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“Like so many others, we love this city and have built our families and our lives here.”

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The PJ Library at the Jewish Community Centre in Hong Kong | Photo: Dan Brotman

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Three days after Hong Kong’s national security law was implemented, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would be the first country to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and is exploring how to welcome more Hong Kong immigrants in light of the new developments. With citizens’ freedom now compromised, how is the country’s sizeable Jewish population faring?

Hong Kong is home to 300,000 Canadian citizens and permanent residents, making it the second largest Canadian diaspora community in the world. Its thriving Jewish community of 3,000 was established in 1842, when the Sassoon family arrived shortly after Hong Kong was ceded by China to Great Britain. The first Jewish cemetery was opened in 1855, and the Ohel Leah Synagogue, built by Sir Jacob Sassoon, was founded in 1902. While descendants of the original Jewish families still reside in Hong Kong, the community is now mostly comprised of Western expatriates, half of whom are long-term residents.

I spoke with two North American Hong Kong residents who have worked as both professionals and lay leaders in its Jewish community for many years. Our conversations were conducted with sensitivity, recognizing that “acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security” are illegal, and that foreigners could be “subject to deportation” without prosecution if they contravene the law.

Erica Lyons relocated from Manhattan to Hong Kong with her young family in 2002, shortly prior to the SARS outbreak. A World Jewish Congress representative, Lyons chairs the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society and founded the city’s PJ Library. 

“Hong Kong is the perfect balance between urban and rural, which is not what you see in the news,” she says, noting that the Jewish community and its day school in particular – which spans Pre-K to Grade 12 – are primarily what have kept her family in Hong Kong for so many years.

Hong Kong’s Jewish infrastructure has grown substantially in the past several decades. In addition to the school, it encompasses Modern Orthodox, Sephardi and Progressive synagogues, two Chabad Houses, a Jewish Community Centre and Holocaust & Tolerance Centre.

“Our community is unique within Greater China in that we are the only Jewish community that has a historic synagogue and cemetery that are still in their original locations, and still used for intended purposes”, says Lyons.

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The city also boasts two kosher restaurants and a kosher mart that sells imported kosher meat. In 2017, Lyons’ husband led a 30-member Hong Kong and China delegation to compete in Israel’s Maccabi Games. 

Montreal native Shani Brownstein and her Parisian husband relocated to Hong Kong in 1992 where their two sons were subsequently born and educated. Brownstein has served on the Ohel Leah Synagogue council, co-chairs the Jewish Women’s Association of Hong Kong, and produces the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, which was founded in 1999 by Canadian Howard Elias.

She divides her life in Hong Kong into three chapters: The pre-1997 colonial period, the new normal of 1997-2014, and 2014 to the present. She describes having moved to a city heavily influenced by its colonial master, from its British medical professionals to private social clubs. Although residents initially feared that Hong Kong might change under Chinese rule, she says that, from 1997-2014, life more or less remained as it had been under British administration.

Members of the Hong Kong and China delegation to the Maccabi Games at the residence of the Chinese Ambassador to Israel, 2017 | Photo: Dan Brotman

It was in 2014 that Brownstein recalls Hong Kong entering a new chapter, when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued a decision regarding proposed reforms to the country’s electoral system. She describes the resulting protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, as having “torn the local society apart”, with the student protestors blocking main traffic arteries and bringing the city to a standstill for over two months. The protests eventually subsided when Hong Kongers were fed-up with the citywide disruptions.

Protests erupted again in March 2019 following the proposed introduction of the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill, which would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to Mainland China and Taiwan. Unlike the 2014 protests, this time the movement had no defined leader, and was thus harder to control. Brownstein describes bricks dug out of the sidewalks and used as roadblocks, ransacked subway stations and entering stores and doctors’ offices, only to be told minutes later not to use certain exits because of sudden tear gas and rubber bullets outside. 

Shani Brownstein at Jewish Women's Association of Hong Kong Pink Walk Fundraiser for Breast Cancer | Photo: Dan Brotman

Unlike many expats, whom Brownstein says have limited contact with the Hong Kong Chinese, she deeply identifies with the local population, having worked for 23 years as the only Westerner in her company. 

“Hong Kong is my home,” she says. “I feel so sad, because I identify and relate to these local people.” Brownstein empathizes with those who are concerned about the future; many are the offspring of people who made enormous sacrifices to migrate from Mao’s China to Hong Kong, where they believed they would live in a free and democratic society. While she is thankful for holding Canadian and French citizenship, “seven million people have nowhere else to go. You are a prisoner in a country you love.”

“For our Jewish community, this has been a tough year,” concedes Lyons. Last year’s protests resulted in Hong Kong entering its first recession in a decade, with many companies closing down entirely or sending expatriate staff home. However, she believes that Jews who left the city in the past year did so due to financial, rather than political considerations.

“We, like so many others, stay because we love this city and have built our families and our lives here.”

When the global pandemic hit, many expats remained because Hong Kong is safer than their home countries. With only 1,470 confirmed cases and seven deaths to date, Hong Kong used its experience in combating SARS in 2002 to contain COVID-19.

Erica Lyons with Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society Tour of Harbin, China

“SARS was a blessing in disguise, because it prepared us for COVID, which probably saved us from being more severely impacted”, says Brownstein.

Back in 2002, Hong Kong did not yet have a strong culture of wearing masks, which was primarily thought of as a Japanese custom. “We were petrified to touch elevator buttons, as we did not know how the disease was being transmitted,” recalls Brownstein. No one felt safe to do anything.”

As SARS was geographically contained, Brownstein and her family left and waited it out in Montreal, not knowing if they would ever be able to return to their adopted city. Fortunately, Hong Kong’s SARS’ legacy includes the wearing of face masks whenever one is feeling ill, and using disinfectant and hand sanitizer whenever entering any commercial building, shopping mall, residence or hospital.

As soon as COVID-19 appeared in the media in January, Lyons recalls that most residents immediately started wearing masks – even before they were government mandated. Schools were closed from the end of January to mid-May, restaurants and shopping mall were never shuttered, and temperatures are taken almost every time one enters a building.

“Sometimes I have my temperature taken 10 times a day”, says Brownstein.

Because the schools had the recent experience of having to close down this past November due to the protests, the Jewish day school seamlessly transitioned to online learning. Synagogues reopened last month, but masks are compulsory and every other seat is blocked-off.

While some Jews did leave at the start of coronavirus, Brownstein underscores that “Jews are not leaving because of protests, and not because of the new law. It is mostly economic. It is too premature to determine whether they will leave because of the new law. Friends and relatives have urged us to leave, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I am not personally fearful for my family or friends.” 

Boston-born Dan Brotman is an American/Israeli/South African entrepreneur, activist and writer currently based in Johannesburg. During his almost decade in South Africa, he co-founded one of the country’s leading global business immersion companies, served as Executive Director of the South Africa-Israel Forum and managed Media & Public Affairs for the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. He is a regular commentator in the South African media on issues related to the Jewish community and public policy. His column in TheJ.ca focuses on stories in the Jewish world outside of North America and Israel.

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Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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