Dark-skinned minorities in Hong Kong reveal years of discrimination


Hong Kong enacted an anti-racism law in 2008, pressured by international organisations, including the United Nations but the law is flawed, toothless piece of legislation that fails to hold authorities accountable, activists said.

Darker-skinned South and Southeast Asians living in Hong Kong have long complained about discrimination in education, employment, and housing all because of the colour of their skin.

These discrimination allegations are supported by a number of studies over the years, including some conducted by government bodies.

“These are the ways in which we see quite clearly that there’s racial discrimination, and it’s everywhere,” said Puja Kapai, a professor of law who researches minority rights at the University of Hong Kong. “We’re supposed to be Asia’s World City, we’re supposed to have this multicultural system, but we have a great problem.”

Hong Kong has a global reputation for being an international hub — but, in reality, it’s a particularly racially homogenous city, with ethnic Chinese making up about 96% of the population, not including foreign domestic workers.

Hong Kong’s immigration laws make it harder for certain groups to naturalize and build second- and third-generation minority communities.

For instance, foreign domestic workers are not allowed to gain residency; in one highly publicized case in 2013, a Filipina domestic worker was denied permanent residency despite having worked in the city for 27 years.

Of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, defined as all non-Chinese groups, about 43% in 2016 were South or Southeast Asian, according to the legislative body’s research office. This includes Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Filipinos, Indonesians and more.

Pakistanis, Indonesians and Thais tend to have disproportionately high poverty rates. For instance, more than half of all Pakistanis in Hong Kong live below the poverty line without any interventions, according to a 2016 government report.

Whites, other Asians and “Others,” which are largely wealthier groups, make up the rest of the ethnic minority population, according to the research office, which doesn’t offer any further ethnic breakdown within those categories.

For those minorities who do gain residency and raise their children in Hong Kong the system can feel stacked against them from the start.

Minority children whose families speak non-Chinese languages, such as Tagalog or Urdu rather than Cantonese, can face a language barrier that exacerbates structural challenges in education, setting them back once they enter the job market.

As of 2016, more than 60% of all ethnic minority students attended just 10 schools out of nearly 840 public primary and secondary schools that serve the city of almost 7.5 million, according to the non-profit organization Hong Kong Unison.

The language barrier can be a roadblock for children during admissions interviews for local schools where Chinese is the primary language of instruction. However, this hurdle makes it even more difficult for them to learn Cantonese or Mandarin unless they can afford extracurricular tutoring, which in turn can prevent them from pursuing jobs that require Chinese proficiency.

For wealthy immigrant families whose children don’t speak Chinese, there’s an easy but expensive solution to the language barrier: private international schools, where students speak and are taught in English. But these schools can cost up to HK$266,000 (about US$34,330 ) a year, which is far out of reach for most families.

These expat students are largely from more privileged ethnic groups like Whites and Koreans, which generally face less severe racial discrimination. This greater societal tolerance, and the students’ relative wealth, can cushion them from the disadvantage of not knowing Cantonese.

Some less privileged minority students do gain Cantonese fluency, through school classes, tutors, or social learning with peers — but sometimes it still isn’t enough.

In a comprehensive 2015 report, Kapai found some minority members would have no difficulty speaking during telephone job interviews using their fluent Cantonese. Yet Kapai said that “when they met the employer in person, the employer would put up excuses to turn them down.”

When local schools do allow both Chinese and minority students, racist micro-aggression can also emerge.

C.J. Villanueva, 22, is ethnically Filipina but was born and raised in Hong Kong. She remembers local classmates joking that all Filipinos were domestic helpers, a reference to the estimated 200,000 Filipino domestic workers in the city.

“Sometimes when they joke around … they’d pretend to be cleaning, and say, I’m just like C.J., I’m like a domestic helper,” she said. “It was in good fun for them, but it was offensive for me and my Filipino friends.”

Everyday racism appears to be so prevalent in Hong Kong that everyone who spoke to CNN had their own range of discrimination stories.

Underlying these types of discrimination are stereotypes of darker-skinned minorities as unclean, dangerous or untrustworthy. Experts and researchers say these stereotypes are reinforced by media reports that emphasize and sensationalize crimes committed by ethnic minorities, while offering no such emphasis on Chinese-committed crimes.

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance (RDO), enacted in 2008, is supposed to criminalize racial discrimination or harassment. But critics argue that loopholes allow harmful practices to continue, and that it focuses too much on individual cases rather than addressing systemic racism.

The international community has long put pressure on Hong Kong to change its approach to racism. In a 2018 report, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the government to amend the RDO to include government powers and law enforcement.

This summer’s Black Lives Matter movement across the United States has sparked similar reckonings with race around the world, with dozens of anti-racism protests and calls for police accountability in countries ranging from Australia to Brazil.

“In other countries there are clear movements — but in Hong Kong, there’s a continuous apathy and complicity because we don’t want to believe we could be contributing to racial discrimination,” said Kapai. “Hong Kong’s racism does not model the trajectory of racism in the West, but we have our own story of how we perpetrate racism.

“Misunderstanding cannot explain systemic racism. Systemic racism is deliberate, and that means we all have a part in it … so denial is not an acceptable response.” (Source: CNN)