When Jimmy Lai, out on bail following a political arrest earlier this year, was asked in a rare CBC interview recently if he was worried he might one day “be spirited away in the middle of the night to prison in mainland China,” he said yes, but “what can I do? Just keep quiet?”
That was about a week ago, and the owner of Apple Daily, a media outlet openly critical of the Chinese Communist Party, hasn’t kept quiet. Instead he has continued his criticism and protests, and was arrested Tuesday morning. The media tycoon, with close family and business ties to Niagara-on-the-Lake, was taken from his home in Hong Kong, this time, according to international media, with Ian, his 39-year-old son. News agencies are reporting the arrest was over suspected collusion with foreign forces, under China’s new, restrictive national security law, which bans slogans and protests, and can mean life in prison for anyone suspected of subversion or collusion.
He had been arrested earlier this year, along with other prominent business people, on illegal assembly charges, for organizing and participating in protests last year.
A billionaire, he can be seen in photographs marching through the streets of Hong Kong in protest last summer, during a downpour, a plastic bag over his clothes keeping him dry.
He speaks out, as he does in the CBC interview, knowing the danger, because of the strengths of his beliefs.
While there are many in NOTL who know of his business interests in town, they may not know much about the man and his family, who have been coming for regular visits, or his decades-old quest for democracy.
Lai is the owner of Vintage Hotels, which includes the Pillar and Post, the first hotel to be taken over and run by his twin sister, Si Wai Lai.
She caused quite a stir when she arrived in NOTL in the 1990s, also buying, on behalf of her brother, Queen’s Landing, the Prince of Wales from the Wiens family, the Oban Inn from Gary Burroughs, and properties on Queen Street, where she built the Shaw Cafe. The chain of Vintage Hotels has grown since then to include other properties in Niagara and across the province, but Si Wai’s interest in recent years has been the Oban, while the Vintage leadership has taken over management of the other properties.
Although there was some criticism from locals about her makeovers of familiar landmarks in the 90s, Lai had all the hotels updated and brought up to her high standards, says John Wiens.
The town had already gone through one major change in the 70s, with the Shaw Festival drawing tourists who filled NOTL hotels and restaurants, he says, but Lai’s investments catapulted it into a second stage of development, one that was positive for the town, bringing increasing waves of tourists, as well as retirees drawn to live here.
Everything she touched had to be perfect, with no expense spared on fulfilling her vision, says Wiens, which was always to do the best she could for Niagara-on-the-Lake, the town she loves and continues to call home.
Her purchase of the Prince of Wales was not the easiest of times for him. He and his father were not at first interested in selling, but when she made an offer “too good to refuse,” his father and another family partner decided it was time to sell. He didn’t want to sell, and was disappointed that running the hotel was not to be in his future. However, in hindsight, he says, he realizes the family wouldn’t have had the money to do what the Lais were able to do.
“She wanted to make it into a very special, first-class destination, and she did,” he says.
Working with the Town, she also invested in Simcoe Park, which benefited from the updating, and made large donations to NOTL’s first entry into the Communities in Bloom competition, which led to the town being named the prettiest of its size in Canada, recalls Wiens.
“When I look back, I can see that a lot of good came from that time.”
In the early days, she loved to talk about her plans, she was vibrant and enthusiastic about the future, and also open about her past and the struggles she and her brother had faced. Although she now chooses a much quieter, private life, she remains positive about her business interests in NOTL.
Her daughter, Erica Lepp, says her uncle Jimmy, her aunt and six children, now between the ages of 19 and 42, have travelled often to Niagara-on-the-Lake, which they love visiting. He doesn’t come as much as he used to, when her grandmother also lived in NOTL, but he still visits, and one of his adult children spent last year here, working at the Oban.
“He’s a great guy,” Lepp says, and although she’s hesitant to discuss his politics, she says he’s always had the same passion for democracy and freedom.
When she speaks to her uncle, as she does regularly, they don’t speak of politics, they speak of family, her cousins and their children, and she tells him she loves him.
“He’s a kind man, a calm person, and he’s always been passionate about what he believes. What has happened is not surprising,” she says.
She spoke to her cousin in Hong Kong this week, but says conversations with family are, out of necessity, guarded. She told them she was thinking about them and offered to do anything she could to help. She has no idea how long he will be detained or if he will be allowed out on bail under the new security law, she says.
She calls this a “cumulative moment” in his life, but nothing new for him. “He has always been so dedicated, not just in politics, but in all his beliefs,” she says.
“I remember him saying to me, when I was a young girl, ‘what good is having money if you don’t have freedom.’”
She says he loves NOTL, and although the creative vision of upgrading the hotels was her mother’s, he always supported it financially.
Si Wai is an outgoing, active person, still involved in the running of the Oban and going out on her three-wheeled bicycle twice daily. “My mother loves this town, and always has.”
The cloak of privacy she wrapped around her and her family goes back to the early days in NOTL, when they were confronted by racism, and publicly criticized for Si Wai’s involvement in town.
“People were mean,” says Lepp. “We were just kids, my sister and I, but people would say really racist things to us. I remember standing in line in the grocery store and having someone tell us to go back to where we came from. We were young, and although I can’t forget what happened, I still love this town, and the many great people I’ve met here.”
To protect them, her mother sent her girls, Erica and Celia, to school in Niagara Falls and then St. Catharines. She wouldn’t let the comments bother her, but she was determined to shield her children. Her mother is a strong person, and having confronted so much worse in her life, she is not easily intimidated, says Lepp.
After high school, Celia went on to study in Europe, and came back to NOTL, taking over the running of the Oban Inn and becoming a beloved member of the community, until her death from cancer in 2014, leaving family and friends devastated by their loss.
Lepp says her uncle, like her mother, is strong, and the criticism they faced has not had an effect on either of them.
“They’re similar in that way, not easily swayed by what’s going on around them. When you’ve grown up in communist China, when you have the beliefs they have, you are not going to be intimidated.”
She calls her uncle a “humble man,” wealthy, yes, and likes nice things, but not flashy. He’s also a loving family man, and devoted to God, she says.
He is generous, faithful, and has always been an incredible uncle, she adds, offering guidance and support to her and her sister Celia.
“We have always held him, my aunt and cousins close to our hearts, and have endless gratitude for everything he has done for us.”
Lepp mentions her uncle being chosen one of Time Magazine’s top 100 influential people, and the comment written about him. “Though he went from a child labourer in a garment factory to owning his own clothing line and media company, he rejected complacency and the status quo when he chose to criticize a powerful government and support a primarily student-led democracy movement in his beloved Hong Kong. His courage in the face of the firebombing of his home, as well as his subsequent arrest for his role in challenging the ruling order, resonates around the world as an inspiration for those seeking self-determination. It was this kind of bravery that inspired me to mention the Hong Kong protests in my Oscar acceptance speech, and that reminds all of us to always strive to speak truth to power,” was the quote from Common, a hip-hop artist and Academy Award winner asked by Time Magazine to comment on Lai’s inclusion in the prestigious list.
Lai knew he was risking his freedom by continuing his criticism, he told journalist Adrienne Arsenault in his interview for the CBC National. He said he couldn’t be scared, because if he was, he wouldn’t be able to do or say anything, and would be letting the country’s rulers do whatever they want. His chief worry is for the young, he said, and he hopes Canada and other countries will offer asylum to young activists, and also use their combined leverage for change. He said he had asked his staff not to put themselves at risk, and has told his family “to go if they need to.”
When asked by Arsenault at the end of the interview if he was concerned for his sister in Canada, who must be worried about him, he becomes emotional, and says, “well, it must go on.”
When Lepp is asked if she is worried about him, she says her faith allows her to believe in God’s plan for her uncle, and he believes the same. “He too says this is all part of God’s plan. And when you have that belief, you don’t worry.”