The Shackles of Racism

For decades, the reputation of a global city precedes Hong Kong. The fact that Hong Kong attracts visitors and businesses around the world, and is a host of a variety of international cuisines certainly bolster this image. However, behind this cosmopolitan façade lies a city plagued by intolerance and racism. On one hand, there is a general sense of mindless adulation towards white people, and on the other, an atmosphere of discrimination towards people with darker skin tones.

At the top of the conventional racial hierarchy in Hong Kong is a pedestal reserved exclusively for westerners with a pale complexion. While this sense of white privilege is by no means obvious, it is worse – internalised and incorporated into the social fabric of the city’s collective consciousness.

Growing up, I have had people complimenting on how I had a ‘personality of a white girl’ (鬼妹仔性格). Upon noticing my confused expression, they explained that this meant I was open-minded, forthright and outgoing. I have had people jealous of my opportunity to study in the UK, purely because of the idea that “there must be so many hot guys over there”. I have had people ask me whether I managed to get myself some white friends or a white boyfriend, as if being surrounded by light-skinned westerners is an admirable accomplishment.

Since when, did the unique personalities of every single white individual become an umbrella term to describe conventionally favourable personality traits? When did the notion of ‘hot’ or ‘good-looking’ equate to whiteness? When did the number of white friends one had become an indicator of social achievement?

However, my experience of white privilege in Hong Kong is unfortunately just one of many. Martin Jacques, a British journalist, detailed about how he, “as a white…[was] treated with respect and deference,” while his Indian-Malaysian wife was “the object of an in-your-face racism” in Hong Kong. Journalist Sarah Moran also drew on her own experience and highlighted how “being white in Hong Kong is like winning an award for hard work you never did”. Moran, despite “having zero relevant qualifications or experience,” managed to find jobs “simply by being white-looking”. These testimonies, alongside numerous others submitted in forums like Quora and Reddit, serve to illustrate the prevalence of white privilege in Hong Kong.

In contrast, ethnic minorities with darker skin tones are often targets of racial discrimination. One simply has to step out onto the streets to notice the everyday racism that is deeply ingrained in Hong Kong’s society. It is common to hear ethnic slurs used on a daily basis. Filipino women are generally referred to as“Bun Mui” (賓妹), black people as “Hak Gwei” (黑鬼), Indians as “Ah Cha” (阿差), Pakistanis as “Ah Sing” (阿星), and mainland Chinese sometimes as “locusts”. It is also common to see people going out of their way to avoid ethnic minorities with dark skin, such as refusing to sit next to them on public transport, refusing to serve them as customers, or refusing to engage with them in conversations.

Personally, I was bombarded by racist ideas in Hong Kong ever since I could remember. As an outdoor-living kid, I was always told by people around me to put on sunscreen because “you don’t want to look as dark as a Filipino”. When I started learning Mandarin in primary school and practised by constantly speaking the language, I was told to avoid using the language in public because “you don’t want to be mistaken as a person from mainland China”. In secondary school when Youtube started becoming mainstream, people recommended watching British and American channels as opposed to channels from South-East Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia so that I could acquire a “proper” and “more respectable” accent. Even recently, when I went back to Hong Kong during the holidays, people’s face lit up when I told them about some of my British friends, but immediately drooped when they saw in pictures that they were British Asians instead of Caucasians.

Yet discrimination towards ethnic minorities with dark skin in Hong Kong extends far beyond everyday racism. It is systemic, deeply ingrained into the economic and political structures of the city. One of the manifestations of systemic racism is evident in the employment sectors. In 2017, an ethnic Asian was denied a job as a native English tutor on the grounds that she was not Caucasian. Another commenter on the issue wrote, “I’ve worked at one centre where I was told not to wear an ethnic blouse cus they don’t want parents be like ‘why is an ‘Indian’ teaching English?'” According to research done by the Society for Community Organisation: Hong Kong (SoCO), 32% of ethnic minorities were denied employment or interviews purely on racial grounds, and a further 27% were rejected when employers realised that they were not Chinese or Westerners.

Even when one manages to navigate the formidable racial obstacles surrounding employment, there is the problem of discrimination with regards to salaries. A survey done by the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission revealed that not only did ethnic minorities have longer working hours, their salaries are also 41% lower than other races of the same job level. Another survey from the Coalition for Racial Equality affirms this, exposing how the median monthly earning for new immigrants and ethnic minorities (HK$6,000 and HK$3,800 respectively) is significantly less than the median monthly income of the Hong Kong population (HK$10,000).

In particular, Hong Kong’s domestic workers possess inadequate legal rights and are frequently subjected to racist discourse and treatment, further cementing the stereotype that they are ‘second-class citizens’. In her book, Arista Devi describes her experience in Hong Kong as a domestic worker, explaining how “shop staff treat Hong Kong people and perhaps [Westerners] very nicely… [but] they look down on [domestic workers] and say – you have no money.” Grace Shiella A Estrada, another domestic worker in Hong Kong, pointed out that her job is “really harder than if you were in prison”. Numerous other cases surrounding the maltreatment and abuse of domestic workers adds to this harrowing picture. The damning situation faced by individuals such as Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and Baby Jane Teodoro Allas is, unfortunately, just one of many.

In terms of securing accommodation, the situation is equally bleak. In Yuen Long where almost half of the Africans in Hong Kong live, local residents have launched various protests and have accused them of being “more likely to be criminals”. In a similar vein, Simran Singh Sethi, an Indian residing in Hong Kong, was denied a flat viewing because the landlord “refuses renting to Indians”. But these instances of racism are far from being isolated cases. Results from the World Values Survey indicates that seven out of 10 Hong Kong locals do not wish to live next to someone of a different race, and SoCO demonstrated that 30% of ethnic minorities experienced problems with rent due to their ethnicity.

Hong Kong’s education system, too, is failing the city’s ethnic minorities. Aruna Rana, a mother of two, complained that enrolling her children in local kindergartens was “a complete nightmare”, as “the vibe we got was that they did not want them there”. The Zubin Foundation, a social policy think tank in Hong Kong explained that “the presence of ethnic minority students in a kindergarten is a deterrent to Chinese parents who don’t want their children in the same school or class as ethnic minority children,” which meant that ethnic minorities “are turned away from kindergartens on the basis of their race”. This only widens the education gap between locals and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, which undoubtedly entails long-term ramifications when it comes to issues such as securing employment.

As Hong Kong filmmaker Tammy Cheung succinctly puts it, “we have this hierarchy: white people on top, then Chinese, then people with brown skin like those from Southeast Asian countries and Indians, then Africans”. But burying our heads in the sand and denying the deeply entrenched racism in Hong Kong is counterproductive and cowardly. It is time that we cast off the shackles of racism and recognise, collectively, that an individual is far more than their skin colour.