VANCOUVER — Edmund Wan, recently released from a Hong Kong prison, says he feels at ease in Vancouver.
He described the sense of familiarity that struck him in a Hong Kong-style café on Vancouver’s Cambie Street — the smell of baked pork chops on rice, the background noise of people joking in Cantonese.
But there was something else that Wan says people in Hong Kong can no longer take for granted — the ability to talk freely and without fear in public.
Wan, 55, is better known as the former Hong Kong radio personality Giggs, a prominent voice of support for the city’s pro-democracy protest movement.
“I hear people chatting in Cantonese no matter where I go, especially in Richmond and Burnaby’s food courts where they say ‘hey’ after recognizing me,” Wan said in an interview in Mandarin, in which he is also fluent.
“I am fully enjoying my life in Canada.”
Wan moved to British Columbia last month after spending almost two years in Hong Kong’s Shek Pik and Stanley prisons, having admitted charges of sedition and money laundering that rights group Amnesty International says were politically motivated.
But Wan said his fight continues in Canada, as he described the plight of other supporters of the protest movement still behind bars.
“Now I am here to tell the world about their stories to remind people that they cannot be forgotten,” he said.
Wan is currently in Canada with his wife on a tourist visa, although he hopes to become a permanent resident.
“I moved here because of my daughter. I haven’t been able to see her for three years. I felt blessed to be close to her now,” said Wan, crying upon mentioning her.
He said the past couple of years had been tough, but he has no regrets.
“Now I feel grateful to live here freely, to have the freedom to do whatever I want, and spend time with my family.”
Wan made his first public appearance in Canada at the annual Hong Kong Fair in early May in New Westminster, east of Vancouver. He was manning a stand to raise awareness about the “Hong Kong 47,” a group of pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to subvert state power under the city’s national security law.
Wan was surrounded by the curious and well-wishers who recognized him, asking about his new life and thanking him for his efforts.
Former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu was among those at Wan’s stand.
Chiu — who has been involved in discussions about Chinese political interference because of his belief that Chinese authorities worked against him in the 2021 federal election — said the radio host’s experiences reminded him “how lucky I am to live in Canada.”
“Even though I have been targeted by a foreign power, all I have suffered is losing my seat in the House of Commons,” Chiu said.
“I am still freely moving around and I can continue to speak my mind whereas there are people who are put in jail.”
Wan received a 32-month sentence in October 2022 after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors, and was released a month later as a result of time served and other factors.
The sedition and money laundering charges stemmed from his support and fundraising efforts for a group of Hong Kong students who fled to Taiwan in the wake of Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement, and a subsequent crackdown on dissent.
Wan, a former businessman, was also forced to hand over about $850,000 in assets.
Gwen Lee, a campaigner for Amnesty International, said Wan’s imprisonment highlighted how Hong Kong authorities targeted critics.
“Given the Hong Kong government’s zero-tolerance approach to dissent since 2019, it is difficult to believe that his imprisonment is anything other than politically motivated,” said Lee.
Wan rose to prominence as a political commentator on the independent Hong Kong radio station D100. He became a vocal supporter of student protesters who left Hong Kong for Taiwan, as authorities arrested many of those connected to the protests that initially drew vast crowds but were decisively stamped out by the introduction of the national security law in 2020. He backed a fundraiser for the youths, triggering the laundering charge.
“I tried to visit these youths after they left the city in 2019 and I found they were so helpless,” Wan said.
“Some of them had left their homes for the first time, they had trouble finding jobs and a few had to move around from one location to another every 30 days given their unstable financial situations.”
On Feb. 7, 2021, Wan said he was awakened by a loud knocking on his door and was startled to see dozens of Hong Kong police outside his home. He was handcuffed and arrested, then eventually convicted 15 months later.
He said the sense of loneliness and vulnerability made his imprisonment “extremely challenging.”
Wan said he was only given about 300 millilitres of water to drink every 12 hours.
“If you want more, you have to ask correction facility officers and negotiate with them. But most of the time they just ignore you.”
Wan said he was placed in solitary confinement for seven days when guards overheard him describing how he would mark the 33rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and honour the Chinese pro-democracy protesters who died.
“Someone visited me and asked if I have any plans for June 4 and I said although I didn’t have any candles on hand, (instead) I would light up three matches,” said Wan. “Then I was locked into confinement after they overheard our conversation.”
He said imprisoned young protesters gave him hope as he served his sentence.
“I sometimes cried alone and they called me Uncle Giggs, tried to cheer me up and make me laugh,” said Wan. “They gave me so much strength.”
“Before all of this, I always felt I had nothing to say to the young generation in Hong Kong because of the age gap. Now I felt we share so many things in common.”
By the time he was released last November, Wan had lost almost 40 pounds.
Wan said his daily life in B.C. is simple yet relaxing — he strolls the streets, has dim sum with family members, and goes to church on Sundays.
But his thoughts remain with supporters of the Hong Kong protests still in jail there, including activist Joshua Wong and newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai.
“I will continue to tell stories about Hong Kongers and I believe their voices shouldn’t be forgotten,” he said.
He said Hong Kong’s experiences should serve as a cautionary tale for nations reluctant to upset China over its human rights record, and fearful of losing economic benefits.
“Hong Kong might be a small dot on the Earth, but we would like the rest of the world to know that if you keep playing with the devil, what happened to us could also happen to you.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Nono Shen, The Canadian Press