Hong Kong is a city of immigrants. For decades, particularly in the wake of political turmoil in China, it was a haven for refugees fleeing chaos and seeking new opportunities.
It often meant that people lost track of friends and sometimes even relatives.
‘We just clicked’
Ha Sze-yuen, 71, had been searching for his childhood friend Chan Hak-chi for years.
They met when they were six years old. Both of them were enrolled at Guangzhou’s Tongfu Middle Road No. 1 Elementary School.
“We loved reading and excelled at studies. The teachers liked us a lot, but we didn’t see each other as rivals. We just clicked,” Ha says.
The boys gradually lost touch after Chan was sent to another school in primary six.
Ha’s father was a military officer for the Kuomintang, a party which ruled mainland China until the communist takeover in 1949.
Because of this, Ha was put in what was known as the “Five Black Categories”, the enemies of the revolution whose political loyalty was questionable.
As early as in the mid-1950s, Chinese leader Mao Zedong advocated the idea of sending young, educated people from the cities to the countryside.
He wrote: “All intellectuals who can work in the rural areas should gladly go there. The countryside is a big place where a lot can be achieved.”
If not for his family background, Ha might have entered university, or got a job with prospects after finishing secondary school.
Instead, he was sent to the countryside as an “educated youth” one year before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution.
Ha was one of the 16 million urban youths who were sent to rural villages, to be “re-educated by the peasants”.
Moving to Hong Kong – an offence under the communist regime – was the only choice left for Ha. He had been struggling with the idea as if he succeeded, it would mean leaving his mother behind.
“My mother was very understanding and told me to go and not to worry about her. Fleeing to Hong Kong was risky because people could lose their lives. She was worried but supported my choice,” he says.
Ha made his first attempt to escape to the former British colony in 1972, but was arrested by local militia halfway and detained for a couple of months.
Trying to flee to Hong Kong became a yearly routine – until he finally succeeded three years later.
It was during the annual tomb-sweeping festival, around March, in 1975. He remembers that it was chilly.
“It was cold but that meant there were fewer people on the guard. But the low temperature made it riskier.”
Ha and his partner got a half-made inflatable boat, and used it to sail to the city after 10 days of walking.
In Hong Kong Ha did a lot of odd jobs. Life wasn’t easy – his academic qualifications were not recognised in the city, but he managed to build a life for himself.
Reports spark hope
But Ha never forgot his childhood and his old friends.
Years later, media reports emerged telling the story of a man who fled from Guangzhou to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution. Ha thought this could be his old friend, Chan Hak-chi. But the stories never showed a picture of Chan, so Ha could not be sure if he was in fact his long lost friend.
He was left wondering until his daughter contacted BBC Chinese – which reported Chan’s story two years ago – in February. A message was given to Chan, who confirmed that Ha was his friend from nearly 60 years ago.
And so they finally met.
“I wouldn’t recognise him on the street even if I bumped into him,” Chan says.
The men joked about each other’s appearance. Chan said he wasn’t too happy that Ha turned out to be taller than him, Ha said he had a huge tummy and wasn’t as fit as Chan.
Chan said he wasn’t surprised that Ha also made his way to Hong Kong after the Cultural Revolution broke out.
“Both of us are a bit of [a] rebel. We don’t like to stick to the rules and we have similar personalities. We would feel reluctant to accept that we cannot control our fate,” he says.
The wish of a lifetime
The story of how Chan made his way to Hong Kong was as dramatic as Ha’s, if not more so.
Like Ha, Chan was sent to the rural area of Boluo, Guangdong, as an “educated youth”. He became a teacher and met his future wife Li Kit-hing.
Disillusioned, the young couple decided to take the risk and try to flee to Hong Kong in 1973. Even though they were excellent swimmers after months of practice, the pair chose a bad time to swim across – the skies were getting dark with howling winds; the sea was rough with storey-high waves.
Chan and Li fought against the waves and swam for close to seven hours. When they finally landed in Hong Kong the next day, they were told that a powerful typhoon had swept through the territory.
They got married and started their new life in Hong Kong.
After China opened up in 1978, Chan sometimes went back to Guangzhou to visit his old schoolmates and tried to look for his old friend, but nobody had any idea where Ha was. Chan never expected to meet his childhood friend again.
Both of them were lucky. Some academics put the number of “educated youths” who tried to escape to Hong Kong at 250,000, but 20% did not make it. They drowned, were caught or even died in shark attacks.
Those who made it helped shape modern day Hong Kong. Ha and Chan are among the last generation with strong memories of the Cultural Revolution, who left hardship to make a better life – a determination and spirit ingrained in the character of the city.
The two friends say they will continue their friendship in their retirement.
“Our generation has experienced a lot of misery,” Ha says. “I have fulfilled my lifetime wish after meeting Chan again.”