Hong Kong, China – Downtown Hong Kong is ghostly quiet as the city struggles with its worst wave of coronavirus infections since the pandemic began. But on the first floor of a commercial building in the heart of Central, one Ukrainian-owned restaurant is heaving.
For the last few weeks, Ivan the Kozak, like most Hong Kong eateries, has been battered by some of the world’s harshest social distancing measures.
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But new customers started pouring into the restaurant, a mainstay of the city’s several hundred-strong Ukrainian community, after Russian tanks rolled over the border into Ukraine on February 24, plunging the world into crisis.
“I was really depressed when the war started,” Viktoriia Tkachuk, the restaurant’s manager, told Al Jazeera.
“I couldn’t sleep or eat, I felt guilty doing small things like going for a bath, knowing people back home couldn’t even do that.”
Tkachuk, whose family opened the restaurant in 2001, said bookings have tripled in the past few days, with patrons turning up in droves with donations, tips and messages of encouragement.
“Weekdays are normally quiet, just six to 10 tables, but this Monday we had 25 to 30,” she said.
Tkachuk, who was raised in the Chinese territory, said her customers’ generosity and support have been uplifting.
“When people are supporting you in this life or death situation, it’s a deep feeling,” she said.
On Monday, one local customer left a tip of $1,279 with a note saying “God Bless Ukraine,” she said.
“He took out a big wad of cash in an envelope and just gave it to me,” she said. “We were all so touched, we almost cried. We’ve already donated it to the Ukrainian government.”
Tkachuk said the man was impressed by Ukrainians’ bravery in the face of the Russian assault against their country.
“He had been following our democratic movements since 2014,” she said. “Hong Kong people feel connected to us in that way, they say we are both up against bullies.”
For pro-democracy Hong Kong residents, Ukrainians have been a source of inspiration since the 2013 and 2014 “Euromaidan” demonstrations, when a student-led movement supporting European integration of the country eventually toppled the pro-Russia government.
In 2019, during the height of pro-democracy protests in the former British colony, thousands gathered at dozens of locations across the city to watch screenings of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the unrest.
Crackdown on dissent
Following the Hong Kong protests, which began peacefully before descending into street battles with police, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city that has been used broadly to quash political opposition and dissent.
Despite Beijing’s guarantees that it would safeguard Western-style rights and freedoms in the city until at least 2047, authorities have arrested scores of prominent pro-democracy voices and forced the closure of critical media and civic groups.
“I saw the film back then, that’s why I came to eat here,” Hong Konger Mimi told Al Jazeera as she dined with her friends at Ivan the Kozak.
“It was that movement in Kyiv that first brought my awareness to the situation in Ukraine.”
Even though Mimi does not consider herself an activist, she sees the issue as black and white.
“It’s about standing against war, and for peace,” said the Hong Kong resident, who requested to only be referred to by her first name.
Another customer, Thomas, travelled for more than an hour by bus to have lunch at the restaurant as a way of quietly offering support.
“I’m just a normal guy, I am just a civilian. I want to do my part, however small it is in the big picture,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Three years ago, the Ukrainian people supported Hong Kong. When I look at their situation, I can see they are fighting for freedom, democracy and human rights. We have similar experiences, between Hong Kongers and Ukrainians.”
Pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong has been effectively outlawed since the introduction of the national security law in June 2020.
The new legal environment, along with pandemic restrictions that include a two-person limit on gatherings, has made it difficult for people to publicly voice their anger at the Russian invasion.
Nonetheless, several Ukraine supporters have held up slogans and signs around the city in one-person protests.
On Monday night, two Hong Kong men in their late 20s brought a portable projector to the Kowloon harbourfront and beamed the Ukrainian flag onto the famous Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower, along with the slogans “Hong Kongers stand with Ukraine” and “Glory to Ukraine”.
“I wasn’t scared because it’s nothing compared to what Ukrainians are going through,” said one of the men, who spoke to Al Jazeera using the pseudonym Eric.
The 26-year-old, who was actively involved in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella protests and the anti-extradition law protests five years later, said Hong Kong residents can relate to the plight of being up against an authoritarian ruler.
“We are appalled by Putin’s invasion and many of us have not been able to sleep in recent days, following every update on the situation.”
Eric said that he is one of many Hong Kong activists around the world who have joined forces to support the Ukrainian resistance by donating money and spreading information.
“We understand that such help is little,” he said. “But we already learned in 2019 that we have to try everything – whatever works.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Tkachuk at Ivan The Kozak.
“Unfortunately nothing will change the situation, there’s a war going on, and people are dying in Ukraine,” she said. “But still, somehow, I feel that we’re not alone.”