When Wing-sun Chan left the social and political upheaval of Hong Kong for the outskirts of Manchester two years ago, he embodied several trends at once.
Like many in this new diaspora, the 39-year-old father of two was drawn to a leafy northern suburb known for its strong education system. He also prioritised integration into British society.
Following Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and the passage of a national security law in 2020, a new generation of Hongkongers have come to the UK — a highly skilled workforce eager to integrate that is gradually changing the face of Britain’s suburbs.
“We don’t want a new Chinatown that’s isolated and just interested in internal solutions,” Cheng said. “We’re also focused on establishing bonds and connections with the community.”
More than 144,000 Hongkongers have moved to the UK since the start of 2021 using the government’s British Nationals (Overseas) visas — renewable five-year residency permits introduced after the Chinese government’s 2020 clampdown on pro-democracy protests.
Simon Cheng, founder of the community organisation Hongkongers in Britain, said there were “huge differences” between these settlers and earlier generations, who prior to 2020 had come “mostly for economic reasons”.
The latest influx also forms part of a wider rise in net UK migration, which reached a record high in figures released last week, driven by immigration from outside of the EU, including through humanitarian routes such as the BN (O) scheme.
“The post-2019 immigrants have a strong political awareness and a consciousness of themselves as Hongkongers,” said Cheng.
Nevertheless it is a group aiming to assimilate into British society rather than cluster tightly with other Hongkongers, the think-tank British Future found last summer in a paper for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
This latest generation of settlers, predominantly in their 30s and 40s with children, have been drawn to the suburbs of more affordable cities beyond London, particularly those with strong schools systems, such as Chan’s chosen home of Sale, in Trafford.
“It’s a very different geographical pattern of settlement than other migrant groups,” said Heather Rolfe, research director at British Future, which focuses on public attitudes towards diversity and equality. The “main priority for Hongkongers is good schools for their children”, she added.
YouTubers in Hong Kong were influential in promoting certain places, she said, including Trafford, nearby Warrington and Solihull in the West Midlands — all quieter towns or suburbs highlighted for their schools.
“The attraction of the suburbs is really interesting because migrant groups in the past have avoided suburbs, seeing them as very white, and places where they would stand out and experience discrimination,” she said.
Chan agreed. “I’m not saying all Hongkongers moved because of the education of their children but one of the main factors is we hope our children can grow in a society that embraces freedom and liberty,” he said.
Affordability was also key, he added. “If I was in London I’d have been very stressed, because living costs are so high.”
No accurate local figures for the latest Hong Kong diaspora exist, but Manchester’s council-run English for Speakers of Other Languages service recorded a 13-fold rise in approaches for advice by BN (O) visa holders between 2020 and 2023.
Already known internationally for its football, the city and its outskirts have been actively promoted to Hong Kong investors in recent years.
Carl Donaldson, chief sales officer at Select Property, an investor and developer with offices in Hong Kong, said there had been a pattern of younger people “priced out of Hong Kong” due to the lack of viable land, settling on Manchester as an alternative.
“We’ve seen this trend grow over the last five to six years and would expect it to continue,” he said.
Janine Miu, founder and managing director of Hong Kong-based consultancy UK Immigration Specialist, said that when she started the business in 2014, about 80 per cent of inquiries were from clients who wanted to move to London.
Now about half are choosing Manchester and only about 30 per cent are opting for the capital, while many of those heading to London are moving to its edges.
But she said the “peak” of the initial wave had passed. A new type of application — prompted by the extension of BN (O) eligibility to the adult children of parents who already have visas — was on the rise.
“This year we have seen more and more inquiries on this type of application,” she said, adding that people are also “starting to be concerned” about whether the visa scheme will remain after 2025.
Those already in the UK have the potential to be a boon to the economy, noted British Future, which found 70 per cent were graduates and 39 per cent had a professional occupational background.
“This picture of the qualifications and experience of Hongkongers indicates their potential to address skills gaps in a number of occupational areas and stimulate economic growth through new enterprises,” it found.
But unless qualifications were recognised or converted, some people would be forced into lower salary or skill level jobs than they would have had at home.
Chan said he knew of highly qualified fellow Hongkongers who have taken jobs in warehousing and teachers taking work as teaching assistants.
Those people were “not expecting they can go to the same position they had in Hong Kong”, he added, but said Hongkongers had much to provide the UK economy post-Brexit, as the country seeks to establish new relationships.
Upon moving to Sale he set up a community interest company, Trafford Hongkongers, to strengthen connections with the local community.
“It involves dialogue, conversation, mutual understanding,” he said. “We are all thinking about how to contribute to our new country.”