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Kennedy Wong, who recently graduated from UBC, says Hong Kongers feel different from Chinese people as liberal thinkers.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Chris Chiu didn’t consciously think about his identity as a Hong Kong native until about a decade ago, when the political climate started to change in the semi-autonomous city.

But Mr. Chiu, who immigrated three decades ago to live in Canada where he has been considered a Chinese Canadian, has recently been reflecting with pride on his heritage as a Hong Konger. His birthplace, he says, represents the value of liberty, the rule of law and aspiration to democracy – values rejected by China.

“I am proud of that,” Mr. Chiu said, referring to his Hong Konger identity.

Like Mr. Chiu, many people with Hong Kong roots – whether they currently live in Canada or in Hong Kong – have been personally and publicly trying to avoid being identified with China after several major political events in the region in recent years. This month’s protests over the Hong Kong government’s plans, now shelved, to enter into a formal extradition agreement with China have underlined those differences for many Canadians. The region’s Beijing-backed chief executive had pushed for the legislation, which had the support of the central government.

Many Hong Kongers still think of themselves as Chinese in terms of race or ethnicity. But the desire to distinguish themselves from people from China has become acute.

Denise Ho, a Canto-pop star who has become a prominent activist in Hong Kong, traces the rise of a deliberate Hong Konger identity to the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when people occupied streets for nearly three months to demand greater democratic rights.

The Chinese government has been “trying to merge and weave us into their culture and their system – and the patriotic side of it,” said Ms. Ho, who is also a Canadian citizen.

“But it’s just not working. That is why Hong Kongers have been starting to reflect about what it means to be our own city with our own culture and our own people.”

Leo Shin, associate professor of history and Asian studies at University of British Columbia, said overseas immigrants all have multiple identities, and different identities will be emphasized depending on the situation: “When the Raptors won, we are all Canadians,” he said.

“If the context is that are you Chinese, Hong Konger or Taiwanese, I would say in the last decade or more, there is a heightened sense that people from Hong Kong would like to distinguish themselves as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese or from China.”

Mr. Chiu said he started to feel strongly about his Hong Konger identity in 2011, when the Hong Kong government tried to adopt a moral and national curriculum. He said such curriculum was trying to instill “nationalistic” ideas in young minds that many Hong Kongers opposed.

“So at that time, a lot of Hong Kongers started to think if that’s what it means to be a Chinese, maybe I am not a Chinese.”

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997 under the one-country, two-systems formula. Mr. Chiu said even though the city is under Chinese sovereignty, it has its own unique identity with its own currency, passport and language.

He calls the extradition proposal “the final nail in the coffin.”

“Once this law is passed, then there is no longer a border, at least jurisdictionally, between Hong Kong and Mainland.”

Kennedy Wong, a Hong Kong student who recently graduated from UBC’s sociology program, said he always feels he and his peers are so different from Chinese people in terms of their experiences and liberal thinking. Such identity becomes stronger when they’re abroad.

“Even in everyday life, if you ask me, I would say I am a Hong Kong person [or a] Hong Konger.”

Mr. Wong, 26, said he takes pride in such identity because Hong Kongers can speak out freely, and aren’t afraid of speaking up against the government. But he said he thinks many Hong Kongers are pessimistic about the city’s future and aware they are not able to fight for the independence of the region.

But it makes them want to hold on tighter to their identity.

“Just because we cannot do that in terms of the identity, the nationality on our passports and on our identity card … although these kind of facts I cannot change, I still would like to claim that I am a Hong Kong person,” he said.

“The only way we could fight back may be just by claiming our identity, by voting or going on protests. These are only tools to distance ourselves from China.”

Jamie Lam, 17, agrees. She lives in Hong Kong and has spent only a few months of her life in Canada, but when she travels, she uses her Canadian passport.

“I don’t want people to say that I’m Chinese,” she said.

For her, too, the Umbrella Movement was an eye-opening experience, though she was only 12.

“I felt the seed of wanting democracy was written in my heart at that time,” she said on Tuesday, when she was part of a small group of protesters sitting outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, demanding the withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill.

In the past, Ms. Lam had seen her Canadian citizenship as a backup plan, a guarantee that she can leave Hong Kong if it falls under more direct Chinese control in future decades.

“Actually, my mother and father want me to go back to Canada,” she says.

But her views are changing, as her attachment grows to a city where recent protests have often taken an explicitly anti-China bent, with people posting signs that said “It’s Still HK Not China Not Yet,” “Hong Kong ≠China,” and “Home Kong.”

“I really want to stay in Hong Kong,” Ms. Lam said. “I want to participate in every demonstration or protest. Because I feel like I really am a Hong Konger.”

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