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What is a Hongkonger? Voices from a generation who grew up in an identity vacuum

Caught in the middle of one of the city's largest political controversies, here’s what the young people of Hong Kong have to say about their city, and who they are. By Kaitlyn Lai

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

Five years ago, amongst the cries for democracy that took over the streets of Central and Admiralty, the loudest of them all was that of a skinny teenager. In the 2016 Legislative Council elections, a 23-year-old was elected as a legislator, the youngest in the city’s history. Today, our SAR is on the precipice of another revolution with Hong Kong youths standing on the frontlines. Many have been forced to confront their cultural identity in the wake of our city’s turbulent political climate, and what they’ve found is that there’s no simple answer to what constitutes a ‘Hongkonger’.

“Being a Hongkonger is the rush of pride I feel when I tell others how unique my home city is”

Angie Dai is a 20-year-old cultural studies student from Hong Kong currently studying in the United Kingdom.  As an overseas student, she has been frequently asked questions about her hometown. Although she has always identified herself as a Hongkonger, she never had a solid idea of what it really means to be one. "It was not until I found myself constantly going back to the topic of Hong Kong culture that I realised the social divide between Hong Kong and China,” says Dai. "Mannerisms and politics are not what solely defines the Hongkonger. Being a Hongkonger is the rush of pride I feel when I tell others how unique my home city is.”

Yolanda Lam, 19, an arts student studying at the University of Cambridge shares a similar sentiment that identity is formed within as opposed to geopolitically. "I suppose many people my age are against identifying themselves as Chinese due to political differences between mainland China and Hong Kong, which is understandable and justifiable,” Lam states. “However, the political nature of [their] views on identity is not something I necessarily agree with." Having grown up in both mainland China and Hong Kong, and under the influence of her father's interest in Chinese history and art, Lam interacts with her heritage differently than most of her contemporaries. "I have developed an appreciation for Chinese culture whilst acknowledging the different historical and cultural narratives of Hong Kong and mainland China that has emerged in the past 200 years," says Lam. She is proud of the duality and complexity of her Hong Kong-Chinese identity. At the same time, she is open to future possibilities of how her identity might evolve. She adds, “Identity is not binary – it is malleable and accumulative, constructed by family backgrounds, life experiences, social interactions and continuous learning. I do not wish to identify myself strictly in national terms."

“Identity is not binary”

However, Lam’s position is uncommon. For most young people, the term Hongkonger has become increasingly synonymous with ideas of democracy and freedom of speech. Local secondary school student Athansor Harris, 16, firmly sits in the latter camp. “Being of mixed heritage, I hear voices about Hong Kong and China both as an insider and an outsider,” says Harris. “I see these two places as distinct from each other. A true Hongkonger knows and is not afraid to express the differences between Hong Kong and China.”

Following the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, a controversial legislative amendment that allows the extradition of fugitives from Hong Kong to Taiwan, mainland China and Macau, an unprecedented uproar spread across the city. As a result, more Hongkongers are seen distancing themselves from their ‘Chinese’ identity – much like their rejection of greater interference from Beijing in Hong Kong legislation and economics. Multiple demonstrations against the bill have been led by Hong Kong youths, with a reported two million people taking to the streets on June 16 to voice their anger and dissatisfaction with the government.

“The [term] Hongkonger does not only embody resilience, but also compassion and unity, even during the city's darkest hours”

Sean T, 22, born and raised in Hong Kong, was amongst the millions who joined the protests. “[Hong Kong] is my home and it has fallen in the hands of tyranny,” he says. “They claim our protest to be a riot where violence was initiated by the protestors. But what I remember is how touched I was when I heard people scream with all their might for asthma inhaled corticosteroids needed to treat patients and front line protestors.” The June 16 protest saw citizens dressed in black from head to toe, symbolising grief over the city’s decaying democracy. But Sean remains more hopeful than ever. “Times of despair in Hong Kong, be it the 2003 SARS epidemic, the 2014 Umbrella Revolution or protests this past week, have only borne witness to our strength and our love for our home,” he says. “The [term] Hongkonger does not only embody resilience, but also compassion and unity, even during the city's darkest hours.”

The generation that stood on the frontlines of the protests last week is not only caught in the middle of one of Hong Kong's largest political controversies but is torn between the city's colonial past, its relationship with China and its unpredictable future. But this historical and cultural complexity precisely constitutes the core of Hong Kong's character. Hong Kong youths are fighting not only for the autonomy of their city but for who they have become in this post-colonial world.

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