Wong Yu-wing, who holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from the City University of Hong Kong, swapped out his career to start an organic farm in Hong Kong in 2010.
“My mother was very opposed to me becoming a farmer,” he told The Loop, a lifestyle news website, in 2016 while operating what he reckoned was one of the top organic spreads in Hong Kong. “She worked so hard to pay for my education.”
Now that Wong has left Hong Kong to start anew in Britain, he’s still relying on organic farming. His effort to educate Britons on the satisfaction of cultivating backyard vegetable gardens is putting a positive face on the influx of Hongkongers, some 144,500 of them, who are on a special British National (Overseas) visa category created for Hongkongers born before the former British colony reverted to Chinese control in 1997.
The British government created the BN(O) as a response to Beijing’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement that ended with the imposition of a sweeping and vaguely worded National Security Law in June 2020. Critics say the law has restricted freedom for residents of what China calls a special administrative region.
After seeing rapid changes to Hong Kong’s once free-wheeling society, the Wong family migrated to the U.K. in December 2020 so the two sons could obtain an education without a Beijing-controlled curriculum.
“I experienced the social movements in Hong Kong in those two years. As you could see, people were very eager to change what we call the entire social environment, hoping that some of our [democratic] ideas could be brought into the government,” Wong told VOA Cantonese, adding he was “very worried that the situation would get worse and worse.”
His decision to uproot his family was so sudden, Wong said, that he didn’t think about his employment prospects until he was flying to the U.K.
“Hong Kong is very beautiful. Hong Kong is perfect,” Wong says in a video posted on YouTube by Britain’s Home Office and in an abbreviated version on the LinkedIn page of Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, promoting the BN(O) visa program. “We never think that we would move out.”
But as he says in the video, “We wanted to protect our children. We wanted to give them hope. Give them a future.”
By the time the flight landed, Wong had decided farming might fit his new life.
Wong dug in, learning about the growing conditions, vegetable varieties and marketing in the U.K. while developing a neatly plowed plot, known in the U.K. as an allotment. He is now on a mission to turn Britain’s backyards and allotments into vegetable gardens, teaching fellow Hongkongers, and anybody else who’s interested, how to grow their own food.
Given that the U.K. is cooler than Hong Kong, Wong has found he can cultivate a wider variety of vegetables, but he must do so during a shorter growing season.
There have been hiccups. Some Hongkongers just starting out noticed that vegetable seedlings disappeared soon after planting. The newbie farmers are now protecting their crops from thieves that turned out to be insects, snails, foxes and sparrows.
Wong told VOA Cantonese that farming helps Hongkongers communicate with one another and with local British people, which in turn helps speed the immigrants’ integration into local life. He said the bonds forming over farming show that Hongkongers want to contribute to the U.K.
Hongkongers are not in the U.K. “to take something,” Wong says in the video, which has elicited online comments for and against the policy to admit Hongkongers on special immigrant visas. “I would like to use what I know and share with U.K. people.”
That includes educating them about the benefits of organic allotment-to-table vegetables, eating locally and healthfully.
The U.K. government has spotlighted Wong’s efforts. He was featured in a video in which Robert Jenrick, the minister for immigration at the Home Office, reaffirmed the U.K.’s commitment to Hongkongers, adding that many Hongkongers have said coming to the U.K. “feels like coming home.”
Wong, filmed in his allotment a light drizzle, says, “The U.K. is a very nice place. Everyone is welcoming me to live here, to work together.”
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.