The Racial Minority Experience in Hong Kong

By Anjali Nihalchand

Taking apart the complex threads of race, language, and poverty that persist in Hong Kong.

As a member of an ethnic minority group growing up in Hong Kong, pre-1997, I often just brushed off the prejudice, the bias, and the assumptions others held regarding minorities, and the unspoken realities.

But what really struck me later on was how little awareness I had about the larger ethnic minority (EM) population of HK and some of the lived realities, especially of those who came from impoverished backgrounds. It was only in 2017, through attending a town hall conducted by The Zubin Foundation, that I finally woke up.

TZF is a non-profit organization that aims to improve the lives of Hong Kong’s marginalized ethnic minorities by ‘providing opportunities and reducing suffering.’ At the Foundation’s annual Town Hall, the EMs of Hong Kong air their grievances to a diverse panel that includes a senior government representative. They have hope for being heard, and a chance that their issues will be taken seriously and eventually addressed through policy change and programs.

It was there that I really came to understand the gravity of prejudice in HK and the injustices that EMs – particularly those who are poorer – face on a daily basis. I learned many things for the first time, and also realized that having had the privilege of going to an English Schools Foundation (ESF) school and gaining international exposure, I had somehow been shielded from systematic prejudice that can affect the livelihoods of minorities in quite significant ways.

Almost 4% of Hong Kong’s population is made up of EMs, and this figure doesn’t include foreign domestic helpers, who make up a substantial chunk of Hong Kong’s minority populations. The history of minorities arriving in Hong Kong dates back to 1841, with the first arrivals of Indian soldiers, then Sikh policemen, and followed by the 8,000 Nepali Gurkhas who arrived in 1947.

Generations later, the descendants of these original arrivals – once powerful law enforcers for Britain’s foothold in China – have become relegated to certain kinds of jobs, or certain areas of the city. Choices and opportunities are limited, and progress is slow.

Data show that EMs face disproportionately high rates of poverty, and this is ever-perpetuated with the system stacked against them from the start. Segregation happens at the primary school level, with Chinese largely not taught to EMs as a second language.

The language barrier is consequently a roadblock for children during admissions interviews for prestigious local secondary schools – where Chinese is the primary language of instruction – and for future employment, perpetuating poverty.

Even when Chinese is not a barrier, many EMs get turned down from jobs due to their appearance. Stereotyping and racial profiling prevail. Schoolbooks used in local schools still show minorities as waitresses, security guards, and helpers. Another particularly insidious form of everyday racism is police stop-and-search profiling, which stops EMs much more often than their Chinese counterparts.

Some live examples include a young woman, who graduated with a chemistry and teaching degree, who was perpetually rejected from chemistry teaching roles at local schools because she was deemed a foreigner (being ethnically non-Chinese) and therefore only offered roles as an English teacher.

Similarly, another young lady could not pursue a psychology degree at a Hong Kong university. Because she came from a local school, she was required to do the entrance exams in Chinese, whereas an ESF student would be able to do the exams in English. The young lady, like most foreign students, was not taught Chinese as a second language in her school and was therefore unable to pursue her chosen career path.

Perhaps most painful of all, a young Nepali mother who had been in Hong Kong for generations saw her children rejected from six local kindergartens because of her ethnicity, and because she could not complete the application forms in Chinese.

Such systems continue to perpetrate prejudices and discriminatory practices, keeping ethnic minorities trapped in a loop and never fully able to access opportunities or pursue passions. To alleviate the situation, a wider community effort is needed.

There are many ways the larger Hong Kong community can get involved:

  • If you are a startup, offer internships to ethnic minorities. There are talented and hardworking people who just want opportunities to develop and gain exposure. They do not always have the resources and networks that local students may have courtesy of family members or prestigious colleges. Here is how.
  • Educate yourself on this situation and follow groups and NGOs that are doing work in this space.
  • Be inclusive and an advocate: call out racism when you see it. This is often a very uncomfortable conversation to have, so here are some different routes to do so:
  1. Speak to someone you trust in the organization (ideally someone with authority, like HR or a manager) and describe the incident(s) of racism you have observed.
  2. Speak to the victim; listen and understand them. Encourage them to write this down somewhere and to speak with their manager or supervisor if they can.
  3. Take it to the Equal Opportunity Commission and file a complaint.

In these seemingly inconsequential ways, we can all help to improve a system which has not been fair to ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, giving opportunities to people who have few, and gaining the chance to discover talented and creative thinkers from a population that has been marginalized.

About the Author

Anjali Nihalchand

Anjali Nihalchand is the founder and Pollinator of a Brand and Project Consultancy, Pollination Projects. She works across a wide set of industries including hospitality & travel, arts & culture, start-ups and NGOs. She has worked for pioneers such as Aman (over 10 years), entrepreneurs such as Song Saa, naked Hub and Luxe City Guides (current) and NGOs including HKLF and The Zubin Foundation (current). She has also launched her own digital start-up with a Partner, called the 100X Project. As part of her work to raise awareness she has launched a bi-lingual Instagram campaign called United Colours of Hong Kong celebrating young EMs who are Hong Kongers as much as their Chinese peers.

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