Hong Kong – ‘Asia’s World City’. We live in a vibrant melting pot of cultures, and we’re proud of it. But despite this, our city is still failing many of the 6.4 percent of people who make up our ethnic minority population, particularly those from South Asia. Over 80 percent of South Asians living here work in low-paid, low-skill jobs. They are more likely to have problems in securing a house and, according to Oxfam, are more likely to work longer hours and for lower pay than their Chinese counterparts.

“The amount of Chinese I learned in school was totally nil,” says Tauqir Ahmad, an assistant project director at Lady MacLehose Centre, which supports ethnic minorities. Ahmad was born in Pakistan, and came here in 1996 when his father got a job. He studied at a ‘designated’ English-language school. “Of course, that was the main problem for me. There was no communication with local people – only Indians, Nepalese and Filipinos. We were segregated because we didn’t have any opportunity to study with local people.”

The giant language barrier in our society is at the root of many of the social problems that South Asians face. As most of these students don’t speak Chinese at home, they struggle to keep up with lessons at mainstream Chinese-language schools, and usually attend one of the 31 government-funded English-language schools instead. In late October, the Equal Opportunities Commission warned the government they need to address this issue of segregation or face investigation.

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“These [English-language] schools teach Chinese to ethnic minorities at a lower level, rather than teaching it as a second language,” says Puja Kapai, a fourth-generation Indian and an associate professor of law at Hong Kong University. “So by the time they get to Form Six, their language abilities in Chinese are only equivalent to Grade Two or Three.”

Kapai explains that ‘these graduates are limited to a realm of jobs’. She says, “Even a graduate with a high grade in GCSE Chinese may struggle even to work as a delivery boy, as he won’t be able to read the address in Chinese. There is no way for upward social mobility. [The system] entrenches an entire family in inter-generational poverty – they can’t break free from that cycle because the educational opportunities do not put them on equal footing with their counterparts.” Kapai feels that the government needs to start providing a dedicated CSL (Chinese as a second language) curriculum within mainstream schools.

Ahmad agrees that something needs to change. He says, “The education system is totally unfair for us. Other countries have a fair system, but here the ethnic minorities cannot interact with the local people – how can they learn Chinese if they have no interaction? That’s why they get lower-priority jobs as construction workers, drivers and security guards. It is a major problem.” Ahmad admits that, at first, he struggled to get a job due to his poor academic qualifications. “The schools don’t put much effort into ethnic-minority students,” he says.

While it’s true that many children from ‘white’ families also don’t learn Chinese, that demographic tends to be wealthier, with children more likely to study at international schools and attend university abroad. “About one percent of ethnic-minority students [here] get into university,” says Mariana Law, spokesperson for the Equal Opportunities Commission. “You have to understand the background of these South Asian kids. If they can’t get into university here, then there is no alternative.”

So, why is it so hard for ethnic minorities to pick up Chinese at mainstream schools? “That’s the million-dollar question!” exclaims Yip. “The UN have said repeatedly that Hong Kong needs to develop a CSL policy to help ethnic minorities get equal life opportunities. Why
is it not happening?” she asks. “The government hasn’t always been very concerned about ethnic-minority issues, partially because they are 6.4 percent [of the population] – some would argue it’s not a big number. Also a lot of these people, politically, they are disenfranchised. So they can’t garner that attention.”

Law points out that ‘some ethnic-minority students don’t even go to kindergarten’, which certainly exacerbates the problem. “There
are various reasons [for that], including that the kindergartens aren’t subsidised by the government,” she says. “Some of the parents also feel it’s too difficult to get into them, because the medium of instruction is Chinese.”

While Ahmad appreciates that, overall, Hong Kong is a good place to live, he acknowledges that cultural understanding between Chinese and minority populations is still a problem. “It’s much harder for the locals to integrate [with us],” he says. “Sometimes colour or race, it makes a difference for them.” He also thinks that discrimination is latent. “Housing is a major issue right now in the [ethnic-minority] community. Landlords or agents make excuses like, ‘sorry, we don’t have any houses right now’, or raise the price out of their expectation. They don’t want to give the house to them, because they think they will have lots of children… there are lots of reasons.” Ahmad continues, “And when a contract is issued, it’s often written in Chinese. What is said verbally [by the landlord] may be different from what is written, but they cannot read it.”

The government has now promised to conduct a special survey into the households of ethnic minorities at some point next year, with a view to improving the data that is available. No other details have been announced yet. “It’s a better-late-than-never gesture,” says Yip. “It’s very important that the government knows more about this community before they try to help them out of their issues.”

Working to resolve these problems could reduce the social unrest that can unfurl through the marginalisation of certain groups. “There are districts now that really are facing youth gang problems,” says Yip. “If [these youths] cannot see a way out through the normal avenues, they very easily get lured into drugs and crime. The government really has to face the problem, and that involves giving them hope and equal opportunities in all facets of life.” Anna Cummins

To find out more about the Equal Opportunities Commission, see eoc.org.hk.

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