South Asians and Africans are no longer Hong Kong’s ‘ethnic other’ – now it’s the mainland Chinese

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Chungking Mansions on October 20. File photo: May James/HKFP.

This event came about because Jimmy Sham, the convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front – who are the major organiser of the recent protests – was beaten up on October 16 by several men identified as South Asian. Concerns over a backlash against South Asians arose, particularly in Chungking Mansions. To forestall ethnic resentment, Jeffrey Andrews, a prominent social worker at the Chungking Mansions-based NGO Christian Action Centre for Refugees, organised various ethnic minority members to hand out water and food to protesters on October 20. (Ironically that day, it was the Hong Kong police, shooting their water cannon at the Kowloon Mosque, who alienated many among Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, leading to a public apology by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.)

Following this, Andrews, together with Jonnet Kudera of the Christian Action Centre for Refugees, organised the October 25 event. Young Hong Kong participants admired the elaborate Indian Diwali celebration displays in Chungking Mansions, sampled Indian sweets, marvelled at the cultural diversity they beheld, and also occasionally broke into chants: “five demands, not one less!”

Photo: Rhea Mogul/HKFP.

This was an amazing happening. Chungking Mansions – long seen as a place to be feared by many in Hong Kong as the home of “ethnic otherness” – was celebrated and cherished by young Hongkongers on this day, as had never before occurred. I myself was at this event, and was overwhelmed with joy. And yet, I am concerned that this event does not fully depict a diminishment of Hong Kong racism, but rather a shift. A shift in Hong Kong’s “ethnic other.”

South Asians and Africans are no longer that “ethnic other”; instead it is the mainland Chinese.

I have taught a weekly class of refugees in Chungking Mansions for the past thirteen years. My African and South Asian students in years past would regularly recount the racism they experienced in their daily lives in Hong Kong, with, for example, Hongkongers refusing to sit next to them on public transport, and occasionally cursing at them. In recent years, however, the situation has been changing. As one African refugee said, “Hong Kong students used to ask, ‘Why do you people come here?’ in an unfriendly way. Now, over the past few years, they really want to talk with you!”

Tour of Chungking Mansion on October 25. Photo: United Social Press.

As another African refugee told me, “It used to be, a few years ago, when I stepped onto a basketball court in Hong Kong, all the [Hong Kong Chinese] people would leave. Now they all want to play basketball with me, and even invite me to dinner.”

This change in attitude was reflected in a remarkable incident last year. Several Hong Kong localists were attending the class. A South Asian refugee asked a localist, “Can I be a Hongkonger?” He was told, “of course you can be a Hongkonger! We need people like you here!” An African refugee asked, “Can I be a Hongkonger?” and was told, “of course you can be a Hongkonger! We need people like you here!” Then a mainland Chinese student, also attending the class, asked, “Can I be a Hongkonger?” and was told, “Well…” The answer was apparently no.

The government of Hong Kong has of course been continuously emphasising Hong Kong’s Chineseness. In opposition to this, the attitude of these localists was that of Hong Kong as “anything but Chinese.” This attitude is that in order to preserve Hong Kong’s distinctiveness as against mainland China, it must be international- unlike mainland China – and it must maintain its complete distinctiveness from mainland China.

Photo: United Social Press.

While the refugees I know, as well as other members of minority ethnicities in Hong Kong, generally report a far higher degree of acceptance and welcoming among Hong Kong young people than among their elders, many of the mainland Chinese students I know report a very different situation. Some of the mainland students have been terrified to leave the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus; several have reported being harassed when they speak Putonghua on the street in Hong Kong. The destruction by protesters of mainland-linked stores in Hong Kong furthers these students’ sense of fear and alienation from Hong Kong: “Hong Kong hates people like me!” a mainland student exclaimed, in a comment repeated in various ways by a number of the mainland students I know and teach in Hong Kong.

Protesters I know say, “we don’t hate Chinese people, we hate the Chinese government and the Communist Party.” This is no doubt true; but of course since it is the government that educates mainland Chinese people such as my students, it can seem difficult to separate government and people. As chair of the Department of Anthropology at CUHK, I have been trying to arrange dialogues between mainland students and Hong Kong students, with some initial success thus far. But it is a hard process because attitudes towards the Hong Kong protests can be so different among members of the two groups, and mutual understanding can be extremely difficult to arrive at. Still, it seems essential to try.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The October 25 event in Chungking Mansions was an amazing event, but it did not mark an end to Hong Kong “racism.” Hong Kong racism can only end when everybody – regardless of ethnic or national background – is welcomed. This may be difficult given the current conflict, and the vast differences in interpretation among people of different backgrounds (and I must add, I am in complete agreement with the protesters’ aim of preserving Hong Kong’s freedoms, although I abhor violence). But Hong Kong “racism” will truly end only when everyone, regardless of background or nationality, can be welcomed and respectfully argued with, rather than disdained. I am cautiously optimistic, in this time of dark turmoil and police brutality, that this day will eventually come in Hong Kong. But it hasn’t come yet.