Hong Kong's Big Dirty Little Secret

The Asian Wall Street Journal, 10th January 2001

When Malaysia-born Harinder Veriah first arrived in Hong Kong to work with a leading British law firm she seemed to have all the qualifications to ensure years of success in this supposedly internationally minded and business-oriented city. Unlike most of the overseas professionals Hong Kong is keen to attract, she had the added advantage of speaking Cantonese, as well as flawless English, which remains the language of the law in Hong Kong.

But Ms. Veriah's skin color was quite dark. And though both she and her husband, Martin Jacques, a well known British journalist and writer, had lived in London where racism is often close to the surface society, Ms. Veriah found in Hong Kong a new and more pernicious form of racial prejudice -- one Mr. Jacques believes finally cost her her life a little more than a year ago.

Ms. Veriah was an epileptic who fell ill during a New Year's eve party and was taken to Ruttonjee Hospital where she died two days later. Before her death Ms. Veriah, the only non-Chinese patient in Ruttonjee, complained about the quality of her care, telling Mr. Jacques she felt "at the bottom of the pile," neglected by the hospital staff because of the color of her skin.

In November, a government inquest concluded that Ms. Veriah died of natural causes, and Ruttonjee declined an invitation from Mr. Jacques to investigate his late wife's claims of neglect due to racial discrimination. But the allegations struck an immediate chord among members of Hong Kong's ethnic minority communities, many of whom rallied to support Mr. Jacques.

The Hong Kong government responded to the allegations, asserting that "racial discrimination is not a big problem here." In a letter to a local newspaper, Kwan Wing-wah, the acting secretary for home affairs, wrote: "The fact remains that Hong Kong, one of the world's most compact communities, is a tolerant and cosmopolitan society where persons of every race and color and nationality live together in a remarkable degree of harmony."

Mr. Kwan's letter produced a deluge of angry responses from the city's minority communities, who can readily supply tales of being denied schools for their children, housing, admission to places of entertainment, and especially work. It remains perfectly legal in Hong Kong, for example, for businesses seeking employees to publish notices stipulating that "blacks need not apply."

Indeed, racism is so deeply ingrained into Hong Kong's culture that derogatory terms for ethnic minorities are barely noticed. White-skinned people are routinely described as gwei lo or "ghost people" and blacks are called hak gwei or "black ghosts." A local beer company television advertisement features a Chinese actor dressed as a black person whose behavior is best described as wild and stupid. One of the most popular Chinese-language television programs had a stock Filipina character named Maria who was depicted as feeble-minded.

Hong Kong's racism has been nurtured by the confluence of two cultural influences that have had the effect of building racist views into its very structure. Considered inferior, Chinese were banned from living near, socializing with and marrying their British colonial subjugators. This clashed with an equal certainty among the Chinese that they were themselves a race far superior to any other in the world. This race-based division of Hong Kong society began to dissipate only after World War II.

From the earliest days of the colony there was a small but significant community of various ethnicities from the Indian sub-continent who were thrown into this cauldron of simmering racism and relegated to bottom rungs of the racial hierarchy. Yet many Indian families prospered. One of them, the Ruttonjee family, provided the funds to establish the hospital where Harinder Veriah died.

In its last report on its obligations to combat racial discrimination under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Hong Kong's government devotes 136 pages to reassuring the international community that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Even more troubling, however, has been the government's willful obstruction of attempts to legislate against racial discrimination.

In 1996, the legislator Elizabeth Wong introduced a bill to outlaw racial discrimination. Another legislator, Christine Loh, also attempted to secure anti-racial discrimination laws. The government mobilized its supporters in the Legislative Council to block both attempts, arguing that legislation was not necessary because racism was best defeated by education. To show good will, it set aside a paltry $39,500 for public education on matters relating to both race and sexual orientation.

While the government is spending peanuts on its near invisible campaign to combat discrimination, one of its departments has distinguished itself for what looks suspiciously like racist attitudes. The Immigration Department is routinely accused of screening out racial minorities -- non-Europeans -- who want to live in Hong Kong, which stands in sharp contrast to the city's efforts to encourage visitors from all over the world.

A government-commissioned survey published earlier this month found that 4.1% of Hong Kong's population is not ethnic Chinese. The survey was also supposed to identify the needs of this community. However, it failed to ask the burning question of whether non-ethnic Chinese faced racial discrimination.

According to John Dean, the principal assistant secretary for home affairs, there was no need to ask this question because "we have already dealt with racial discrimination." This assertion can hardly be taken seriously. And it leaves hanging a far more fundamental question: How can Hong Kong possibly hope to be a truly international business hub if its bureaucrats believe "international" refers only to white and ethnic-Chinese businessmen and professionals?

The death of Harinder Veriah has helped breathe new life into the campaign against racial discrimination. So it may just be that something good will come of her tragedy.

While it is important not to overstate the pervasiveness of racism and discrimination in Hong Kong, it is equally important not to ignore it. In many ways Hong Kong is truly cosmopolitan and people of all races can live comfortably in the community. But as long as the Hong Kong government remains in denial about the problems that do exist, it is permitting a cancer to grow. It is this pattern of neglect that continues to make racism Hong Kong's biggest dirty little secret.

By Stephen Vines

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