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Hong Kong’s Ethnic Minorities Continue to Face Racial Discrimination

By Charlotte Kwan

Hong Kong may be positioning itself as ‘Asia’s world city’, home to a multi-racial community. And yet it remains a homogenous society with the ethnic Chinese accounting for more than 90 percent of its population. Ethnic minorities, most of whom are of Southeast Asian and South Asian descent, only account for about 8.4 percent of the population.

But what is more challenging is the persistence of racial discrimination, depriving opportunities to the autonomous region’s ethnic minorities. This has been more pronounced at the height of the pandemic when social distancing measures have forced most residents to order food online. The delivery men, most of whom are of South Asian descent, have reported that the clients verbally abuse them. Many of the clients, who order via food delivery applications, have also asked for “no South Asian riders” as they were perceived as ‘virus carriers’.

In October 2022, local broadcasting company TVB has drawn flak for producing a TV show that featured an ethnic Chinese actress who ‘browned face’ to portray a Filipina helper. This was considered offensive, and TVB was criticized for how it depicted ethnic minorities. More importantly, the controversy has steered discussion on racial inequality and inclusivity.

Ethnic minorities like Gregory Laurence Boragay, a 19-year-old student at HKU Space Community College, is frustrated at the prevailing stereotypes of ethnic minorities. He said most of the older generation of ethnic Chinese that he met “think that we are dirty and loud”.

Boragay, a Hong Kong-born Filipino, said it’s difficult for him to even get a part-time job as most employers think that the locals, alluding to the ethnic Chinese, are more approachable and easier to communicate with. “Some companies doubt if we can work in the same practice as the locals do,” he said.

Qureshi Hira Asif, a 20-year-old student at the University of Hong Kong, could relate to Boragay’s sentiment.

“The information (they received) from the news media affected the way they see us,” she said. Asif, as a second-generation Pakistani-Hongkonger, said the media should be held accountable for promoting ethnic minority stereotypes.

“Usually when there are some negative things related to ethnic minorities, the news article will emphasize like an Indian guy killed someone blah blah blah,” she said.

Jan Yumul, a thirty-something journalist, said inadequate media engagement of ethnic minorities in the local news media can explain such reporting focus.

Yumul was born in the Philippines but grew up in Hong Kong. She recalled the time an editor asked her to refer to an interviewee, who is an ethnic minority, as a ‘foreigner’. For Yumul, this is unacceptable as the interviewee may not be Chinese but that does not mean he or she is a foreigner.

She said the words that the media use can influence their audience’s perceptions. Yumul observed that the English-language news media in Hong Kong seems to be more sensitive than the Chinese ones as the English news media may have more ethnic minority journalists in their staff.

Photo caption: Jan Yumul was working for her broadcast as a journalist. Photo: Jan Yumul

Apart from the media, schools can also help in educating people on racial sensitivity. The problem is the Hong Kong education system itself is not inclusive.

Asif said the language barrier is a problem among ethnic minorities. “I was rejected by many kindergarten schools as I couldn’t speak Cantonese. They said they could not arrange resources or teaching staff for me in everyday lessons.”

She said that many ethnic minorities can’t get into the prestigious band 1 category secondary schools because they’re not fluent in Cantonese. Asif was disappointed that the public education system in Hong Kong does not take non-Chinese students, who have limited exposure to the Cantonese language, into consideration. Asif herself studied in a lower band secondary school but managed to get a place in a top-tier university like HKU by taking supplementary classes in Cantonese.

Proficiency in Cantonese, however, won’t automatically open doors for ethnic minorities. Such is the case of Khan Mohammad Naheem, 24, who’s a son of a Pakistani father and a Filipino mother. He has been studying in local schools since kindergarten and is a fluent Cantonese speaker, but Naheem said he still had a difficult time in school or looking for a job.

“There was one time my professor said he just could not give me a higher grade because I’m an ethnic minority, even though my performance is believed to be good by the other mentors in charge,” Naheem said. He said such discrimination has hindered his pursuit of a university degree, although after many years of trying, he finally got the chance to study at the City University of Hong Kong where he is an English major.

The stereotypical views on ethnic minorities have also prevented them from securing higher-paying jobs.

Yumul said there is wage discrimination against ethnic minorities. She observed some companies pay Western expats more than ethnic minority employees even though they’re doing the same job.

Moreover, many of the younger generations of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong are immigrants and can only get lower-income jobs due to language constraints. These jobs barely offer better career opportunities, which is why ethnic minorities can hardly climb the social ladder.

During the pandemic, more than 30 percent of the roughly 80,000 South Asians in Hong Kong are in elementary low-wage occupations, according to the Catholic Diocesan Pastoral Centre for Workers-Kowloon.

Despite these challenges, ethnic minorities in Hong Kong remain hopeful and believe they should be more proactive in fighting racism.

Boragay of HKU SPACE said reaching out to people around him is a good start.

“When I find my friends or someone I encounter has an incorrect idea related to my racial background or history, I can just fix it up by telling them what is right and what is wrong,” he said.

Boragay said that if every member of the ethnic minority community tries to do that, “little by little we can alter the stereotypical belief in our society. It is very important for us to make the first step”.

Naheem cited the influence of online social platforms, and how sharing more about the ethnic minority’s lifestyle and customs can help the locals to understand them better.

“It is normal that people outside our cultural group do not have the same belief and values as we do. But if we speak up for ourselves, if we promote our culture by ourselves, others will have a clearer picture of how we actually live,” he said.

Naheem said, “It is about our self-empowerment.”

Yumul said the government needs to consider the plight of ethnic minorities in policymaking as this can promote inclusivity.

“There are actually many talents among the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has the potential to break the cultural barriers,” she said.

Yumul hopes that more local news media can engage non-Chinese journalists so that they can produce reports that offer diverse perspectives and are culturally sensitive.

“The term ‘ethnic minorities’ itself contains the idea of minorities. The media and the government will play the key roles in re-defining this term,” Yumul said.

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