Then a British colony, the city became home to a huge number of refugees fleeing Communism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now 39, Tam says he’s ready to make another escape, 20 years after the UK handed sovereignty over the city to China.
While Hong Kong is one of the most affluent cities in the world, he says it’s now in the throes of its own political upheaval.
“I want to see if I can do the same for my family (as my father did for us),” he says. “I’m not satisfied with the situation in Hong Kong. The political situation, the government. We have so many complaints.”
‘I feel like we are refugees’
But Tam objects to China’s growing grip on the city.
Under the principle of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong was supposed to have preserved the rule of law, freedom of speech and the right to protest as enjoyed under the British — at least until 2047 — but Tam, and others, feel that China hasn’t held up its part of the bargain.
“Some people say that we are emigrating but I feel like we are refugees escaping from Hong Kong,” he says.
In two years, once his newborn daughter is ready for kindergarten, Tam plans to uproot his family and move to Taiwan.
His wife has already secured citizenship there through an investment visa scheme and Tam plans to cash out his Hong Kong pension pot and start a business selling Hong Kong snacks.
It’s not the first time that political upheaval has had Hong Kongers scouting for boltholes.
However, many came back as the nightmare scenarios some had imagined didn’t emerge and Beijing largely left the city alone during the first 15 years of Chinese rule.
Since then, fears have grown that Beijing neither cares about, nor pays heed, to the city’s supposed autonomy.
Looking to Taiwan
“The main reasons why people leave Hong Kong is because of political instability — the future is uncertain — and poor education in Hong Kong,” he says.
Taiwan, and southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Thailand, have emerged as popular destinations — particularly for younger couples and retirees, says Lo. It’s also now much harder to emigrate to places like Australia and Canada than it was in the 1990s.
Tam says he chose Taiwan because it’s a place he fell in love with on vacation and it has the same cultural roots as Hong Kong.
He knows that life won’t be easy. Tam’s native language is Cantonese and says he speaks Mandarin, the language most Taiwanese use, haltingly. Jobs are also lower paid on average in Taiwan than in Hong Kong.
“I love the culture in Taiwan. I’ve been to the UK to study for one year. When I landed there, the first step, I felt like I didn’t belong. But when I went to Taiwan I felt different,” Tam says.
It’s also the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy — an important drawcard.
According to official figures, the number of Taiwan permanent residents hailing from Hong Kong has more than doubled since 2014 — though the absolute number is still very small at 1,086.
The two — officially the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — split in 1949 following the Communist victory on the mainland after a civil war.
“I have a stable job, income and property, but I find the environment here very uncomfortable,” Tam says. “We were born before 1997. Our birth certificates, our passports were issued by the UK. After 1997 we didn’t immediately see any changes but we do now.”
On July 1, thousands are expected to brave the city’s sultry summer humidity to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover by marching through Hong Kong’s streets to demand greater democracy. The annual event has taken on extra significance this year with Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting the city for the very first time.
Tam has joined the protest in the past but won’t this year — he sees it as a futile act: “I have a choice, I can leave. It’s time to get out.”