Racism 2012 - Yes and No


As much as we like to paint Hong Kong as a model of Asian multiculturalism, it’s difficult to deny that our city faces significant racial problems. They aren’t, however, necessarily the same class of racial quandary many other multicultural societies face: here, it doesn’t live at the extremes. Rarely does racial prejudice manifest itself in violence or in any other type of radical form – like nutters advocating purity of race or other supremacists. It’s not in the class of spitting at minorities in the street or even regular vocal confrontations.

But, it then throws up the question of what racial problems we actually do face. While we can be thankful that the more fanatical forms of racism aren’t prevalent here, what we should recognise is that Hong Kong’s racial prejudices exist in a more subtle yet extremely pervasive form, and congregate in the middle, casting a rather broad net across the wider mainstream. It may be subtle but it’s significant, nevertheless. 

Many Hongkongers possess a happy readiness to stereotype – and, one step beyond that, they possess a happy readiness to prejudice based on that stereotype. This is by no means limited to racial stereotypes. In some ways socio-economic backgrounds are just as pervasive. But given their inextricable link to race, at least in the mind of many Hongkongers, stereotypes inevitably take on a racial element.

Perhaps the greatest concern about racism in Hong Kong is its lack of self-recognition. It’s not in denial – it’s just not necessarily viewed as morally reprehensible. Quite openly, many Hongkongers still fear the presence of people with darker skin, will hesitate to let their apartment out to or employ someone from a South Asian background, or constantly propagate the typecast of the uncouth, uncivilised ways of mainland Chinese. On the shelves of every supermarket in Hong Kong, the toothpaste Darlie is still called Black Man (黑人) in Cantonese – and, from our understanding, there’s never been any call to change it. Manifestations of racism might not be aggressive but for people subject to such prejudices, it’s a daily – or many times daily – encounter they must endure.

The difficulty with this sort of subtle racism is that it’s harder to eliminate. It’s not practical to legislate against someone holding their nose when a person of a certain ethnicity sits down next to them or have a law against fear with a racial undertone. And if there is an acknowledgement that racial stereotyping isn’t really a cool thing to do, then we’re really just in a racist cycle that has no prospect of being broken.

Hong Kong has its fair share of problems. We’re small, rent is ridiculously expensive and we make way, way too many sub-par cop films with the same group of actors. But on our long list of things worth whining about, problems of racial discrimination rank low on the charts. In fact, Hong Kong prides itself on its multicultural milieu and for a city of our size, boasting a six percent ethnic minority population is a remarkable feat that deserves some recognition.

What’s even more remarkable, however, is the close interaction between all races residing in Hong Kong. Ethnic Chinese work alongside Nepalese teachers in schools; white expatriates eat where South Asians eat and even local, Cantonese-speaking television channels feature Indian actors and news reporters. This level of interaction happens on a daily basis, and yet, race-related conflicts are at a bare minimum, especially when compared to other self-proclaimed multicultural societies around the world.

While some may argue that cultural insensitivity does happen in Hong Kong, this phenomenon is mostly restricted to older generations who’ve had less exposure to other ethnicities. The cultural climate of Hong Kong is different nowadays. Labels that were once racially derogatory – like ‘gweilo’ – have been transformed over the years into culturally neutral terms that are regularly employed without the historical racial stigma. It’s also not uncommon for locals to visit ethnic minority hubs like Chungking Mansions. It might not seem like a big step forward, but nonetheless, all this has contributed to the blurring of the once-segregatory lines in our city.

Of course, we’re not trying to paint Hong Kong as some sort of utopian society where everyone loves thy neighbour and turns the other cheek. Discrimination does happen but, more often than not, it’s discrimination based on socio-economic standings or other factors rather than the colour of one’s skin. The recent controversy about domestic helpers’ right of abode is a prime example. It’s easy to misconstrue this as a form of prejudice against Filipinos or Indonesians, given that they make up the majority of this group in Hong Kong. However, it’s important to remember that it is the form of employment, and not the race, that is at the heart of the problem. Yes, this is unfortunate, but it’s also another problem entirely that we can address in a later issue. At the end of the day, Hong Kong still has a lot of problems to sort out, but racial discordance is definitely not one of them.

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