HONG KONG — When the first seat in my class was left empty, no one paid much attention. We were 8-year-olds, new friends could easily be made, and life went on in Hong Kong.
But through the early 1990s, each time we returned from summer holidays, a few more children had disappeared — to Canada, Australia, the United States, Britain. Before we were 13, practically half my class was empty.
At the time, none of us preteen schoolgirls could have grasped the scale of the emigration taking place with the approach of 1997, the dreaded year when Hong Kong was to return to Chinese rule.
All around us, people were panicking about the future of the British colony, stunned by the bloody crushing of student-led protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
For hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people, particularly middle-class families with the money to move, it was time to make exit plans.
For us confused adolescents, it was a blur of hasty farewells to friends pulled out of school midterm, and of overheard family discussions about "the bad communists" coming to ruin Hong Kong.
My father, who worked at an American pharmaceutical firm, had already made all the preparations for moving to the U.S. "just in case worst came to worst."
"Our company guaranteed us senior staff that we'd get a position in the States in case anything happened after 1997," my father said. The firm even went as far as promising to airlift staff families out of Hong Kong in case of emergency, he recalled.
Few of us had much understanding of the sudden need to leave.
"I left in November 1994 by myself. I had just turned 13," said my friend Psyche Loui. "My parents left a week before I did. I vividly remember being taken out of school suddenly for one week to report as a landing immigrant in Canada." She ended up in Vancouver.
She says she had an inkling that "bad things would happen" to Hong Kong because she had seen how horrified people were by the Tiananmen crackdown. Now 26, she lives in the United States.
Bonnie Wong left before Tiananmen, though at age 9, she wasn't sure why. "I only knew that the handover meant that the British, who made Hong Kong prosperous, would leave and the communists would take over, and that our standard of living will suffer." Now 29, she is a financial analyst in London.
About 30,000 people fled Hong Kong in 1987, and after Tiananmen the number of applicants for emigration more than doubled, sociology professor Janet Salaff estimates.
"Many people were hedging their bets. They didn't know what to do, or when to do it. But after June 4, 1989, many of them decided 'we'd better do it now'," said Salaff, who has conducted extensive research on Hong Kong immigration patterns at the University of Toronto.
In sum, about half a million people left before 1997, creating huge immigrant communities in Canada, Britain and Australia. Toronto alone has six Chinatowns, Salaff said.
But for many, life abroad was hard. Breadwinners often sent their families out but kept their jobs in Hong Kong, meaning separations lasting years. Others spoke poor English or lacked social connections.
Often they returned as soon as they qualified for citizenship, treating the new passport as an insurance policy.
"We were just counting the days until we got to the almost two-year mark to hand in our citizenship papers and head back to Hong Kong, so that we would have the Australian passport to protect us when the communists come," Wong said.
The Chois moved back from Vancouver a year after the handover. "We never considered settling. My parents never liked the place," said Janice Choi, 26, who now works at a Hong Kong investment bank.
"My dad's life is in Hong Kong," she said. In Canada, "he had no work, no horse races and no stock markets to watch."
Windy Hui, a mother of two, lived in Sydney from 1989 until the family returned in 2002, enduring years of separation from her businessman husband.
"I thought that foreign places must be better. But now I don't really think so — it would have been better if we had stayed in Hong Kong," she said. "Our kids didn't have time to be with their father. We can't chase those years back."