Hong Kong: Racism or ignorance?

I have learned a lot since the last post on racism in Hong Kong, having filmed and interviewed many great people. Time to empty my head…

Fortunately for me, I got to chill out with the ‘Sikhs in the City‘, the first HK-born Indian Dragon Boat Race team. Team leader Gurmeet Singh expressed their excitement at getting to take part in something that even his Father’s generation hadn’t. Anyone watching (and many people did) as the 12 Punjabi men switched seemlessly between Punjabi and Cantonese (and English to speak to me), could plainly see how someone can be both Indian AND Hongkongnese. And the people around them really seemed to appreciate them (at least on Cheung Chau they did).

Punjabi Hong Kong dragon boat team

We sat to eat an array of Chinese seafood dishes. And the irony was that I (with a Chinese appearance) was the only one struggling with chopsticks. Funnily enough I prefer to eat with my hands (as I learned from my South Asian friends), but they were at home being Chinese. They didn’t even squirm at the heads left on the friend pigeons. But as they conversed with the waitress in Cantonese, I saw how everything changes when the language barrier disappears.


The opportunity to learn Cantonese properly, is something that every single person I have interviewed has said is is dire need for ethnic minorities. Schools are currently one of two groups, English-medium or Cantonese-medium. But EM children tend to fall behind in Cantonese-medium schools, as their parents are unable to help them properly with schoolwork at home. Those who study in English-medium schools then lack Chinese writing skills, an excuse for many employers to refuse them a job.

Professor John Erni from Lingnan University says that children in Hong Kong also need to be taught about different cultures and religions from a young age, and that it should be a part of the curriculum. And he agrees with Fermi Wong (UNISON) that there is a need for Chinese-as-a-second-language curriculum, that would give ethnic minorities more emphasis on Cantonese.

Legislative councillor Margaret Ng says that the possibility of this happening though, is not looking good. Though she agrees that it would be something beneficial, the government doesn’t want to invest money into this kind of thing.

Racism legislation

In 2008, the Race Discrimination Bill (later the Race Discrimination Ordinance) became the first of it’s kind, as a law protecting people from racism. I had the chance of interviewing Margaret Ng, the Chairlady of the Committee who wrote the Race Discrimination Ordinance. As she said herself, there are many flaws in it, but it is good to get the anti-racism ball rolling in Hong Kong.

The very influential and inspirational lawyer and businessman, Vijay Harilela, says that the major wrong of the ordinance was that it didn’t originally apply to government activities. This meant that the civil service, the police force and the immigration department (among others) were lawfully allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race. But the government eventually followed the UN’s advice and took that clause out.

The ordinance offers no protection against religious discrimination. This is a problem for the Sikhs, many of whom are discriminated for wearing the turban. One man. Kardar Singh, who I met in Khalsa Diwan Gurdwara in Happy Valley told me that his son had been rejected from a school for his head-wear, although his grades were very good. The Christian College, YMCA Tung Chung, has responded by saying that their admission depends on a number of criteria, including conduct, grades and extra-curricular activities, and not on religious persuasion.

Batra Singh, a teacher at the Gurdwara, explained that the narrow-mindedness in Hong Kong is leading many Sikhs to cut their hair and stop wearing a turban.  These are two of the most important symbols in the Sikh Faith, and cutting one’s hair is considered very serious. Many fear the disappearance of their Sikh and Punjabi culture.

True citizens?

The RDO is clear that it has no affect on citizenship, nationality or naturalisation laws. This makes it easy for the immigration to decide who gets a HK passport or not based on their ethnic group. Let’s be clear here. All people born in HK can get a Hong Kong ID. That is what guarantees them to their basic entitlements. But let’s say they want to travel, those who weren’t lucky enough to get a British passport after the handover, have to use the passport of their parents’ countries. And travelling with a HK passport is a million times easier than travelling with an Indian passport, for example.

The Chinese Nationality Law says that to have a HK passport, one must fulfil a number of criteria, though they don’t have to fulfil every single one. But it is still up to the immigration office to decide, depending on their mood it seems, whether someone is eligible. Some criteria, such as having to have Chinese family members, seem ridiculous for a Pakistani family, for example. And why should a person born in HK have to earn a certain amount before they’re considered a proper citizen? Can you imagine that in the UK?

Don’t get me wrong. There are many ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, some who haven’t even been there that long, who have been able to get a HK passport. But some, like Phillip Khan, whose family has been in Hong Kong for 97 years (that’s longer than many Chinese people have even been in HK), is having trouble getting one. Because of this, he is denied his right of standing for legislative election, something he wishes to do. Hong Kong is his country, and he long to feel a ‘part of the family’.

Plain racism

My friend Ramos, who is Nigerian, and his lovely local Chinese wife had their wedding at Central city hall. As beautiful as their love for each other was, the day was dampened by the sour-faced coldness of the minister who married them, and even the girl’s parents. At the moment they kissed, the minister didn’t even try to hide her look of disgust. That certainly wasn’t ignorance. She has seen many mixed couples pass through the city hall, you’d think she’d be used to it by now.

Hong Kong people just don’t want to learn about other cultures. They can’t even be bothered to take time to learn about their Filipina or Indonesian domestic workers, who live with them. Gurcharan Singh agrees. “Chinese people don’t care about anything that is not Chinese”, he says. He expressed his disbelief at his old boss who he worked with for over 10 years before she finally asked him if he was Pakistani or Indian.

Ravi Gidumal says that there are elements within Chinese culture that promote the thinking that Chinese people are superior. The Chinese word for China “Zhong Guo” means the “middle” or “central land”, a term which is China-centric. And terms like “Gwai Lo” used to describe white people have become a part of every language in Hong Kong, despite their derogatory origins. A society that allows this is bound to foster a racist attitude.

Some would argue that Hong Kong has only been independent since 1997, and so hasn’t had the time to adapt to multiculturalism yet. John Erni says HK people went from being third-class citizens under British rule, to being the main group again.

Changing attitudes

Many of the people I interviewed were sure that Hong Kong has changed a lot since the handover. It is getting better they said, mixed race marriages are becoming normal. Gary and Loretta Sharma have been married for 28 years. they say people used to look at them funny on the underground, but now thing are better. “Only the uneducated people are still racist”, says Loretta, a local Chinese lady. Their office in TST is a perfect mix of Indian and Chineseness, as are their children.

Former district councillor Gary Ahuja had a simple philosophy about racial relations in Hong Kong. He says, “if you are nice to people, they are nice to you.” Dialogue is the most important thing to lower barriers between people. Talking to someone in the lift, he explained, is were we start. He thinks organising events that share cultures and get different ethnicities together are the key to tackling racism.

Jeffrey Andrews, a local Indian, agrees. He coaches the Christian Action refugee football team, hailing from Yemen to Somalia, and arranges friendly matches between them and local Chinese teams. He believes football has no language, and so helps form a bond between people regardless of where they’re from. At half time, they talk a bit about where they come from. A step in the right direction.

Gurmel Singh teaches groups of students who visit the Gurdwara about Sikhism and the meaning of the turban and keeping their hair, in the hope that educating people will help HK become more tolerant.

Christian Action football team and local Chinese team

Most of the people I asked said that educating people about other cultures and teaching ethnic minorities Cantonese from a young age are the major hurdles for eradicating racism. But sadly, these seem like the least likely changes to happen in the near future. NGOs like Christian Action are stretching their facilities to try and help EMs out with their Cantonese schoolwork. And with the threat of a national curriculum on the horizon from the mainland, schools with sufficient EM populations, such as Delia Memorial, will struggle to support their students.


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  2. Racism as we know is common in many countries,however rarely does a government condone it.My daughter recently suffered the humiliation of having her natural brown hair dyed at her school to conform with her classmates The response from the EB nothing this is not a problem so the government accept this. Discrimination legislation can only work when the government abides by its principles.

  3. I’m not from HK, but i have Chinese parents in Malaysia. I am dating a “gwai lo” now for the past 5 years, a wonderful, wonderful guy, who is respectful, humble and basically more so than some chinese guys, i have to say. They are slowly warming up to the idea, my mom’s totally ok and looking forward to the travelling but my dad is still silently hoping that i would marry my childhood friend one day :-/

  4. A great piece. First, I’m a Nigerian who (fortunately) grew in a moderately comfortable family with great exposure to Western culture.

    I first came to study for my Masters in Hong Kong and now work here and dating a Hong Kong local for over a year now. As a student, I never really encountered much of the racist-related issues but as I got into the real world (rented flat, working) I began to see a very different side of this amazing city.

    I agree with funnyphuppo. It’s really something that has it’s roots in the foundations of our existence and thus not localized to any geographic region only difference is to what degree.

    1. Yes, it is true. Something I haven’t discussed yet is the socio-economic aspect. Even Indians of higher castes tend to have a better life in HK than others. And I’m glad you didn’t experience any. Congrats on dating a local girl 🙂 Thankfully, mixed relationships (like my own) are becoming more common 🙂

  5. Great post again. It’s interesting to see how racism is strong no matter where you go. It’s just that certain places have it more and others less. For instance, only when I moved to Switzerland did I realize how little racism the US has in comparison.

  6. Thank you for writing this post! 🙂 It’s really great.
    As a Chinese Canadian (born and raised) living in Hong Kong, I have found myself persistently struggling with the obvious notion of racism and judgement.
    It may not be the case for every individual, but on average I feel as though the majority of the population is rather self centered. Things are done only if it serves in the individual’s best interest.
    I completely agree with you when you say that the Chinese feel a sense of superiority and are uninterested in other cultures. I suppose it has to do with this rise of the Chinese power over the American reign that has provoked such feelings. Seemingly, the China now have a sense of “glory” and achievement over the Western countries and are taking this moment to bask in their success.
    Perhaps what disturbs me the most is that there are some individuals out there who genuinely believe that I should “love” Hong Kong/ China simply because I am Chinese by blood. It is not that I dislike Hong Kong but I just don’t identify with this place as my home. I am just very inherently Canadian and it frustrates me to great levels when people refuse to accept this.

    1. Yes, it seems that we’re bound by what we look like. As I have a Chinese appearance (most of the time), people assume I’m a local. I have no problem with this, but the problem comes when people can’t believe I’m from England just because I’m not white. Shame I couldn’t have interviewed you for my documentary, would have been awesome to hear your views. Thanks for commenting 🙂 Hope you’ll watch my documentary when it’s done.

      1. That would have been really interesting! Regardless, I’ll definitely watch it when it’s out. Hong Kong is definitely an interesting place and there’s obviously a lot more to it than what I understand and what I see.

  7. Reblogged this on iLook China and commented:
    I agree with this comment from Souvenir Kattunge, “Mind you, if you looked at the other communities, the Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, etc. The trend is very similar. North Americans like to consider themselves as very tolerant of things like mixed marriages but it’s more like they’re tolerant of mixed marriages that don’t involve their family members.”

  8. Great post!
    I’m of Chinese descent and grew up in Canada. I remember my mother telling me not to marry a black or Indian person when I was younger. Most Chinese kids I knew growing up were encouraged to “stick with” Chinese people. Association divisions between different Chinese people was common. My mother who grew up in China has been reminded (in Canada) that she didn’t grew up in Hong Kong and even asked how she managed to marry someone who was from Hong Kong.
    Mind you, if you looked at the other communities, the Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, etc. The trend is very similar. North Americans like to consider themselves as very tolerant of things like mixed marriages but it’s more like they’re tolerant of mixed marriages that don’t involve their family members.

    1. Global attitudes on mixed race marriages are slowly changing among generations. It’s not an instant kicker like race laws when King marched on Washington because he “Had a dream! A great dream! A dream in which every man lives equal!” He stood for equality in public, but not in the family. That equality takes time.

  9. Though they may call the white men 怪咯, they certainly seem to clamor to absorb their language. This is the great dichotomy of China–strong feelings or superiority attempt to best the West and make up for a century of humiliation. The want to imitate us, but only, I think, because we have been dominating the world for so long and they want to outdo us at our own game.

    If ignorance is all the keeps HK people, and Chinese in general, racist, then China has a very uphill problem with racism.

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