Grandma Wong was a key figure in Hong Kong's protest movement -- until she disappeared

Affectionately known as Grandma Wong by other demonstrators, she attended almost every demonstration last year, commuting from the nearby mainland city of Shenzhen, where she moved 14 years ago.

Their presence for many symbolized how political dissatisfaction spread across age groups in Hong Kong, even if the people on the streets were mostly young people in black clothes. Its flag was a scorching mockery that suggested to many that the city was better ruled than the Chinese under British colonial rule.

Last month, Wong reappeared in Hong Kong after a long absence, claiming she had been detained in mainland China for 14 months by the authorities there.

She says she was prevented from entering Shenzhen one night in August last year after she was released from a hospital in Hong Kong where she was being treated for injuries when riot police stormed a subway station.

“I was scared, I feel like my hand was shaking,” she says.

Wong says she was taken to two detention centers after 24 hours at the border before being released on bail for a year. “(I was) so scared every second,” she says of the ordeal.

Wong, who claims she had no access to a lawyer throughout the trial, said Chinese authorities questioned her about her role in the protests and repeatedly asked, “Why are you flying your British flag? You are Chinese.” She says she was threatened with 10 years in prison if she did not speak. Wong says she told the authorities that she always protested alone and never joined any political organization or protest group.

The Chinese authorities did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

A protester is born

Wong wasn’t interested in politics growing up. She says she felt patriotic even on the mainland, where both her parents were born and fled to Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

But that all changed for Wong in 1989.

She had recently returned to Hong Kong from Vienna, where she had studied music, when soldiers in Beijing opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators. “I was really sad when I saw the bloody scenes on TV,” she says. “The bloody and chaos held on to me, as did the demonstrators’ reluctance to leave Tiananmen Square.” When the Hong Kongers took to the streets in solidarity with the victims, Wong joined them. It was their first protest – and sparked a lifetime of political activism.

She later spent a decade doing jobs in Austria and Hawaii before working for an NGO in mainland China. “Gradually I began to compare these places with Hong Kong: Why do people live so happily in some places and places like the countryside on the mainland are so miserable?” She says.

Activist Alexandra Wong waves a UK Union Jack flag during a meeting in front of the seat of government to mark the fourth anniversary of the mass rallies for democracy known as the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong on September 28, 2018.

In 2006, Wong bought a 29-square-meter apartment in Shenzhen for 90,000 yuan ($ 13,447) at auction. In Hong Kong, an apartment this size would have cost nearly 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($ 129,000) depending on the location. “The longer I lived in Shenzhen, the more I felt that something was wrong with the mainland, and the more I hoped I could do something to protect Hong Kong. I kept returning to Hong Kong,” she says.

In Hong Kong, the harmless-looking, gray-haired, flag-flying Wong became a staple of the city’s democracy movement, initially with its first Occupy Central movement in late 2011. Wong joined the 2012 protests against the national curriculum that spanned activist Joshua’s political career Wong started and was regularly photographed in the 2014 Umbrella movement that blocked a central thoroughfare of the city for months. She often camped on the street for several nights in a row.

The democracy-friendly protester Alexandra Wong, nicknamed Grandma Wong, disappeared in the middle of the city's democracy protests in 2019 and reappeared in Hong Kong two days ago after 14 months.  She posed for a picture in her hotel room in Hong Kong.

Her appearances during this movement earned her the nickname Grandma Wong, even though she is neither a grandma nor a mother. The term speaks for 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,” says Wong. “I have to take care of the young people.”

Captured in China

As pro-democracy protests swept Hong Kong last summer and erupted in frequent violence, many crossing the city’s bustling Shenzhen border became increasingly sensitive. In August, British consulate worker and regular protester Simon Cheung was detained at the border for 15 days. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said he was detained for violating China’s Security Administration Punishment Law, which covers a range of offenses that are considered too minor to be a crime.

There were reports of people checking their phones for materials related to the protests. This October, a Taiwanese man who disappeared after crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen last August appeared in the Chinese state media. The state television broadcaster CCTV broadcast footage of Lee Meng-chu in a prison uniform and apologized for the threat to China’s national security. China accused Lee of taking photos of Chinese troops at the border and demonstrators in Hong Kong. It is not clear whether Lee’s admission was made under duress.

Wong says she was also arrested in August when she tried to cross the border back to Shenzhen.

Participants from various forces stand next to a banner supporting the new National Security Law during a flag-raising to mark China's National Day celebrations early morning in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.

Officials told her she was accused of “fighting and provoking trouble”. She says she didn’t tell her family what 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 through a small window 24 hours a day, and the washing area at one end of the room had two surveillance cameras, she says.

“(There was) no privacy,” she adds.

The hardest part was sleep deprivation, she says. “(They) never turn off the lights,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep well. Only three or four hours a day on average.”

Wong was released on bail after signing a confession and was taken on a five-day patriotic tour of Xi’an, central China. Accompanied by three national security officers, she had to wave the national flag, sing the national anthem and watch a movie. They told her to respect the Chinese flag.

Then she was told she could not leave Shenzhen for a year.

“The national security officers (would) come to my own apartment or call me to the small police station,” she says. “Sometimes they scared me at this police station.”

After her bail expired, she had to argue with officials for several days to get bail. When she finally received it on October 2nd, she hurriedly packed her things and went straight to the Hong Kong border.

Back in Hong Kong

When Wong was finally able to enter Hong Kong last month, it was a huge relief, she says. “That moment (coming back) was really, really happy,” she says. “But I was sad because the Hong Kong police were able to take me back to the police station immediately … it is possible.”

While she was on the mainland, Hong Kong had changed – in June Beijing passed a national security law on the city that eased the punishment of protesters and restricted the city’s autonomy.

She is now living in temporary accommodation in Hong Kong, trying to catch up on what happened last year. She enjoys reading the news without Chinese online censorship as she works out her next steps. Wong says she will not return to mainland China unless the political system changes.

A protester carries a flag that says "Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time," an act that could now be considered a crime under the city's new national security law.

She also says she won’t stop protesting. She even wears a tie that reads “Liberate Hong Kong” – a popular protest slogan that has now been effectively banned by national security law as it is believed to support separatism.

This week she was at the Hong Kong Courthouse to support Tony Chung, the first public political figure to be indicted under the National Security Law, and she has publicly supported 12 young people arrested on the mainland to flee Hong Kong By boat to Taiwan earlier this year.

Wong urges other young people who can legally leave to try to start a life elsewhere. She says it is too late for an “old woman” like her to do the same – so she will stay to fight. “I want to protect young people,” she said, so that they “can emigrate to other countries”.

All of this may draw the wrath of the Hong Kong authorities, but it is a risk they are willing to take.

“It’s impossible for me to be calm,” she says. “I’m ready to go back to jail.”