My maternal grandmother, Chik Chi Ming, left her family in Shandong, China, in the 1940s after her mom “gifted” her to a friend in Hong Kong whose family had died in the Second World War. My paternal grandmother, Fong Kwai Ying, moved from southern Guangdong to Hong Kong when she was a newlywed and later found work there. Like many other mainland newcomers at the time, my grandmothers’ cultural identities remained largely tied to their home provinces for most of their lives.

A distinct Hong Kong identity started forming as early as the 1960s, though it has largely “resisted definition,” says Helena Wu, Canada research chair in Hong Kong studies and an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. If you consider yourself a Hong Kong person today, what that means largely depends on whether you speak Cantonese, Sindhi, English, or Mandarin as your first language; whether you studied at a local or international school there; whether you grew up near the rolling hills and seascapes of the city’s affluent central and western districts, the gritty urban neighbourhoods of Kowloon populated by neon signs and cha chaan tengs, or the city suburbs flanked by farmland and mainland China. Your understanding of what it means to be a Hong Konger may have transformed several times in your life, depending on which era you came of age in.

Lately, in defiance of China’s vision for Hong Kong’s “return to the motherland” via patriotic education and so-called national security reforms, some are choosing to identify as a “Hong Kong person”—rather than as a “Hong Konger in China” or as “Chinese.” It’s a subtle choice that emphasizes separateness from the people’s republic, an act of protest against declining freedoms and a disappearing way of life. For some, it may be the only form of resistance they have left.

In the decades after the Second World War, the city’s role as an entrepôt between the East and West spurred an economic and cultural boom that most regard as Hong Kong’s best years. But for my parents’ generation, who watched Hong Kong rise to its zenith in the 1980s, an uneasy countdown loomed: to the United Kingdom’s return of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong residents officially became Chinese nationals.

Some locals expressed tentative optimism about rejoining China. Others felt anxious about what life under PRC rule would bring, a feeling that intensified after June 1989, when soldiers mowed down students and civilians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Before 1997, an average of 30,000 Hong Kongers emigrated to Canada each year, my family among them.

China’s unparalleled economic rise soon started to assuage many Hong Kongers. “When the horrors after Tiananmen didn’t materialize, my parents were happy to go back to Hong Kong [and China] to make money,” says Simon Lau, a forty-four-year-old tech founder and strategy consultant whose family immigrated to Vancouver in the late 1980s. So-called astronaut families, like my own, became relatively commonplace. Breadwinners worked and lived in Hong Kong and the mainland while their families remained in other countries.

In the post-handover years, Hong Kongers saw themselves as the “successful sibling” of their “poorer and less educated mainland relatives,” says Miu Chung Yan, a UBC professor who studies Canada’s Chinese diaspora. Few people identified purely as “Hong Kongers,” and the majority still saw themselves as Chinese during that time, according to Yan. British rule over Hong Kong had instilled the idea that being Chinese was “culturally acceptable but politically controversial,” writes Anthony Fung, a Chinese University of Hong Kong professor, in a 2017 paper. “Hong Kong identity embodies and manifests both cultural affiliation with and resistance to Chinese identity.”

Hong Kong’s colonial legacy meant many locals gravitated to Western cultural norms. “Being Westernized was more sought after than being in touch with our Chinese roots,” says Amanda, a thirty-four-year-old Calgary-based accountant and artist who shuttled between Canada and Hong Kong during her childhood. (She asked that only her first name be used.) The same sentiment prevailed among children in the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada. When I was growing up in the suburbs of Calgary, knowledge of Hollywood and ice hockey felt more fashionable and familiar than Hong Kong’s cultural exports, like its soap operas and beauty pageants, or China’s modern experiences of revolution, war, and unbridled growth.

I recall how my elementary school teachers referred to Hong Kong as a “third-world country”; one locked me outdoors upon my return from Hong Kong after the summer holidays one year, fearing I might infect others with ringworm and other “weird diseases.” But it was during those trips that I discovered my birthplace wasn’t the strange and crude place that the adults in charge described. I marvelled at Hong Kong’s skyscraper-lined streets and high-speed trains that whisked us to China in less than thirty minutes. I was enthralled by the border-town malls—maze-like bazaars where you could seemingly buy anything from knockoff luxury brands to high-tech gadgets. Since the 2000s, the number of people of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese origin who return to their home territory after being educated abroad has surged. Young Chinese felt a sense of vibrancy and opportunity in Greater China that they didn’t in Canada. In 2014, I became part of the phenomenon known as haigui—the Mandarin Chinese word for sea turtles that’s also a homonym for “returned from overseas.”

On my first day of work that September, I watched from the sixtieth floor of my office building as demonstrators calling for genuine universal suffrage occupied key roads in a large-scale civil disobedience campaign that lasted seventy-nine days. The campaign, known as the Umbrella Movement, further cemented mistrust between the city and mainland China.

The rift between the Hong Kong and Chinese identities began growing in the mid to late 2000s. Beijing had come to Hong Kong’s economic rescue after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the SARS respiratory outbreak of 2003. In return, Hong Kong introduced a raft of measures that would effectively strengthen China’s control over the territory. In 2003, half a million Hong Kong residents resisted a government bid to criminalize vaguely defined treason, sedition, secession, and subversion against the PRC government. Around that time, in the early 2000s, the influx of Chinese nationals to the city—to shop and to settle permanently—pushed tensions to a boiling point. Many Hong Kongers saw those from mainland China as crass and arrogant, driving Cantonese locals to increasingly identify as a Hong Kong person rather than Chinese.

For Serena, a forty-one-year-old who previously worked for a prominent Hong Kong high school, Beijing-led changes in the public education system were the final straw. (She asked for a pseudonym to be used, out of a fear of repercussions.) She supported Hong Kong schools teaching Mandarin and Chinese history and accomplishments. But she opposed the state pushing teachers to say “how China was always better . . . even when teaching a subject like math. Educators must praise the country and teach only the good stuff [about China].” She mourns these changes as the death of critical thinking in the school system. In 2012, tens of thousands of parents, educators, and students rejected a curriculum reform to integrate classes that taught students the Communist Party of China’s version of Chinese history. In 2022, around 6,500 teachers left their jobs or retired, double the annual average, according to Chinese government data. Serena moved to Calgary with her husband and their two children that August.

King Lo, a forty-one-year-old wedding photographer, had felt at ease with Cantonese, Chinese, and British customs all his life. He felt tied to mainland China as it was his ancestral homeland: his father and uncle swam from southern China’s Haifeng to Hong Kong in 1960 to find food and send money home. Like many Hong Kong millennials and younger people born in the 1990s, Lo harboured fond feelings for the British monarchy and culture. But the Umbrella Movement’s calls for democracy and cultural preservation led him to identify solely as a “Hong Konger.” At the end of 2014, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, around 42 percent of Hong Kong locals felt the same, while only 24 percent identified as “Hong Kongers in China.”

Five years later, Hong Kongers protested en masse against a proposed law that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. They feared integration with China’s legal system. Some consider the demonstrations to be Hong Kong’s largest ever resistance movement; organizers reported that an estimated quarter of the population took to the streets, calling for democracy and for China to uphold the “one country, two systems” governance model. The city was divided across coloured lines: being “yellow” indicated pro-democratic support while the “blues” backed the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities. By the end of 2019, according to the HKPORI, a record 55 percent of Hong Kong residents identified solely as “Hong Konger.” (That proportion dropped to 32 percent in 2022.) The number of those who identified solely as “Chinese” plunged to a new low of 11 percent. Only a fifth of the population viewed itself as “Hong Konger in China.”

The forging of the Hong Kong identity is viewed by some as an existential battle—to be seen, heard, and to have a say in the future of Hong Kong amid Beijing’s encroaching influence. Many Hong Kongers now feel a real “urgency to articulate the [Hong Kong] identity,” Wu says. Establishing oneself as a “Hong Konger”—through social media posts, introducing oneself as a Hong Konger, and passing on this identity to the next generation—is the “only thing that we could do now . . . when there are so many things that we are unable, or afraid, to freely say,” Lo says. He moved with his wife and son, then three years old, to Calgary in March 2022.

Hong Kong’s dividing lines are now reverberating in the diaspora. Even prior to 2019, Vancouver’s Chinese communities maintained a “segmented social life,” according to a 2019 research paper by Yan and Hong Kong scholars. Most participants of the study said that while they could work or attend school with people from different parts of China, they preferred to socialize with friends from the same place, who spoke the same language.

Recent political tensions have intensified this phenomenon. Andy Chan, a thirty-two-year-old finance professional, moved to Toronto from Hong Kong in December 2021 after seeing his hometown “deteriorating year after year.” He attributes the decline to Hong Kong’s shrinking freedoms and “more and more Chinese people coming” and, in his words, ruining local culture. Chan has friends from mainland China but avoids discussing sensitive topics with them: “They have this victim mentality [and think] the whole world bullies them. It made me realize that our two communities will be difficult to get along.” Chan’s sentiments are echoed by some Hong Kongers; the “mutual bias between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese is common knowledge,” according to the same 2019 paper. UBC’s Yan worries that Canada’s Chinese community will be further fragmented along political lines, leading to an inability to co-operate on vital issues in Canadian society, such as working together on anti-racism movements.

At the same time, there’s a burgeoning sense that Canada could facilitate a new chapter of understanding and reconciliation between the two communities. In the fall of 2019, twenty-three-year-old Yannes (who asked that only her first name be used) witnessed her classmates being violently arrested and injured when her Hong Kong university campus transformed into a battlefield, with balaclava-clad protesters on one side and baton-wielding police on the other. She came to believe that “Hong Kong had no way back . . . and [was] increasingly tilted towards China.” Yannes, who now lives in Calgary, says her “sense of belonging as a Hong Kong person [is] very strong.” Yet at her church and in her workplace, she has seen friendships form between those from Hong Kong and mainland China: “It’s different here [in Canada] . . . it’s not like how it was in Hong Kong. People [from both places] are not as stubborn as they were back home.”

Galileo Cheng, a thirty-nine-year-old photojournalist who was wounded during a 2019 indiscriminate attack on commuters in Hong Kong, fled to Vancouver in 2022. He says that “we have strayed if we are building a diasporic community with hate, and only remembering hate.”

There’s not a sense that Hong Kong has nearly completed its full transition to Chinese rule, despite Beijing’s reassurance that the “one country, two systems” model will remain in place. Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, recently vowed that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists will be “pursued for life.” Some of the 2019 movement’s most outspoken activists have fled Hong Kong, while the territory has shuttered independent media and put Jimmy Lai, a billionaire media mogul critical of China, on trial—with government-selected judges—that will likely lead to his life imprisonment. On March 19, Hong Kong’s legislature passed a law that expands the government’s powers to punish those it considers to have committed treason and insurrection, including pro-democracy activists.

Western media often highlights China’s post-pandemic economic malaise. Yet some people in both Hong Kong and the mainland interpret the story differently. On a recent visit back to Hong Kong, I noticed people were raving about the inexpensive, high-tech, and cultured offerings of Chinese cities while bemoaning what they described as Hong Kong’s decline. In Canada, conversations around the future of Hong Kong seem to be dimming, except among the most politically active.

Still, the act of identifying as a Hong Kong person can be synonymous with taking a principled stand. The Chinese government attempts to claim the world’s Chinese diaspora, which it estimates to be at 60 million people, as its own in its quest to manufacture a monocultural and monolinguistic empire. But most Hong Kongers straddle a multitude of cultural, linguistic, and national dividing lines, with identity evading neat classification. I’m a Canadian of Chinese heritage born in Hong Kong who has resided in many countries. People may see my black hair and black eyes and label me as a Chinese person at a time when xenophobia and racism against Chinese people has been growing. I hope to reclaim and rewrite my Chineseness on my own terms—to recognize my Chinese heritage and the influences that Hong Kong, Canadian, and other cultures have imprinted on me. I hope to wield this knowledge to advocate for the values most important to me—that is, to build bridges of understanding between communities rather than to diminish, harm, or oppress one another.

In 2017, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel laureate and human rights activist, died with state security forces surrounding him. In Liu’s speech accepting the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, he wrote: “I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom.”

Yvonne Lau
Yvonne Lau is a Vancouver-based journalist who writes about business and culture with an eye on China and Russia. Her work has appeared in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Maclean’s, and Broadview. She is a recipient of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada’s 2023/24 media fellowship.