10/07/2014 11:55 EDT | Updated 12/07/2014 05:59 EST

Hong Kong protests: about more than democracy

Hundreds of people continue to occupy the streets of Hong Kong, but the protests have quieted down.

As much as the key issue in the demonstrations has been democracy, for many, it's about more than that.

Cultural and economic tensions are very much at play as well — issues that resonate with many former Hong Kong residents, including myself.
I was born in Hong Kong. Even though I don't live there anymore, I consider it my home and I go back every couple of years.

My family immigrated to Canada in 1992, when I was six, because my parents were fearful of the end of British rule in 1997, and the handover of Hong Kong to China.

This wasn't so long after the Tiananmen massacre; my parents were scared of how oppressive the Chinese central government can be, and afraid of the possible changes to Hong Kong's political and legal system.

My dad, David Chau, was a pro-democracy activist in his high school and university days.

He reminds me that the demands we are hearing today are not new; in fact, they go back decades.

And that leaves me wondering, why have so many people taken to the streets now?

Protests also about rising cost of living, and cultural loss

My dad believes the protests have a lot to do with other tensions in Hong Kong right now.

He sympathizes with the protesters, but says not everyone agrees with their demands.

"There are people in Hong Kong who think it is not necessary to have the kind of Western democracy, and democracy doesn't seem to be the most urgent problem right now," he says.

"Rents are rising, land prices are rising, inflation is serious. Hong Kong people are faced with a lot of pressure."

There is a growing wealth gap in Hong Kong. In the last few years, cost of living has gone up while wages have not.

Henry Yu, an associate professor of history at UBC and an expert on China and Hong Kong, says this tension has been building up for a long time.

"The world that many Hong Kongers have, is one they feel is slipping away," Yu says.

"And so they're protesting against the changes that have already come, and that are coming." 

Yu says some Hong Kong residents feel a "visceral" threat from the volume of tourists coming from Mainland China. 

"That's where you see some of the really strong emotion that's being demonstrated."

Yu says many people feel their identity is being chipped away, and still feel a pride around the way things were before the handover, when Hong Kong was still under British rule.

In the 20 years before that, Hong Kong was in its golden era.

Globally, it was viewed as a world class city that was also an international trade hub.

Hong Kong people nostalgic for its 'golden era'

My friend May Au, whose family also came from Hong Kong to Canada in 1992, says Hong Kong people felt a certain sense of superiority about their history.

"It was almost looking down on the Mainlanders [people from Mainland China]," she says. 

"But over the years, there's been a sense of almost being inferior to China, because the people spending money in Hong Kong are the Chinese Mainlanders who come and visit. Knowing you have more of a dependence on China has caused a lot of tension and sadness."

That sadness is also caused by a loss of distinctive Hong Kong culture.

In recent years, Mandarin is being used more and more, rather than Hong Kong Cantonese.

That's the case not only in daily life, but also in education.

There was once a great pride in distinctive Hong Kong cinema, but now, it's increasingly being influenced by Chinese film production companies.

Many people also fear that freedom of the press is being eroded, something that groups like the Hong Kong Journalists Association has been very vocal about.

As much as these protests have been focused on democracy, they have also garnered widespread support because they speak to this greater loss of culture.

Even though the crowds are thinning out for the protests, the tensions that come with the influence of Mainland China on Hong Kong won't go away anytime soon.