This is part of a weekly series of feature stories, videos and podcasts in which The Straits Times correspondents cast the spotlight on people and communities around the region who are living in the shadows of their societies where they exist largely unseen, unheard and little talked about.
HONG KONG – Hong Kong has been home to 33-year-old Steven (not his real name) since he was eight, when his family arrived from India. He speaks a smattering of Cantonese, has a local fiancee and takes public transport like most Hong Kongers.
Yet, he still feels like an outsider in the city he calls home.
Living in this bustling business hub oft vaunted as a cultural melting pot, he has experienced varying degrees of racial discrimination that he has come to accept as “just part and parcel of Hong Kong”.
As a child, his peers in international school – a multi-ethnic mix, along with scions of Hong Kong’s rich and elite – often turned up their noses at his culture.
“Bringing Indian food to school – that quickly became a point of bullying, just because it smelled a bit more,” said Steven, who deals with lawyers in his job.
Despite trying early on to assimilate and “move away from all the things that identify you as what I guess is ‘Indian’”, he still faces day-to-day discrimination.
However, it is often subtle, and takes a while to register, he said.
Steven calls himself a “third-culture kid”. He no longer eats with his hands and calls his mother “mum” instead of “ah mah”.
He has assimilated himself so much that “the Indian culture really isn’t there”, he added.
Yet, people of the local culture he has tried so hard to adopt continue to treat him differently on account of his skin colour.
Discrimination shadows him on a daily basis – from taking public transport, where “there is always an empty space next to my seat”, to getting checked frequently by police officers on patrol.
“You just don’t know if it is actually racially driven or not. It just seems coincidental when it happens to you so often,” Steven said.
About five years ago, he was mistaken for a thief when he retrieved his wallet after using it to prevent a man having a seizure from biting his tongue.
“As soon as I started to walk away, the cop started yelling at me like, ‘Hey, you are stealing his wallet!’”, said Steven. His colleagues, who were with him, had to clear the air with the officers in Cantonese.
“Now, was that racially driven or was it just a simple misunderstanding?” Steven said, a little bemused.
He recounts being questioned about rape cases in India to the tune of “Why do you guys like to do these things?”
Steven said with a laugh: “I am like the spokesman for the 1.2 billion people in India. After a while, it becomes almost comical because it is just a bit silly how people think.”
The racism he encounters in Hong Kong, while frequent, is almost casual, he said.
“It is not in your face.”
Beneath its cosmopolitan veneer, Hong Kong’s population is largely homogeneous with 92 per cent being ethnic Chinese, and the main spoken language is Cantonese.
The territory’s British colonial past informs both the eurocentrist elitism that the small Caucasian expatriate community enjoys and class segregation that has been a reality for South and South-east Asian ethnic minorities for generations.
The prejudices Steven experiences could well be spillover marginalisation that dates back to the mid-1800s, when Indian soldiers were recruited by the colonial masters to serve in Hong Kong.
He is a first-generation Hong Konger; other locals from ethnic minorities still feel somewhat sidelined in the city that their families have called home for three, even four generations.
Ms Phyllis Cheung, executive director of ethnic minorities advocacy group Hong Kong Unison, points a finger at the public school system, which concentrates non-Chinese students into just a clutch of English-medium schools.
“If you don’t grow up with minorities or racial minorities in your school or as a classmate, you don’t know them, you don’t understand them, and so they become like outsiders and aliens,” she said of the Chinese population at large.
Before the group’s successful lobbying in 2014 for funding for non-Chinese-speaking students, just 30 schools out of 1,000 primary and secondary schools accepted minority students, she noted.
The funds are used to support mainstream schools in their teaching of the Chinese language to minority students, which also helps in their assimilation into society.
“Back then, those 30 schools would have about 80 per cent to 90 per cent of children of different colours, but you don’t see Chinese children there. You see mostly Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, Filipinos and some Indonesians.”
Now, more than 200 schools have students of other nationalities.
Hong Konger Keith Chan, 29, remembers the days when classes were taught using only English and Cantonese, but said that even then, topics such as race and cultures featured sparingly.
Currently, Hong Kong schools have only simple activities during Racial Harmony Day, but no related curriculum in class.
Hong Konger Kitty Zhu, 53, noted that there are now television advertisements that promote equal treatment of the minorities.
But she believes that “education on this must begin at home, from young, and from the parents”.
Indeed, a lot more work is needed to tackle micro-aggression, said Ms Cheung. “What we actually need is more public education on unconscious bias.”
That English is no longer a teaching language in most schools after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 has made assimilation for non-Chinese-speaking students more difficult.
Its replacement by putonghua or Mandarin, the official language in mainland China, has been blamed for setting ethnic minorities back further.
Struggling to understand the lessons, their inability to excel in school and lack of Chinese proficiency impede further studies and career prospects.
Hong Kong, a financial hub, has ambitions as an innovation and technology hub. But discrimination can deter people of colour to come and work, so the city may not attract as many talents as it wishes to, said Ms Cheung.
Besides employment, housing is one of the most common flash points when it comes to discrimination, based on the complaints received by Hong Kong Unison.
“We have people who have earned a lot, like maybe over HK$40,000 (S$6,900) per month, and we have those who are living in subdivided housing, and they face the same kind of problem.
“Landlords do not like to rent to ethnic minorities, and here we see there is a flaw in the race discrimination ordinance,” Ms Cheung said.
Steven revealed that he gets rejected by landlords “all the time”, so now he gets his fiancee, who is a local, to do the talking.
“Same for my parents when I was a kid – we always had a very hard time finding a place because they would flat out reject us because we are Indian. Even real estate agents will directly tell you that you will have a hard time finding an apartment because of your ethnicity,” he said.
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), an independent statutory body set up in 1996, oversees the implementation of the four anti-discrimination ordinances covering sex, disability, family status and race.
The race discrimination ordinance is the least used, said Ms Cheung. Just one case law has been recorded since its enactment in 2009.
The biggest loophole is that nationality is not a protected characteristic.
“This is a major flaw because banks have used this as an excuse not to open bank accounts and decline credit card applications, and now landlords have been using this as well,” Ms Cheung noted.
Over his 26 years facing off racial stereotypes and micro-aggression, Steven said the situation has improved as people gain more exposure to different cultures.
Mr Chan, a financial consultant, also thinks that society has become more accepting of people of different races and nationalities in the past two years.
But this merely reflects the changing lines of segregation, as ethnic otherness gets eclipsed by a politicised cultural war driven by anti-mainlandism.
Referring to the 2019 protests, he said: “Many people in Hong Kong – be they from India, the Philippines or elsewhere – even though we are of different ethnicities, different races, they all came out in support of our people here.
“They spoke up for us, defended our ways and lobbied for Cantonese not to be replaced by putonghua, and for Hong Kong to retain its own way of life. So, the locals now feel more friendly towards them,” Mr Chan said.
Hong Kongers’ resentment against mainlanders has intensified after the 2019 unrest.
Nanjing native Amy Zhang, who arrived in the city in 2007, recalled a time when mainlanders were accepted in Hong Kong.
The 33-year-old said local schoolmates would help mainland students like her settle down in the city, and added that she had “very good interactions with local students” despite differing views.
But now, all she senses is resentment from the locals towards mainlanders.
The banker, who is married to a mainlander also in finance, said she is still well treated in shopping malls, but she senses a “barrier – that they are not so friendly any more” in smaller shops.
She has resorted to speaking English to get better service.
More recently, the unaffordability of housing in Hong Kong was viewed by some as a source of contention fuelling the massive protests in 2019.
Ms Zhang admits that some among the well-heeled mainland crowd do snap up properties in the city, which ratchets up the locals’ annoyance.
“For the poor locals, they don’t have a good life, they don’t have wage increases, they cannot afford a property, and so they blame everything on China and mainland Chinese,” said the mother of a two-year-old boy.
“But I think there are fundamental economic reasons, like the few Hong Kong families and the few real estate companies controlling the economy, that are the reasons the property prices are high.”
The undercurrent of Hong Kongers’ distaste for their countrymen from across the border can be infamously traced back to the early 2000s, with a huge influx of mainland Chinese tourists bringing with them their stridently different social norms.
“They say ‘Oh, Chinese people are not polite, Chinese people are rude’,” said Ms Zhang. She attributes this to them being “not as well-educated as the highly paid people”.
Mr Chan’s take on the issue is that “you should respect the norms in Hong Kong. For instance, you should not spit in public, you should queue up for things and avoid shouting”.
Madam Zhu, who settled in Hong Kong 30 years ago after moving from mainland China, has noticed a mutual disdain between residents from both sides of the Hong Kong-China border.
“Mainlanders were poor a few decades ago and Hong Kongers used to help them out, but Hong Kongers have this chip on their shoulders.
“They feel that they are superior to the mainlanders and now cannot accept the fact that the mainland is doing better than Hong Kong,” she said.
The other issue at heart has to do with personal values.
Citing food safety as an example, Madam Zhu said there have been too many instances of unscrupulous food producers, and this adds to locals’ poor perception of the neighbours in the north.
Shandong native Yue Meng Ying, 26, who is relatively new to Hong Kong having been in the city for only five months, said her brushes with discrimination are rare and usually connected to the language barrier.
The Hong Kong Baptist University student said not being able to speak Cantonese has made it hard for her to engage the locals.
“There is an invisible wall. I am not sure if it is because of the unrest or if it is habitual… or if it is to do with the way they think, but we don’t have much in common to talk about.
“They also prefer to speak Cantonese – after all, we are in Hong Kong. So, they will rattle on and if they have to explain what they are saying to you, it is inconvenient,” added Ms Yue.
Mr Chan pointedly noted: “When the mainlanders come to Hong Kong, they feel that there is no necessity at all for them to pick up the local Cantonese language. Rather, they feel that we, the locals, should learn putonghua in order to understand them.
“They feel that they have no need to make any effort at all to try to communicate with us by learning our language.”
He believes mainlanders fundamentally contend that Hong Kong belongs to China. They have a natural inclination to replace other cultures with their own, eroding Hong Kong’s international culture and turning it into just another Chinese city, he said.
For Steven, not speaking Cantonese fluently has not deterred him from making local friends, but a question still hangs over his head.
“Every aspect of yourself has been defined by the city you have grown up in, but then you still can’t call yourself a Hong Konger even though I have been here for 26 years, so it is almost like, well, the number of years clearly isn’t the issue, so then what is it?
“I think that is something you kind of almost get used to, you accept it... and go on.”