A group of Canadian Hong Kongers are encouraging Canadians with Hong Kong heritage to identify themselves as Hongkonger in the 2021 census in an effort to strengthen the community’s diaspora.
“We want to show the world that this (Hong Konger) identity exists,” said Maya Lee, a spokesperson for the #IAmHongKonger campaign. “We speak Cantonese, have our own culture and our lived experience as Hongkongers is very unique.”
Every five years, the Canadian government conducts a national census to collect information on the country’s demographics as well as the social and economic situation of its residents.
According to the 2016 census, 215,750 respondents listed Hong Kong as their place of birth.
Lee, who was born in Hong Kong to a Canadian parent, moved back to Canada five years ago to study at the University of Toronto.
She said she always felt a very strong connection to her Hong Kong identity.
“For me, there is this Hong Konger spirit… We have a very strong sense of community,” said Lee.
While the 2016 census only included 255 reported ethnic origins, which did not include Hongkonger, the 2021 census has made changes to the questions, and will provide a list of over 500 examples of ethnic and cultural origins in an effort to address gaps in previous questionnaires.
In an email, Statistics Canada stated that Hongkonger has been included in the list of examples.
“Based on 2016 response counts, our planned assumption is that ‘Hong Konger; will be a category in disseminated data tables for the 2021 Census that feature the ethnic or cultural origins variable,” it stated.
In 1997, the United Kingdom handed sovereignty of Hong Kong over to China, with a promise of “one country, two systems,” which allowed Hong Kong to maintain its political and economic freedom. Yet, many questioned whether such freedom would remain.
When looking at the history of Hong Kong, Lee thinks there’s the trauma of colonization, displacements and political disagreement that Hongkongers have lived through and are still suffering from. She said she thinks these lived experiences of Hongkongers also define their identity.
Leo Shin, a professor of Asian Studies and History at the University of British Columbia, said there isn’t “a simple story of Hong Kong or of Hong Kong identity.”
Shin said people often find comfort in certain narratives of Hong Kong. For the longest time, the city’s culture has been seen as the embodiment of where “East meets West,” or a place of uncertainty where many take refuge, he said.
“Of course, not all stories are equally persuasive, but we do tell stories to make sense of our identities,” he said.
Shin is also the convenor of the Hong Kong Studies Initiative, an initiative at UBC dedicated to promoting the teaching and research of the city.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Shin was educated in the U.S. He moved to Toronto with his family in 1989, which according to Shin was “right in the middle of the wave of migration triggered by the 1997 question.”
In the ’90s, Canada saw an influx of immigration from Hong Kong. According to Statistics Canada, one-10th of recent immigrants in 1996 were from Hong Kong, along with migrants from China, India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
In 1996, there were 1,039,000 recent immigrants, meaning those who immigrated to Canada between 1991 and 1996, with almost a quarter of recent immigrants from East Asia.
Forty-nine-year-old Alex Ngai was one of them. In 1997, Ngai came to Canada to reunite with his family in Canada after finishing his education in the United Kingdom.
Ngai said whenever people ask where he is from, he would say Hong Kong. He added that it takes some time and effort for him to explain his identity to people as there is no formal recognition for the Hong Kong identity in Canada.
He said people often mix him up with his colleagues from mainland China and Taiwan because of the similarity in appearance.
Ngai also added that unless people have some knowledge about Hong Kong, most will only see Hong Kong as a dot on the map within China.
“That’s why I think we need to tell people our differences,” he said. “Just like there are other cultural groups from other parts of the world, although now they are in Canada, they do have their own identity.”
As a father of two Canadian-born children, Ngai said he tries to speak to his children in Cantonese as much as possible, and brought his children back to Hong Kong a few times.
He added that sharing the history, geography and stories of Hong Kong with his eldest child also enforces his understanding of their culture.
“We talk about how and why kids grow up the way they (do) in Hong Kong, how we create our own spaces, and how our shared experience makes us who we are,” said Ngai.
“It is hard for them to understand all the politics and stuff, especially when they are younger,” he said. “To my son, it’s the Hong Kong Disneyland, buildings and shopping malls that strike him more.”
However, Ngai said his son is able to find his own community of Hong Kong Canadians when he encounters friends with a similar background, sharing certain words and inside jokes in Cantonese, even calling themselves “the Canto Group.”
Shin said he thinks different generations of those who identified as Hongkongers would offer different ways to situate themselves in relation to those from mainland China.
“In my view, the best way to honour Hong Kong is not to preserve, but to extend our understanding of it, both in its own right as a historically constituted space but also in the context of the collective human experience,” said Shin.
Ricker Choi, although born in Hong Kong, considered himself a Canadian as he immigrated to Canada when he was Grade 9. During his 30 years in Canada, he said he didn’t really have any attachments to Hong Kong.
He started to regain his long-lost identity in June 2019 when he saw Hongkongers take to the street to protest against a now-axed extradition bill in the news.
Choi, who is a business consultant specializing in financial risk management, now sells paintings to raise money for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, especially Hong Kong protesters seeking asylum in Canada.
Choi said he thinks the resilience in Hongkongers defines the city, adding that such “culture of protests” has been prevalent in post-handover Hong Kong.
“I think this continuous fight is part of Hong Kong’s culture,” said Choi, adding that he will proudly identify himself as a Hongkonger in the upcoming Census.
Crispin Chow, another spokesperson for the #IAmHongKonger campaign, stresses that the goal of the campaign is not only for Hong Kong Canadians to participate in the census, but also to provide reliable data so the government can better serve the Hong Kong and Cantonese communities in Canada.
Chow, who was born in Canada but raised in Hong Kong, said Hong Kong Canadians have been ignored for a long time. Through this census, he said he hopes the statistics will show the government that this community exists.
“From there, they will be able to provide us with the resources we need, such as Cantonese-speaking resources or resources written in traditional Chinese,” said Chow.
The 2021 census, for example, provides information about the census in 25 non-official languages, including traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese, in separate documents.
“We need these resources because elderly in our community are facing language barriers, and some don’t understand simplified Chinese or Mandarin,” he said.
Citizens can complete the census questionnaire online starting May 3, while this year’s census day is on May 11, according to the 2021 census website.
Heidi Lee is a journalism student at Ryerson University and a news editor at the Eyeopener, the school’s independent student newspaper. Her words also appears in Hong Kong Free Press, an independent online news outlet in Hong Kong.