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Hong Kong Guide: Ethnic Minority

Feb 7, 2014

We are very lucky to connect with Kooky (pseudonym), who struck a chord with us when she shared her story on growing up as an ethnic minority in Hong Kong. Numbers aside, they are, nonetheless, the locals in Hong Kong. Have you seen Hong Kong through their eyes? Here’s Kooky’s story:

Growing up as an Ethnic Minority in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, more than 90 per cent of the population is Chinese. Hence, there aren’t many opportunities for people to learn more about the lives of ethnic minorities that live in this urban jungle. Sure, we have newspaper articles that report the latest row between foreign domestic helpers and their employers. We also have the very occasional RTHK special – presented in Cantonese – following the lives of ethnic minorities. However, these have never been enough to truly portray the realities of living as an ethnic minority in Hong Kong. They have so far only served to show a tiny fraction of this already small group of people.

Ethnic Minority – Filipinos

I am a Filipino girl, born and raised in this city. My mother immigrated to Hong Kong after the company that she was working for shut their offices down in Manila. She had a job offer in Hong Kong. My father and older sister followed shortly afterwards. According to the 2011 population census, there are about 133,000 Filipinos living in Hong Kong. This is one of the largest ethnic minority groups, yet still only accounting for a little less than two per cent of the population. Filipinos always stick together so it wasn’t too long before my parents found themselves a group of friends and a nice church community. They helped my parents to learn some of the ins and outs of the city, enough to survive. My parents decided to have another child after a religious retweet. That’s how I came to be.

Ethnic Minority – Language Barrier

Growing up as an ethnic minority is tough, especially in a city where few understand our situation or genuinely care about the inequality we face. Perhaps the biggest of all problems was – and is still – the language barrier. Without the ability to communicate in the most widely understood language, ethnic minorities are unable to have a voice. Unless you’ve gone to a school with a lot of Chinese or have been able to persevere in studying the language on your own, chances are you’ll never have a level of Chinese that will allow you to fully communicate with the locals. Hong Kong education system lacks a proper curriculum for non-native speakers. For most of my schooling, I went to schools that were filled with ethnic minorities. In kindergarten, we had no Chinese classes whatsoever. In the primary school I went to, we learnt very basic Cantonese. But back then, many of us didn’t take that class seriously. When I got to secondary school, our language curriculum constantly changed: we had Mandarin in our first year; French in our second; French and Chinese in our third. By fourth year we were given the chance to choose which language to focus on. We had to fulfill the second language requirement needed for the next3 years. This is before the introduction of the 3-3-4 scheme. It was a mess.

Ethnic Minority – Learning Chinese

Those who took Chinese in my secondary school were further split into classes according to their skill levels. There were classes which learnt only basic Cantonese. Elite students in the top class learnt both Putonghua and Cantonese. In my third year, I was placed in the class for basic Cantonese and given textbooks that were created by teachers themselves. The textbooks focus on poems with basic vocabulary, mainly for very young children. If we can recite these poems in front of a teacher, we get a good grade for the oral examination. Coming from a primary school that taught me these in grade 1, these basic Cantonese classes were a piece of cake. When I told my Chinese teacher that my parents was considering for me to take French instead, he personally called them to convince them otherwise.

“Elite” Chinese Class – Harsh Regimen & High Expectation

In my fourth year, a few of my friends and I moved to the elite class. Our teacher could barely speak English. She had to rely on my good friend, Michael, to translate words and sentences for her. It was a small class with less than 20 people. The textbook had paragraphs with complex sentence structures. It was a huge jump in level. For the first few months, our teacher was frustrated at how we were way below her expectations. Some of us were unfamiliar with the differences between Cantonese’s spoken and written forms. Hence we had trouble writing essays. We also couldn’t keep up with how fast she was speaking in Chinese during class. However, we couldn’t speak in Chinese fluently enough to communicate with her seamlessly. It was difficult for us to constantly receive the harsh criticism. Consequently, I was despair at one point. But we continued to do our best. In the end, she acknowledged our rapid rate of improvement and we finally became worthy in her eyes. Despite the initial difficulties, we did learn a lot more from her than we did in the basic Cantonese classes. If it wasn’t for that class, I would not be able to understand most of the Cantonese I hear every day. Nor would I have gained the confidence to speak in Cantonese when the situation calls for it. I still speak in English for the most part and my Filipino accent likes to kick in when I speak in Cantonese. That said, at least I am able to communicate a lot more than I used to.

“Basic” Chinese Class – Lack of Motivation & Interest

On the contrary, my other schoolmates in the basic Cantonese classes were not so lucky. Chinese is a requirement for most of the jobs you can find in the city, especially many of the higher-paying ones. Chinese is also a requirement to get into university. As a result, many gave up dreaming of getting a Bachelor’s degree in Hong Kong. All they wanted was a pass to get into a vocational training school or Philippines university. Only a small minority was serious about school. With this mind-set, many of my schoolmates fooled around. They spent a lot of their time either playing sports or rough-housing in the hallways. Most of these schoolmates were placed in classes located on a floor that our school designated for the “troublemakers”. Sometimes, they blast music using the in-class computer and speakers. To top it all, some students would turn off the lights in their classrooms. Prefects were terrified and often ridiculed. Violence was not uncommon either: a mere bump on the shoulder could illicit a full-blown fist fight between groups. Unsurprisingly, some students were taken to the hospital. Most of our school assemblies consisted of discussions on our students’ behaviour in school and outside. With the chaotic nature of our school mixed with the various minorities that studied there, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to compare it to Chungking Mansions.

Ethnic Minority – Hopes and Beliefs

As an ethnic minority in Hong Kong, life has not exactly been smooth sailing. However, I’m still glad that my parents chose to immigrate to this country. Growing up with other ethnicities, I’ve learned about a myriad of other cultures and have grown fond of the differences between them. Growing up as a minority, I know what it’s like to be marginalized in society. I have learned not be ashamed of receiving help from others in situations where I need it. I am also thankful for any assistance that I get. Had I lived in the Philippines, I wouldn’t have had a chance to have experiences like these. I wouldn’t have grown up to be the multi-cultural person that I am today. The language barrier is of course still a problem but I’m trying my best to learn as much as I can from my Chinese peers in college. I have also recently enrolled in Mandarin evening classes. There is also hope for future generations to overcome this hurdle. Ethnic minority advocacy group, Hong Kong Unison, continuously pushes for change. Chief Executive CY Leung is also pledging to strengthen education support and employment services for ethnic minorities. If all goes well, ethnic minorities will be able to integrate better in this city that they call home.

Thank you, Kooky. =D

Hong Kong is a city with various pockets of culture. Have you wondered what a local thinks of Hong Kong and how do they live? What is the real Hong Kong, as seen by different locals? Come join us for a thought-provoking Hong Kong walking tour! We go beyond guide-books and tourist attractions by immersing you in a real Hong Kong environment. Check out Big Foot Tour today for more information on our top-rated Hong Kong tours!