At the height of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, activist Ventus Lau — just 25 then — put his name down as the organizer of multiple demonstrations, aware that he would take the fall if violence broke out.
Now behind bars, Lau wonders where his bravery came from.
“I am actually pretty useless,” he wrote in a letter to his girlfriend in April. “I’m afraid of heights and water and insects, and even traveling via planes and boats. I don’t know why I had the courage to do so many things and have ended up in jail now.”
Lau has been in jail since February, connected to the outside world only through the letters he writes and receives. In them, he describes the insects he sees, his sleep trouble and how he sometimes struggles to remain hopeful.
“He feels like he shares the same breath and same fate as Hong Kong,” his girlfriend, Emilia Wong, said.
In the year since Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong, the city has been transformed. Slogans and songs are now banned. A newspaper was forced to shutter. Walls are devoid of the colorful pro-democracy protest notes that were once a spontaneous form of free expression.
But the new law has most poignantly affected the more than 100 people arrested under its draconian provisions, almost all of them for speech violations or political acts. They now face life in prison.
About half of them, including Lau, were charged and detained in just one day in February for trying to run in an election. Most have been denied bail ahead of trial.
The treatment of this group shows China’s resolve to defy the will of Hong Kong people — who rejected pro-Beijing candidates in local district elections in late 2019 — and bring the financial center to heel.
June 9, 2019 — January 2020
Hong Kong was supposed to largely run its own affairs until 2047, under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China. But concerns about Beijing’s growing encroachment burst into the open in 2019, with large-scale demonstrations sparked by a plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. As the movement widened into a massive pro-democracy uprising, authorities hit back with rubber bullets and tear gas, and arrested more than 10,000 people.
Nov. 24, 2019
Amid the protests that November, pro-democracy candidates scored stunning gains in local council elections, sweeping aside the Beijing-linked establishment. Activists then turned their focus to legislative elections due in September 2020. They hoped to win a simple majority of seats and pressure the government to make concessions to the democracy movement.
June 30, 2020
But on June 30, 2020, Beijing passed a new national security law for Hong Kong that outlawed dissent, threatening life in prison for vaguely defined acts such as secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces. On July 7, 2020, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, tried to calm fears, saying the new security law did not mean “doom and gloom” for the city.
July 11, 2020
Still, the democracy camp went ahead with an unofficial primary vote on July 11 and 12 to select the most popular candidates who stood the best chance of winning at the September elections. More than 600,000 people turned up to vote, surpassing expectations, in a sign that many would persist despite the security law.
Jan. 6 — Feb. 28, 2021
Within weeks, authorities disqualified candidates from the September vote and then postponed the elections. On Jan. 6, 2021, officers from the Hong Kong police’s national security unit arrested everyone who contested or helped to organize the primary, alleging that they aimed to paralyze the government should they be elected. Most were charged on Feb. 28 and denied bail.
The prospect of life in prison has forced the activists to make excruciating choices. Some have shut down social media accounts, quit their political parties and pledged never to run for elections again in the hopes that courts will grant bail. Others have continued to write letters from jail — determined that their voices should still be heard and hopeful that they can provide some comfort to friends and supporters.
‘We need to toughen up’
In one of her pages-long missives, posted by friends to her social media pages, Gwyneth Ho recalled a conversation with family members visiting her in jail.
“They told me what was being reported [about me] and said, ‘You are facing a very serious matter. Can you be more serious?’ ” she wrote.
They were referencing news reports that Ho hummed a love song from Mirror, a Canto-pop boy band, during the few seconds that her microphone was on at the start of her bail hearing.
Friends who know the 30-year-old could only laugh, comforted that the prospect of jail had not changed her.
“I thought to myself, this is so her, so crazily tough and humorous," said Glacier Kwong, a close friend of Ho.
When Ho and Kwong first met, Ho was a journalist. But even in her early days as a reporter, first for the BBC Chinese-language service and then online outlet Stand News, Ho was interested in politics.
Circumstances propelled Ho to prominence on July 21, 2019, when a gang of white-clad men rampaged through a subway station, beating commuters and pro-democracy protesters with sticks. She was reporting live for Stand News, when they turned their force on her. Ho documented her own attack, capturing her screams and cries before she fell to the ground.
She realized then, friends say, that her name carried political weight and that she could do more for the movement. So she chose to stand in the primary election and won among the most votes.
Kwong describes Ho as always ready for the consequences, having reported on Chinese dissidents and their treatment on the mainland. In jail, Ho has written long letters that were posted to her public social media pages, weaving together her political stance, pop culture and the future of the pro-democracy movement.
“She firmly believes in freedom of speech, and she considers that to be her right,” Kwong said. “She sees it as her role, and she does have a lot that she wants to address and talk about.”
‘We can only hope for the unknown future’
“In a shattered normal, we do not have space to hide,” pro-democracy activist Tiffany Yuen wrote on her Facebook page, five days before she was jailed in February. “What we can do is stand firm in our positions, and make the most of the remaining time.”
The 27-year-old has been active in social movements since her college days, fighting for causes like land reforms and universal suffrage, and later championing women’s rights and equality.
But she stands out in particular for her role as a Hong Kong district councilor, a local official. She was elected in a landslide in the 2019 elections, beating the fourth-term, pro-establishment incumbent.
The job is not glamorous, and she has had to deal with everything from rat issues and bus routes to gender-friendly application forms for public funds. She also became the first chairwoman of committees to promote equal opportunities, leading mostly older, male local officials despite her age and small frame.
Yuen was removed from her position after she was charged. In jail, she focuses on reading books on gender studies and feminism, and said she wanted to understand what life was like for female inmates. She also tries to care for the residents of her district from afar, responding to those who write her, sometimes with colorful drawings.
One of her letters was a drawing of a soup recipe that could help residents beat the summer heat. In another, she painted a tree in watercolor, encouraging a young woman who suffers from mood disorders.
“Our hearts will only be strong if we learn to co-live with fear,” Yuen wrote.
‘Without you to comfort me, my fears have been amplified’
Ventus Lau, 27, got his first taste of politics in college as the head of a “localist” group, which broadly supports a more radical form of autonomy for Hong Kong. Election officials disqualified him from running for Hong Kong’s legislature in 2018, citing his previous support for Hong Kong’s independence — a red line for China. When the protests against the extradition bill erupted, Lau stepped up to reflect the demands of Hong Kong people, his girlfriend, Emilia Wong, said.
“He knew how to better communicate with the police, so he was willing to bear this role,” Wong said.
Before he was also jailed in February, Lau in a Facebook post referenced another jailed activist who had said years ago that he did not want to leave the city because he wanted to prove that Hong Kongers were willing to sacrifice themselves for their political beliefs.
“Five years later, we no longer need to prove that many, many of us, are willing to give up everything in life for our ideals, for this city,” Lau wrote.
Wong and Lau lived together in a 400-square-foot apartment with their eight cats. Wong says they were soul mates more than partners. They write to each other frequently, honest about the difficulties, sadness and loss they are both facing.
Those emotions, she said, are reserved for letters. When she visits him in jail, allowed just 15 minutes to speak over the phone and separated by a plastic barrier worn out with scratches, they try to stick to only positive emotions.
“If you are happy during those 15 minutes, you will be happy for the whole day,” she said.
‘The passengers shouldn’t just focus on the unknown ahead’
In the nine months since he has been in jail, Tam Tak-chi, a radio DJ, has been drawing.
In one, he sketched a faceless black-robed judge in crayon, asking whether Hong Kong still has the rule of law. Another is of a wailing penguin — the word for penguin is similar to that of "I" in Cantonese — that is asking to go home.
But the drawing that best reflects his personality, friends say, is one of a bus driving through a field of flowers. In it, Tam encourages his fellow passengers — the other 46 charged alongside him — to remember to “enjoy the scenery.”
“I was worried that his freedom-loving personality would make him too mentally stressed” in jail, said Terrence Chau, a business owner and friend of Tam. “But as time passed, I really realized that his optimism was not a disguise.”
Eloquent and chatty, Tam joined a local radio station as a host in 1995 and became known by his DJ name “Fastbeat.” The 48-year-old devout Christian and student of theology began his activism first by opposing unfair work policies at the station, Commercial Radio. He soon became more involved in political parties, including People Power, a more radical, populist wing of the traditional democratic parties.
Tam was first arrested last September, as police accused him of fomenting “hatred and contempt of the government” and raising “discontent and disaffection among Hong Kong people” in his speeches. He was denied bail. While already jailed, he was arrested again in detention and charged again under the security law in February.
Friends and colleagues say Tam has never concealed his fear of losing his freedom. He is especially concerned about his aging golden retriever, Cream, and worries he will not have a chance to hold her again.
But Tam has continued to write letters and post drawings on social media to encourage others in Hong Kong.
“His faith in democracy and his Christian spirit give him great strength,” Chau said.
‘Everyone should be born equal, born free’
It was Hong Kong’s first formal gay parade in 2008. In the city center, packed with hundreds of people waving rainbow flags and banners, a then 21-year-old Jimmy Sham clasped hands with his boyfriend and kissed him.
The intimate gesture startled some in Hong Kong, where same-sex relationships remain controversial.
“He was very young [and] in a hip outfit back then,” recalled Sham’s friend, Yeo Wai-wai.
Yeo met Sham at Rainbow Action, a nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ rights. In legislative elections in 2016, the pair questioned candidates on their positions on LGBTQ issues, including implementing anti-discrimination laws and gender-neutral toilets. Sham was a rare talent, Yeo said, one of the few gay activists who understood Hong Kong’s political parties and had the right language to bridge the gap between sexual minorities and politicians.
That year “was when we had the most support for LGBTQ issues from [pro-democracy] political parties,” Yeo said.
Sham wears many hats: He is a district councilor, was the convener of the group that organized Hong Kong’s largest and most peaceful marches in 2019 and is a democracy activist with a talent for public speaking. Yeo describes him also as a patient listener.
“His heart is really with the most marginalized and the grass roots, the poorest, ugliest, the victims,” Yeo said.
During the 2019 pro-democracy protests, Sham was attacked by four masked men armed with hammers. He was hospitalized but returned to the streets days later.
In the primary election last year, Sham won the highest number of votes in his constituency. In February, he too was jailed along with the others who participated, and was denied bail.
Behind bars, he tries to remain positive by exercising, and writing letters and poems.
Hong Kong’s legislature now is overwhelmingly comprised of pro-establishment politicians, some of them conservative and anti-gay. One recently called for the government to cancel the upcoming Gay Games, branding it disgraceful.
With Sham and other pro-democracy activists now detained, Yeo said the future for LGBTQ rights is bleak.
“Not one of them will be able to join elections anymore,” she said. “This is the biggest loss toward the LGBTQ movement.”