With Hong Kong appearing to be such a multicultural city, it is often hard to believe that racism still exists. Earnest efforts from individuals and organisations are still ongoing to help the city live upto its name of being the international city of Asia.
On the surface, Hong Kong is proudly known as Asia’s World City, This is seen in the spread of different demographics and cultures housed in its paltry area of 2,800 km². Beneath the layers, though, there lies a sheath of disparity and disharmony, as discrimination tends to discolor and discredit a person’s true identity and merit. While most of the struggles and sufferings go unnoticed, the recent statistics and cases on racism have been alarming. In collaboration with Niru Vishwanath, Community Outreach Officer of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), we discuss the need to inspire wholesale equality and how this could be achieved.
Racism in Hong Kong
By essence, racism is identified when a person is treated differently simply based on his race, which is usually derived from his personal background, parents, or color of skin. With 92% of the Hong Kong population estimated to be Chinese, complaints of racism usually come from the remaining sects, largely South Asians. Among the common complaints are the mistreatment faced by ethnic minority groups in local transports, as drivers of taxis and buses are often alleged for giving preferential treatment to the Chinese. Further studies have found though, that a countless number of people have fallen victim to racism when trying to rent an apartment.
Victims of Racism
Based on community feedback as well as the complaints registered with the EOC, the brunt of the racism is felt most by people in the low income strata of society. Their lack of spending power could allow the landlords to be put on a proverbial pedestal, with seemingly greater negotiation power. By the same token, most of the reported cases generally occur in middle class areas like Sham Shui Po, Yau Tsim Mong, and Yuen Long. The cultural group that faces the most wrath of racism are Pakistanis. However, such has been the gravity of the situation, that a person looking for a property gets rejected around at least fifteen times, before lodging an official complaint.
The differential treatment given can often be very subtle and subliminal. For instance, there was a recent case where a landlord asked for excessive documentation and material of personal records and income proofs. Alternatively, some estate agents have even been reported for suddenly hiking up the deposit and rental prices and terms after discovering the race of the potential tenant. One tenant, who had a young family, recalled that just as the terms were about to be finalised, the agent slapped a new condition that no children would be allowed. In other cases, the property proprietors rather abruptly told their prospective buyers that the property is no longer available, without any plausible or justifiable explanation. While some tenants may seem clueless about the rationale behind sudden change, it becomes more clear to them when the same property gets offered again to people of other cultures.
Reasons for Racism
From the past cases received, the landlords alleged for racism have actually cited their bad experiences as excuses for their differential treatment. Most of them have either personally experienced, or seen, some South Asians not being able to pay their rent on time, bargain excessively, while some even misreport details about their family sizes. Other pet peeves of property distributors also include the strong smells that often comes from a South Asian kitchen, lack of cleanliness and damage to fixtures, walls and furnitures. Although these may seem like plausible reasons, the problem arises because “people tend to have a broad-brush understanding of others,” says Niru. “We cannot generalise and treat an entire community based on a few people’s traits. We must consider each case individually,” she reiterates. In case a person does feel that they are subject to racism, contacting the EOC would be their next step.
Approaching the EOC
When an official complaint is received, the EOC records all the details by the complainant and approaches the respondent, most likely the landlord or property agent. The EOC then arranges for the two parties to meet and negotiate, in order to resolve the case through conciliation. Oftentimes, some complainants simply seek a letter of apology, while others demand financial compensation, or even a change in the policy and practices. If a settlement cannot be reached though, the case will be further investigated, and testimonials and eyewitnesses from both sides will be considered. Whence an agreement is made, both parties are then required to sign a legally binding document which classifies the case as resolved. However, if the respondent denies the claims, or complainant is still not satisfied with the proposed resolution, the complainant can even decide to take the case to a District Court within 24 months. After consideration of the Racial Discrimination Ordinance (RDO), as well as the mitigating circumstances, the District Court may apply sanctions on the guilty.
Changing the Image
While it is best not to have – or act upon – any preconceived notions of a race, the minority groups themselves can take efforts to change their image. Firstly, when the new family moves in, Niru suggests that they should make an effort to get to know their landlord and neighbors, and clarify the expectations of each side. Over time, the new family should build a rapport with their landlord and neighbors, and even make friends with them. This could involve inviting them over, cooking for them, exchanging cultural gifts, or even just spending quality time together and appreciating each other’s personality and culture. This connection would not only allow the new residents to make new friends, but they could also be rest assured that their neighbors and landlord would be more forgiving in case of any inconvenience caused. Most importantly, they could set a new precedent for their race and culture in the eyes of their landlords.
While it may take some time before racism in Hong Kong gets eradicated completely, organisations like EOC and other NGOs are trying their earnest to ensure it remains minimal. With time, one can only hope that with education one’s intelligence, along with the human consciousness, develops enough to make everyone feel welcomed and united. Only thus will Hong Kong truly be multicultural, and only then will it live up to its name of being Asia’s World City.