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Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities still struggling for acceptance due to language barriers and skin colour

Krizto Chan and Liz Yuen

During a visit to the Labour Department to look for a job, an officer counts one, two, three stars on Tauriq Ahmad’s Hong Kong Identity Card. The officer looks puzzled and keeps on asking, “Are you Pakistani? Indian? Nepali?” For Ahmad, comments like this are an all too common occurrence. He is a permanent resident but as an ethnic Pakistani, he does not look like a “local” in many people’s eyes.

Ethnic minorities make up five per cent of Hong Kong’s total population and according to a 2006 census, 44 per cent of them are permanent residents. They belong to different ethnic groups and social classes and practise different religions. But they all live in a city where the majority are Han Chinese and they all have their ways of viewing their identity.

Rihana Bibi, a 22-year-old Pakistani living in Hong Kong with her family, describes herself as a  local. “I don’t look Chinese,” says Rihana. “But I am a lot like the local people because I was born in Hong Kong and I went through the local education system and everything.”

A student at the City University of Hong Kong, Bibi’s favourite activities are similar to those of other local young people. She goes to “yum cha” regularly with friends and gets excited about local festivals like Chinese New Year. She is also a big fan of local television programmes and movies. “Once in a CD shop when I told my friends that I watched these TVB series and those movies, they are like: ‘Oh my God you watch more than us’.”

Bibi says she tries to blend into the local community. For instance, she used to wear traditional Pakistani outfits but she stopped after she noticed people would hesitate before approaching her. “In one way I am more comfortable with how I used to dress,” she says. “But I have to change this about me to become more local.”

Dressed in a hoodie and a pair of jeans, Qudrat Nasirah Bibi (no relation to Rihana) says she does not wear Islamic dress in Hong Kong. Nasirah was educated in local schools, the Sham Shui Po Government Primary School and then Delia Memorial School. She is now studying at university to become an English teacher.

Born and raised here, she is used to Hong Kong’s culture and lifestyle. “If I don’t belong here I don’t belong anywhere,” she says.

Occasionally, Nasirah visits her parents’ home country, Pakistan. Every time, she finds herself dying to come back. “The way you think and dress and the way people there think and dress are different,” she says. “Everything is different…I don’t feel like it’s home there. My home is Hong Kong.”

However, she finds the majority of Hong Kong people do not consider ethnic minorities to be locals. “Just because you can’t speak Cantonese, you cannot read, you cannot write, you do not look local, you are not local.”

Nasirah believes language skills determine ethnic minorities’ degree of adaptation and popularity in mainstream society. “If you speak Cantonese, then people around you would be more comfortable with you and be nicer to you because you can communicate easier.”

Nasirah says she can understand Cantonese but she cannot speak or write well. She picked up most of her Chinese in primary school, when her parents made her study Chinese instead of their own native tongue.

When she entered a secondary school with many other ethnic minority students, she attended Hanyu lessons in her junior years but she found them to be useless.  “They taught very basic stuff like counting, how are you? And stuff like that. I had gone through six years of Chinese so I knew everything already.”
Nasirah regrets not having the resources to learn Cantonese better at the time. “Schools during our time did not pay much attention to Chinese for ethnic minorities,” she sighs.

Chitra Karamchandani, an ethnic Indian who is studying at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), agrees speaking Cantonese would make life a lot easier in Hong Kong. “I really feel that it was bad that I couldn’t learn how to speak Cantonese in school,” she says.

Karamchandani attended a local school where English is the Medium of Instruction (EMI), for 11 years, and studied Chinese in her first three years of primary school. The lessons stopped the following year when the school asked ethnic minorities students to switch to French.

“My parents and I were quite against it because we feel like why are we supposed to speak French well if we want to live and work in Hong Kong?” says Nasirah. She recounts how they went to the principal and made a request. “Would you please? Can we please learn Cantonese? She was like, ‘It is the rule. I just can’t’.”

Karamchandani says her Cantonese is “really bad” now, adding that she can understand most things but cannot speak well.

Locally born and raised, Karamchandani recalls a difficult childhood. Besides the struggles with the local language, she also had to put up with taunts at her school where most students were Chinese. “I remember sometimes when we were to play games, they would not want to touch my hands, or group up with me, just because I look different.”

For Karamchandani, there is always a distance between local Chinese and the ethnic minorities. “We thought of you as unapproachable, and you thought of us as unapproachable,” she says.

At the age of 20, she says she still does not feel very integrated into local society. She says she regrets not trying harder to make more local Chinese friends before she transferred to an international school after Form Five. “I still feel like a bit of an outsider, like an expatriate.”

Karamchandani thinks Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities are deprived of opportunities and that the root of the problem rests in education. Before 2005, the number of public sector schools ethnic minorities could attend (because they were allowed to skip Chinese classes) was very limited. Most of them were lower-band schools. Karamchandani considers herself lucky because she attended a good EMI school. Most ethnic minority students who could not afford to go to international schools ended up in low-band local schools.

Although the government has changed the system so ethnic minority children can apply to all government schools, it is still hard for them to get into the better schools. This is because they cannot compete with local Chinese children when it comes to Chinese language skills.

Tauqir Ahmad is only too aware of the consequences this can have. “When we come to Hong Kong, our biggest aim is to get the best education and best involvement here,” says the 26-year-old ethnic Pakistani. “However, no matter how hard we struggle, we cannot gain the things that local people do.”

Ahmad came to Hong Kong 14 years ago after his father found a job here. When he left school after form five, he could understand but not speak Cantonese well. In the workplace, he believes he has suffered from discrimination.

“Local people can succeed really fast compared to ethnic minorities,” he says. Ahmad used to work as a shipping assistant at a smaller branch of an international company with a monthly salary of around HK$8,000.  He says staff were usually promoted to company headquarters, with an increased salary of around HK$15,000 a month, after a while.

He waited for two and a half years but was not given a promotion opportunity while a Chinese colleague with a form three education was promoted after just two years. Ahmad looks at the floor and says, “I felt ashamed that the less experienced Chinese workers got promoted before I did… I am never promoted because we are ethnic minorities.”

Ahmad now works as an assistant project director at the Services for Ethnic Minorities Group and Community Work Unit at the Lady Maclehose Centre.

Although he enjoys his current job, he experiences frustrations in his everyday life in Hong Kong. He encounters inequalities and his local friends are confined to people at work. He is embarrassed when people stand up on the bus when he sits beside them. Understanding how hard life can be for minorities, Ahmad is glad that he can help others by providing housing and educational advice at work.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Ahmad says,“I like Pakistan better. Of course, we are Hong Kong residents. That’s why we are living here. But my ethnicity, where I belong to, is Pakistan.”

Vivek Mahbubani, an ethnic Indian, is the third generation in his family to live in Hong Kong. Although he speaks fluent Cantonese and English, he says people still give him a hard time in his daily life. He has been called names both at school and on the streets. He has also been treated rudely but he has learnt to accept it.

“It’s all about ‘we are better than you so why are you in my country? Go away,’” says Mahbubani, who has mined his experiences for his routines as a stand-up comedian. “They are just trying to protect themselves.”

Mahbubani says the reverse also happens when ethnic minorities stereotype the Chinese. “When I told my friends that I ate hot pot, some of my Indian friends were shocked: ‘Do you eat dogs? Cockroaches?’”

Mahbubani says he is well integrated in Hong Kong society, but he has worked hard at it.  He is always willing to take the first step, which is not always easy.  “Say for my Cantonese, it didn’t come because I just woke up one day and say ‘Oh my God I speak Cantonese!’” , says Mahbubani. Instead, it was the hard graft he put into daily three-hour Cantonese tutorial classes after school. “Sweetness will come after bitterness,” he says using a Chinese idiom to describe his persistence in learning  Cantonese.

Like many ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, Mahbubani has had times when he was confused about his position in Hong Kong society. “When I was younger, I would try to blend in, in a way that, I try to be them. But as I grow older, I realise that no matter how hard I try, I will never be a local Chinese.” Instead of changing themselves, he advises others to take advantage of their uniqueness. “We are rare, just like diamonds,” says Mahbubani. “This is how I see ethnic minorities can blend in. Just be yourselves and be someone special.”

This locally born and raised Hongkonger has his own definition of what it means to be a local, “To me, Hong Kong is not a race. It is a mentality. It is the way you think, the way you live. That is why I think I am a Hong Kong person.”

“I am a Hong Kong person who is never a Hong Kong person.”


  1. Lot of south asians kids are getting in to the mainstream school now. Hope the future will change and south asians will be accepted in government minsitries. Recently, HK’s top school DGS accepts the South Asian girl. ” there is a will, there is a way and there is a skill, there is a acceptance and recognization”

  2. well as ethnic hongie mentioned that nowadays many minority children are joining mainstream schools.
    i do hope that HK education system realizes the most obvious issue at hand, i.e. how to actually educate non chinese children.
    since half the parents cant read and write chinese, it is only upto the children to do everything on thier own because parents cant help them except in english language. Most SA parents cannot afford tution. i hope Govt realizes this and starts programs that are aimed at integreting students into the society

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