mother, vehemently disagree with her. Political debates often lead to confrontations and a breakdown in communication.

The divide isn’t reserved for the Chans. It’s fracturing the family dynamic of many Canadians residents with Hong Kong roots.

Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on Aug. 12 in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Families divided

Chan moved to Canada from Hong Kong with her mother three years ago. But her pro-democratic stance was known to her family long before that.

In 2014, she participated, along with hundreds of thousands of protestors, in the “Umbrella Movement,” which saw demonstrators use umbrellas to resist the Hong Kong police’s use of pepper spray.

Now, Chan says she regularly argues with her relatives — especially her mother, who supports the Hong Kong government — but to no end. Both sides are entrenched in their opinions, unwilling to budge.

“When [the arguments] get to that stage of aggression, I will just stop. I just close my door,” she says.

Chan recalls one time sitting around the dinner table, eating dim sum, when her grandfather passed around a form declaring support for the Hong Kong government, and instructed everyone to sign.

Chan and her cousins refused.

‘Hong Kong families are now torn’

The situation is common for many Hong Kong Canadians, says Miu Chung Yan, a University of British Columbia social work professor who has studied the issue.

He said political viewpoints are often split over generational lines. And while the divide may have begun as black-and-white, either pro-democracy or pro-government, it has now evolved, he says, especially as the protests have turned violent.

On Sunday, police fired tear gas inside a train station and in several Hong Kong neighbourhoods where anti-government protesters had occupied roads. Leading up to this, it has been rare for officers to fire tear gas indoors.

“Many Hong Kong families are now torn,” says Yan. “People feel helpless and stressed, rather than ‘[I] really support the government, or [I] really support the young people.'”

Miu Chung Yan from UBC says families are usually divided politically across generational lines. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Because of the violence, Yan says, the familial conflict has become about how people are protesting, not why, and concerns for safety.

“Most parents are not in agreement, not because they’re pro-government. Many of them are just too concerned [their children] will go out on the street [protesting],” he says.

Conflict in families and communities

The divide in Hong Kong can also be seen between Chinese and Hong Kong communities in Canada, says Jun Ing of the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver, who moved from Hong Kong decades ago.

Jun Ing of the Chinese Benevolent Association says he has noticed that the Chinese community in Vancouver is experiencing the same political tensions as seen in Hong Kong. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He isn’t taking a side in the protests, but he is anti-violence. However, because of the growing conflict, Ing said he will avoid the subject with people he knows are part of the protests.

“There’s no point to discuss it,” says Ing. “When you can’t have a meaningful discussion, why engage in it?”

Sora Chan agrees the violence has gone too far on both sides. But she sees the protestors’ violence as a reaction rather than a provocation.

“For me, looking at Hong Kong right now, it’s more like an animal’s almost being killed and struggling for its last breath,” says Chan. “They just want to fight back.”

Despite the division, one thing they can all agree on is the desire for a peaceful resolution to the protests.

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