With her gray hair and huge British flag, 64-year-old Alexandra Wong was a striking figure on the frontlines of last year’s pro-democracy protests – until she disappeared.
Affectionately nicknamed Grandma Wong by other protesters, she attended nearly every demonstration last year, commuting from the nearby mainland city of Shenzhen, where she moved to 14 years ago.
Her presence for many symbolized how political dissatisfaction in Hong Kong cut across age groups, even if those on the streets were most often young people dressed in black. Her flag was an incendiary taunt implying to many that the city was governed better under British colonial rule than Chinese.
Last month after a long absence, Wong resurfaced in Hong Kong, alleging that she had been detained in mainland China for 14 months by the authorities there.
She says that late one night in August last year, after being discharged from a Hong Kong hospital where she was treated for injuries sustained when riot police stormed a subway station, she was prevented from entering Shenzhen.
“I (was) frightened, I feel my hand was shaking,” she says.
Wong says that after being held for 24 hours at the border, she was sent to two detention centers, before being released on bail for a year. “(I was) so frightened every second,” she says of the ordeal.
Wong, who claims she did not have access to a lawyer throughout the process, says the Chinese authorities questioned her about her role in the protests, repeatedly asking: “Why do you fly your British flag? You are Chinese.” She says she was threatened with 10 years imprisonment if she didn’t talk. Wong says she told the authorities she always protested alone, and never joined a political organization or protest group.
The Chinese authorities did not reply to CNN’s request for comment.
A protester is born
Wong wasn’t interested in politics growing up. She says she had even felt patriotic to the mainland, where both her parents were born and had fled from to Hong Kong during the second Sino-Japanese War.
But all that changed for Wong in 1989.
She had only recently returned to Hong Kong from Vienna, Austria, where she had been studying music, when soldiers opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. “I felt really sad when I saw the bloody scenes on television,” she says. “The bloodiness and chaos stuck with me, so did the protesters’ reluctance to leave (Tiananmen Square).” When Hong Kongers took to the streets in solidarity with the victims, Wong joined them. It was her first protest – and sparked a lifetime of political activism.
She later spent a decade drifting through jobs in Austria and Hawaii, before working for an NGO in mainland China. “Gradually, I started to compare these places with Hong Kong: Why in some places people live so happily, and places like the countryside on the mainland are so miserable?” she says.
In 2006, Wong bought a 29-square-meter (312-square-foot) flat in Shenzhen for 90,000 yuan ($13,447) at auction. In Hong Kong, she says an apartment of that size would have cost close to 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($129,000), depending on the location. “The longer I lived in Shenzhen, the more I felt something was not right with the mainland, and the more I hoped I could do something to safeguard Hong Kong. I began going back to Hong Kong more and more often,” she says.
In Hong Kong, the inoffensive-looking, gray-haired flag-flying Wong became a fixture of the city’s pro-democracy movement, first at its initial Occupy Central movement in late 2011. Wong later joined the protests against the national education curriculum in 2012, which launched the political career of activist Joshua Wong, and was regularly photographed at the Umbrella movement of 2014, which shut down a central thoroughfare of the city for months. She often camped out on the street for several nights in a row.
Her appearances during that movement earned her the moniker Grandma Wong, although she is neither a grandma or a mother. The term speaks to her figure as an older member of society who has a broader perspective on the city’s history, and future.
“I want to tell the middle-aged and old people to come out, (and) stand with the young people together,” Wong says. “I must take care of the young people.”
Captured in China
As the pro-democracy protests swept Hong Kong last summer, frequently erupting into violence, for many crossing the city’s busy border with Shenzhen became increasingly sensitive. In August, British consulate worker and regular protester Simon Cheung was detained at the border for 15 days. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said he had been held for violating China’s Security Administration Punishment Law, which covers a range of offenses deemed too minor to be crimes.
Reports emerged of people’s phones being checked for materials related to the protests. This October, a Taiwanese man who disappeared after crossing from Hong Kong into Shenzhen last August turned up on Chinese state media. State broadcaster CCTV aired footage of Lee Meng-chu in a prison uniform, apologizing for endangering Chinese national security. China accused Lee of taking photos of Chinese troops on the border and protesters in Hong Kong. It is not clear if Lee’s confession was made under duress.
Wong says she was also detained in August as she tried to cross the border back into Shenzhen.
Officers told her she was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She says she didn’t tell her family what had happened to her, for fear of getting them into trouble.
Wong was sent to a detention center where she shared a cell with 16 women – she says they all shared a bed. The women were monitored by police officers 24 hours a day via a small window, and the washing area at one end of the room had two security cameras, she says.
“(There was) no privacy,” she adds.
The hardest part was the sleep deprivation, she says. “(They) never turn the lights off,” she says. “I could not sleep well. Every day, only three or four hours on average.”
Wong was released on bail after signing a confession, and taken on a five-day patriotic tour of Xi’an, in central China. Accompanied by three national security police officers, she says she had to wave the national flag, sing the national anthem, and watch a film. They told her to respect the Chinese flag.
She was then told she could not leave Shenzhen for one year.
“The national security policemen (would) come to my own apartment, or they called me to the small police station,” she says. “Sometimes they scared me at that police station.”
After her bail period ended, she says she had to wrangle with officials for several days to get a bail completion certificate. When she finally received it on October 2, she hurriedly packed her belongings and went straight to the border with Hong Kong.
Back in Hong Kong
When Wong was finally able to cross into Hong Kong last month, it was a huge relief, she says. “That moment (of returning) was really, really happy,” she says. “But I did feel sorrow, because the Hong Kong policemen (could) immediately bring me back to the police station … it’s possible.”
While she was in the mainland, Hong Kong had changed – in June, Beijing imposed a national security law on the city, which has made it easier to punish protesters and reduced the city’s autonomy.
Now living in temporary accommodation in Hong Kong, she is trying to catch up with the events of the past year and is enjoying being able to read the news without Chinese online censorship, as she works out her next steps. Wong says she won’t return to mainland China unless the political system changes.
She also says she will not stop protesting. She even wears a necktie embossed with the words “liberate Hong Kong” – a popular protest slogan that has now been effectively outlawed by the national security law, as it is deemed as supporting separatism.
This week, she was at the court house in Hong Kong to support Tony Chung, the first public political figure to face charges under the national security law, and she has publicly supported 12 young people who were arrested on the mainland trying to flee Hong Kong by boat for Taiwan earlier this year.
Wong is urging other young people who can leave legally to try to start a life elsewhere. She says it’s too late for an “old woman” like her to do the same – so she will stay to fight. “I want to protect the young people,” she said, so they can “emigrate to other countries.”
All of this may attract the ire of the Hong Kong authorities but it is a risk she says she is willing to take.
“It’s impossible for me to be quiet,” she says. “I’m ready to go to jail again.”
CNN’s Jadyn Sham and Eric Cheung also contributed to this report.