Cultural Conflicts and Misunderstanding in Hong Kong: How Should Hong Kong Natives and Ethnic Minorities Respond to Minimise Tension


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Today’s racism is arguably less overt and virulent than past forms of racism. Yet, any subtle, insidious forms of racism in Hong Kong remain detrimental to the wellbeing of ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong primarily refers to those coming from Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, such as those of Filipino, Indian and Pakistani origin. Minority groups in Hong Kong are often followed by shop owners when entering a shop; denied by property agencies when attempting to rent or buy a residential property; and given impolite facial expressions by waiters when dining in local restaurants.

The subtle, everyday exclusion that minority groups confront ostensibly limits their freedoms in public spaces. Local journalists reported such inequalities encountered by minority populations as racial discrimination, denouncing Hong Kong as a racist city. However, media coverage often exclusively focuses on minority claimants or anti-discrimination non-profit organisations (NGOs), failing to account for Hong Kong natives’ behaviours towards ethnic minorities.

While local journalists are sympathising with ethnic minorities as victims of discrimination, rarely do they survey Hong Kong natives’ opinions about ethnic minorities. The lack of understanding of Hong Kong natives’ perceptions of minority groups fails to fully indicate the causes of discrimination faced by minority populations.

According to one of the latest research projects conducted and published by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), locals discussed their discriminatory responses towards ethnic minorities. As reported, retailers complained ethnic minority customers would inconsiderately leave a mess behind after shopping and sneakily try on clothes (such as underwear) without permission; property agencies claimed ethnic minority customers would inappropriately haggle over the prices and benefits, and under-report the household sizes; and waiters argued ethnic minority customers often caused disturbance due to their high level of sound volume and the former worried about taking wrong orders from the latter due to language barriers.

Here I, by no means, attempt to single out the possibility of justifying the existence of everyday racism. As I believe, racism against ethnic minorities should never be tolerated within and beyond Hong Kong. However, EOC discerned many so-called incidents of discrimination against ethnic minorities are in fact ethnic conflicts initiated by the deficiency in cultural understanding between Hong Kong natives and ethnic minorities.

For example, some ethnic minorities claimed older generation Hong Kong natives are reluctant to accept them coming to Hong Kong for settlement. Yet, in return, some older generation Hong Kong natives argued a lack of English proficiency primarily hampers them from communicating with and befriending minority groups.

Without building up mutual understanding, ethnic conflicts between Hong Kong natives and ethnic minorities can hardly be minimised. Cultural tension and its implications of partially unintentional causes of unpleasant experiences against certain ethnic groups remain.

In order to strengthen ethnic minorities’ cultural awareness, minority populations can attend programmes designated for new arrivals. In so doing, they can better understand local cultures and living styles. For example, Yau Tsim Mong Integrated Services for New Arrivals focuses on the provision of guidance for new arrivals, both mainland Chinese and non-mainland Chinese, in terms of outreach opportunities, social activities and corporate volunteer English tutorial. New arrivals who relocate from mainland China are also subject to constant sociocultural discrimination and marginalisation due to, for example, language barriers and insufficient metropolitan network. These programmes aim to help new arrivals socio-culturally integrate into Hong Kong.

In addition, frontline staff working in services industry can usually handle simple English conversations. However, difficulties arise when they attempt to pick up accents of South Asians and Africans. As a result, staff seeking assistance from supervisors may be regarded by ethnic minorities as disrespectful. Frontline staff should be given opportunities to receive further English language training.

When looking at socioeconomic profiles of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, it is noteworthy that Pakistanis and Nepalese suffer from substantially greater extent of discrimination as relative to their Indian and non-South Asian minority counterparts. For example, on average, South Asians and ethnic minorities in general were better educated and more likely to take up managerial and professional positions, earn higher monthly personal and household incomes, and live in private housings than the whole Hong Kong population as per 2011 statistics published by Hong Kong Government. However, Pakistanis and Nepalese populations predominantly engaged in elementary occupations that Hong Kong natives disdained and earned HK$2,000 median monthly personal income less than the figure of the entire Hong Kong workforce. Among certain ethnic minority groups, including financially disadvantaged Pakistanis and Nepalese, living under working poverty, many experience racial discrimination in the forms of unequal pay and job opportunities in the workplace. Since minorities’ poor Chinese proficiency is reported as the major hurdle to achieving job stability and mobility, it is therefore crucial for the Labour Department to offer regular, part-time Chinese language learning opportunities for the ethnic minority workforce. Helping financially disadvantaged ethnic minorities better participate in Hong Kong’s labour market is a prerequisite for overall settlement and integration in the city.

As a purportedly multicultural international city, Hong Kong Government should implement more social, cultural and occupational initiatives to help ethnic minorities develop cultural assets and understanding for integration. Likewise, the Government should encourage Hong Kong natives to build up necessary cultural skillsets to embrace minority populations.

Jason Hung is a MSc Sociology candidate at London School of Economics. He is the Assistant Country Director of China at Global Peace Chain. He is an incoming intern at United Nations for Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and incoming visiting researcher at Stanford University.

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