The topic of integrating ethnic minorities is not a new one. Many ethnic minority families have lived in the city for generations but they are often ignored by mainstream society. Mrs Carrie Lam, who just took office as the new Chief Executive, included ethnic minority issues in the election manifesto, sparking discussions in the community. However, how many people truly care about the lives of minorities?


“It’s so common for many people in Hong Kong to simply close their eyes on ethnic minorities,” says Professor John Erni, Fung Hon Chu Endowed Chair Professor in Humanities and Head of the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing. The plight of ethnic minorities has been his concern in recent years. “The local primary and secondary school system has essentially created ghettos for ethnic minority students. Such intended or unintended segregation has existed in our society for a long time."

In the past, ethnic minority students were mostly allocated to "designated” primary and secondary schools so that the Government could direct extra subsidies to these schools as support. Over time, the proportion of ethnic minority students grew considerably, so these schools opted for a Chinese-as-a-second-language curriculum. Given their relatively low level of proficiency in Chinese, many ethnic minority students were deprived of the chance to receive mainstream education. Although the Education Bureau abolished the "designated schools" system in 2013 in an attempt to remove negative effects of labelling, the percentage of non-Chinese speaking students in some former "designated schools" still stands at over 90 per cent. “Provided that isolation begins at schools, unsurprisingly, ethnic minority kids have a tendency of ‘self minoritisation’ regarding their future development, careers and lives.”

Education opportunities hindered

Professor Erni, who was born in Vietnam, is also of mixed ethnic origin. His father is a Spanish Filipino while his mother is a Chinese Vietnamese. He came to Hong Kong at the age of six and realised first-hand how hard it is for a non-Chinese speaking child to learn Chinese as a second language. “Many people blame the ethnic minority students’ laziness in learning Chinese, but the fact is learning this language in the absence of an immersive environment is

extremely difficult.” 

After years of calling for improvements to the Chinese language policies for ethnic minorities, the Education Bureau implemented the Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework in 2014 to address public concerns. Developed from the perspective of second language learners, this Learning Framework aims at facilitating non-Chinese students’ learning of the Chinese language and enabling them to bridge over to mainstream Chinese language classes. Several years have since passed but it remains to be seen whether it will lead to obvious improvements.

“Basically, the Government only provides additional funding to individual schools and tells them to implement the Learning Framework by developing their own curriculum. Without clear guidelines and references, the outcomes are inconsistent. In Hong Kong, experienced teachers who are able to teach ethnic minority students the Chinese language competently are not easy to find, not to mention the difficulty a school faces in rolling out a full curriculum.”

Dreams barred

Before the handover, Chinese language public examination performance did not weigh heavily on the decision to admit a candidate to university or the civil service. However, after 1997, the Government made Chinese language skills a basic requirement. Professor Erni, who is in touch with various concern groups, says that many ethnic minority youths are barred from chasing their dreams as their Chinese language reading and writing proficiency cannot be on a par with their local counterparts and thus cannot achieve acceptable results in the public examinations. “The well-off ones may consider going overseas to pursue further studies. However, for the underprivileged majority, secondary education is already the top of their progression ladder. Many of them can only accept manual labour jobs as their career option.”

“Do you know how many local-born ethnic minority students are enrolled in the eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong? The proportion is exceptionally low—about one per cent or less.” HKBU recently launched the Admission Scholarship Scheme for Outstanding South and South East Asian Ethnic Minority Students, encouraging outstanding local ethnic minority students to pursue studies in undergraduate programmes. Not only does it award selected students with a scholarship to cover full tuition fees, it also provides them with an additional allowance for overseas exchange. Professor Erni describes this scheme, the first of its kind among local universities, as extraordinary.

Not even taking education level into account, ethnic minority candidates also face denial of equal access to job opportunities due to their skin colour and background. “Some employers of medium-sized companies simply put aside the application form when they notice the applicant is an ethnic minority candidate and see the ‘unpronounceable’ name.”

Breaking the mould

The civil service of Hong Kong, such as the Hong Kong Police and Correctional Services Department, has recently adjusted the Chinese language proficiency requirements for some civil service grades so as to facilitate ethnic minorities to join the disciplined services. Professor Erni wishes to see more government departments and private organisations following similar practices, providing a fairer assessment to ethnic minority candidates, and giving them an equal opportunity to play to their strengths. “The lack of job opportunities exacerbates the problem of poverty among ethnic minority communities. With many segments of society shutting the door on them, it’s not difficult to understand the social problems that arise as a result.”

Professor Erni points out that in Hong Kong no matter the arena, whether it is school, media or family, all scarcely touch on or discuss ethnicity and culture. Many Hong Kong residents often lack a basic understanding or awareness of the ethnic minority communities that are in their neighbourhood. This keeps Professor Erni motivated to conduct research on culture and ethnic minorities, and he has published several related books. Every year, he also deliberately teaches a course entitled Race and Ethnicity in the hope of raising awareness. "Every day, we live side by side with ethnic minorities but are too used to turning a blind eye to them. I wish to do more to increase their ‘visibility’, pushing the society to care a little bit more about them."