Twenty-one years ago, Vicktoriia Tkachuk’s parents opened a Ukrainian restaurant in the central district of Hong Kong. They called him Ivan the Kozak.
The Kozak, or Cossacks, are “a group of people who don’t belong to the government, like free warriors,” Tkachuk said. “They are fighting for what they believe should be fought.”
On February 24, Russian troops invade Ukraine. Since then, heavy fighting has taken place across the country, including in the capital Kiev, where Tkachuk’s family is from. His grandparents are still there.
The 30-year-old, who is the manager of her parents’ restaurant, called the invasion led by Russian President Vladimir Putin a “stupid gesture”. Last Tuesday, she printed “Stop the War” posters with the Ukrainian flag and gathered restaurant workers for a photo in protest against the conflict.
Posters now adorn the entrance to the restaurant. Next to a sign bearing the restaurant’s name, a customer has placed a handwritten post-it note that reads: ‘God bless Ukraine[e]”.
Since the invasion, some Hong Kongers have even left piles of cash, asking Tkachuk to donate it to Ukraine.
“Why did you hit me? »
Like many Ukrainians, Tkachuk is furious.
“Our views are different. Its good. May be [Ukraine and Russia] didn’t get along well in 2014. But now it’s like, why are you hitting me?! she says.
“A lot of Russians are against the war, they don’t even want a conflict. But if they got out, they would just be thrown in jail.
The talks between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations have not yet reached a conclusion. According to the Pentagon, the Russian government has shown no interest in a “deconfliction mechanism”. Last Sunday, Putin made another threat, saying continued resistance would challenge Ukraine’s statehood.
“Of course, I would have liked to be there. But then again, how useful would I be?” said Tkachuk.
She learned of the conflict after being awakened by an early phone call on February 24. On the other end of the line, her voice shaking, Tkachuk’s mother said, “We have war.
“Alcohol, lots of tears, lots of phone calls…” was how Tkachuk described the days that followed. And it wasn’t just her. Tkachuk said the other employees of Ivan The Kozak were like “zombies” too.
Prior to 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. In the years immediately following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Social Republics, the Ukrainian economy experienced hyperinflation and high poverty rates.
As a child, Tkachuk didn’t have diapers – his mother used pads instead. Traumatic stories of life under Soviet rule – of collectivization, of extreme poverty, of the Chernobyl disaster – were passed down to Tkachuk from his mother.
So they left Ukraine to settle in Hong Kong. Away from home, her mother struggled with depression and panic attacks, but was able to find some solace when she met Russians living in the city. The common language put her mother at ease, Tkachuk said, as she spoke neither Mandarin nor Cantonese when she arrived in the city.
Tkachuk learned to speak Russian from his mother, and she admits she speaks it more fluently than Ukrainian.
The relationship between Ukraine and Russia dates back centuries, and years of cultural and historical exchanges within Ukraine have created an ethnically and linguistically diverse nation. Ethnic Russians are the largest minority group in Ukraine, and Russian is widely spoken throughout the region, but largely due to Russification efforts during the Imperial and Soviet eras.
But the relationship became strained. Ukrainian electoral politics were presented as a competition between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates, and expressed desires to join NATO and the European Union resulted in tense identity politics. Differing memories of history added to the conflict.
Much of this culminated in the Maidan Revolution in 2014 which toppled pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and, only a month later, the Russian annexation of Crimea.
When Tkachuk was little and people asked her her nationality, she said “Russian” without thinking too much.
“You are Ukrainian!” corrected her mother angrily. After Crimea was annexed by Russia, her mother started speaking to her in Ukrainian instead of Russian.
The Russian-Ukrainian war also revealed people’s opinions or, in the eyes of some Ukrainians, their humanity. Tkachuk said she stopped working with a long-time supplier after the owner openly declared her support for Putin.
“Everyone says, ‘oh, we don’t know about any of this government stuff.’ But no, you know when a bully is a bully,” Tkachuk said.
Hong Kongers show their support
When Tkachuk’s mother first arrived in Hong Kong, her nursing certification was not recognized, so she served tables at a Russian restaurant. After it closed, she decided to open a Ukrainian restaurant with her Chinese husband, naming it Ivan after him.
The restaurant is adorned with a collection of cultural and religious trinkets, combined with wooden coffered ceilings and Tiffany lamps to create an environment unique in Eastern Europe.
However, the OpenRice online dining guide lists Ivan The Kozak as offering Russian cuisine. Tkachuk asked the platform to change his categorization to Ukrainian or even Eastern European, but to no avail.
“It’s okay. Once they get to our front door, they’ll know we do Ukrainian,” Tkachuk said. Ukraine’s blue and yellow flags, posters and banners slogans adorning the entrance leave diners in no doubt about the cuisine they are about to eat.
In 2014, Tkachuk’s mother printed a message in the menu saying that Russia was solely responsible for the invasion and annexation of Crimea. According to Tkachuk, some Russian guests left their tables after reading the menu.
In 2019, the front page of the menu was replaced with slogans of solidarity with Hong Kong people.
“It’s quite stressful. Hong Kong calms down a bit, then Ukraine has problems; then Ukraine calms down a bit, then Hong Kong has problems,” she said with a sigh.
Tkachuk appeared calm while speaking to HKFP, but said that every time she closed her eyes, she saw her Ukrainian sisters and brothers in pain and was unable to hold back tears.
One thing that has comforted her is her little sapphire-colored parrot, Hercules. He cuddled into his palm as Tkachuk spoke to HKFP. From time to time it would jump on its head and gently ruffle its hair with its beak.
“Hongkongers love Ukrainian food,” Tkachuk said, adding “the most popular dish here is Chicken Kiev.” Ivan Le Kozak has managed to continue running without financial hardship despite the city’s strict social distancing measures, which include a ban on eating in restaurants after 6 p.m.
And after Russia invaded Ukraine, Hong Kongers flocked to the restaurant to show their support. Some left “Stand with Ukraine” memos, some shared how heartbroken they were by the news, and some even placed piles of cash on their table, asking that the money be donated for support Ukrainians.
Tkachuk’s brother immediately donated the money to the armed forces, not knowing how long Ukraine would last.
The restaurant expressed its gratitude on Facebook, writing, “Dear Hong Kongers! Thank you for your support! We see it and we feel it. »
“He’s been very busy these days. A week ago [before the invasion]we only had six to seven tables a day because offices were closed and people were working from home,” Tkachuk said.
She knew that people had come for the Ukraine.