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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10 Comments Add your comment

  • There is a very fine line between stereotyping and being racist. In Hong Kong that line is blurred even more. It is very easy to pass things off as just being a stereotype, but when does that stop and when does being racist start? Being a “British Born Chinese” I was open to a society where people from different backgrounds co-existed. Of course there were times when we were racially abused, and that was one of the main reasons for me to come to Hong Kong. The abuse was enough to push me out of the UK. Coming to Hong Kong, I had a naïve conception that all Chinese people would be nice to each other. Well at least not be racist to the people with the same colour skin. But sadly I was bitterly disappointed. There are so many incorrect misconceptions of people from Mainland China. I know many people from Mainland China, and I would like to say that they are very nice people, even better, even more hard working, than some Hong Kong people I know. It is not fair for people coming from Mainland China. They deserve a lot better. But the worst thing is that children are taught from a small age these crazy stereotypes about Mainlanders, and anyone from another ethnic background. Very quickly stereotypes transform into racism. This is an issue that NEEDS to be tackled NOW!

    Posted by Chapman Lung on October 11, 2012 at 10:55 AM
  • I agree with the previous post by Chapman. Racism does exist in Hong Kong but for most people here, they refuse to see it. At least in Hong Kong, we try to do something about it. Recently, there was a sporting event held in Hong Kong, Organized by one of the big American sporting brands, the winners of the Hong Kong regional contest would then attend the CHINA finals in Shanghai, joined by other regional finalists from other cities of China & even Taiwan. Imagine then, when I was told that the Winner of this overall event in Shanghai MUST BE CHINESE. This means that other Non-Chinese contestants in Hong Kong would not even have a chance to participate in the China Finals. Since this is Hong Kong, the organizers could not blatantly say "For Chinese Only" as Hong Kong has laws against this. So they best they could do was to ensure any contestant entering the contest had a permanent HK ID CARD. Ironic that this happens with an AMERICAN SPORTING BRAND that are trying to appease Chinese customers & consumers & are in fact promoting an event just for "CHINESE ONLY" There may be many arguments for / against this, but the outcome today in Hong Kong is that local athletes not of Chinese ethnicity do not really count as being from Hong Kong nor a legitimate representation of their sport from Hong Kong - for eg, if you are not chinese, but was born & grew up here, you don't really represent Hong Kong because you are not chinese. Its this mentality that is corrupting the minds of our youngsters & is blatantly being scantioned by the Marketing departments of these Foreign brands that want to sell to the chinese market. Its candy - coated racism.

    Posted by W. Stuart on October 11, 2012 at 02:15 PM
  • Where Hong Kong appears especially racist to me, is in the use of the word "foreigner". It's probably my North American upbringing, but that term encapsulates perfectly the type of racism that exists in Hong Kong because it represents an illogical judgment about someone based on that person's appearance. Last time I checked, my nationality wasn't tattooed on my face. But it seems like people are quick to judge your citizenship, and by extension whether you are a "real" Hong Konger or not, just by your facial features and the colour of your skin. Hong Kong isn't the only place in the world where this word is used in such a way, and probably the least egregious Chinese jurisdiction in terms of what is "foreign" and what is "Chinese". But, however free a society Hong Kong continues to be, this distinction always seems to persist, no matter how open a mind you intend to have.

    Posted by Ben on October 11, 2012 at 05:12 PM
  • Okay, 'Stuart' so HK is racist because of foreign, you might say FOREIGN, sporting brands corrupting the poor innocent locals. Hmm, interesting …. Hong Kong is indeed a racist city. Most HKers harbour deep seated prejudicial views on other ethnicities and don’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem with that (as noted in one of the articles here). They don’t act in a violent sense on their prejudices because of innate cowardice which compels them to avoid direct confrontation and by the fact that they are the overwhelming majority so don’t feel threatened. For a sense of how ugly some HKer’s behaviour can be just look at their truly disgusting harassment of mainlanders particularly around Sheng Shui. In my opinion, all the talk about HK and 'cosmopolitanism' is pure rubbish and written by a tiny segment of the population who are over represented in the English language media of the city, who likely never leave Central or HK Island, whose friends consist solely of other expats or Chinese raised in the West, or who come from small towns in their home countries so are just enthralled to be living in a place where the shops are open on Sundays and past 11 o’clock. That’s what they mean when they say HK is vibrant and dynamic. Outisde of this small segment of the city, HK is overwhelmingly parochial, more village than city, with social views and attitudes more in line with an ancient feudal, pre-modern/scientific, conception of society and the world than any sense of pluralistic, liberal, cosmopolitanism. The city is 97% Chinese, for god’s sake, with the remaining 3% comprised mainly of disenfranchised and essentially stateless Pakistanis, Nepalese, (insert other ‘dark skinned’ people here) as well as FDHs who also have minimal rights and very low status (holding your nose? How about sleeping on your employer’s kitchen floor? Or having your employer spy on you with webcams all day?). Attempting to spin all this and portray HK as ‘Asia’s multicultural’ city, a cool, hip, tolerant, cosmopolitan melting pot, with some minor prejudicial attitudes (essentially harmless, right?) but without all the terrible violence and full pitched race wars that are apparently plaguing cities in the West, is pure guff. Incidently, with all this discussion about racial violence ravaging the cities in the West, with the exception of a few incidents and lingering tension here and there, I’ve never heard much about it in the media, from friends and relatives or observed much evidence of it on my travels in North America or Europe which is extraordinary given the extremely large number of immigrants and refugees countries in those regions typically admit each year. I wonder how your average HKer would react to similar levels of immigration into the city. Judging by how some respond to the mere temporary presence in the city of their fellow Chinese from north of the border it may not be a pretty site and may even rival the furious race wars that evidently rage daily in truly multi-cultural cities like Toronto, San Francisco, Auckland, and Melbourne.

    Posted by Denial on October 12, 2012 at 10:06 AM
  • no racism against chinese? http://bbczeitgeist.blogspot.co.uk/

    Posted by in britain on November 28, 2012 at 12:25 PM
  • no racism against chinese? http://bbczeitgeist.blogspot.co.uk/

    Posted by in britain on November 28, 2012 at 12:26 PM
  • The colonial background has distorted the way HKer see themselves and other people. As a native HKer born in HK, I was taught that the people gave us Opium war also the same people gave us wealth, prosperity. This intertwined contradictory perception of history has enabled the mass majority to see themselves privileged above all other people under commonwealth rule. When HKer experience economic boom, there slowly created a sudden change of perception in wealth, relationship and life. Most readily illustrated in 1990s that how people tend to keep buying not one lot of land but multiple lots of land in Canada, Australia and other western countries when they decide to emigrate to other land so that they secure their own future. How all these relate to racisim, I am not so sure, but what I do see is that people simply has very disturbing belief we should not be bothered anytime we are not ready, what it means is dont mess with me unless I ask you so. This attitude exists, in public transport, work space... Recently the more explosive issue like mainlander with pregnant wife exodus, maid citizenship etc, and has furthered reinforced the prejudice towards people dont belong to our kind (HK kind). It is tremendously sad for me to witness that this change in human chemistry has grown into outright rejection, prejudice and racism. Hong Kong people used to be resilient, hardworking, highly responsive and efficient, now we are no more than a just a land of barking dogs fighting for survival.

    Posted by stephen on January 10, 2013 at 11:23 PM
  • Hong Kong is A VERY RACIST PLACE FOR FILIPINOS, VIETNAMESE AND all poor country surrounding them. I am Swiss-Brazilian and I could realized when I was there that the Hong Kong authorities, people and immigrants are higly racists. they were submitted during British occupation and now they do as same as the colonizator. UGLY, SAD and real racists.

    Posted by Julio navarrete on March 13, 2013 at 07:50 AM
  • I would like to relate a story in which my daughter forcibly had her brown hair dyed black in a Hong Kong school and the authorities informed me that this is acceptable in Hong Kong but racism does not exist ?

    Posted by andy on November 25, 2013 at 10:56 AM
  • Racism in Hong Kong is not at extreme level as compare to many other societies currently facing. Racism is directly related to the tolerance level of general public towards things which aren't originally part of their culture. Some multicultural societies are more open than the others and role of political leadership plays an important role in this regard. Thanks

    Posted by Resume Writing Companies on February 15, 2014 at 05:35 PM

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