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  • Writer's pictureJT Singh

The Spirit of Hong Kong’s Diversity

Toronto-born “urban-geographic explorer” JT Singh has a passion for discovering what makes global cities tick. For a special Cities of Migration assignment, he visited Hong Kong and now shares his views on “Asia’s World City.”

The diversity, energy and hum of Hong Kong, day and night, are essential to its city-ness, its urban ethos. Whoever the person, race or culture, rich or poor — all Hong Kongers seem to possess an indomitable work ethic. Perhaps this commonality is a key factor in the city’s enduring ability to attract so many people from around world, each seeking their fortune and contributing to the distinct city ethos that wraps its arms around you from the moment you arrive.

The Hong Kong Government takes pride in its identity as “Asia’s World City.” Its increasingly diverse population includes newly-immigrated and long-resident South Asians, a sizeable locally-born Caucasian population, a growing number of individuals hailing from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and both Latin and African communities. In addition to Hong Kong’s international financial community and the last of its British “colonials”, in recent years the city has also seen an increase in European “economic refugees” as westerners seek employment in response to economic troubles at home.

Although Chinese people make up a majority of the population, Hong Kong feels fiercely global. Close interactions between the city’s multi-ethnic and linguistic groups can be witnessed on a daily-basis, from African youths partying with Pakistani peers, ethnic Chinese millionaires with Nepalese security staff, to the Indian actors or news reporters featured on Chinese language television. Non-Chinese populations have co-existed in this ex-British colony for a long time and have a deep-rootedness in the city. The fact that many of the city’s ethnic Chinese understand and speak English due to Hong Kong’s colonial past further contributes to the city’s international feel.

Chungking Mansion

The ‘linguistic soup’ through which a person wades each day, while on the city’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) or in the streets, can often seem mind-boggling. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chungking Mansion, a rundown 17-story building located in the heart of the city’s booming tourist and shopping district. Chungking Mansion is central to the swirling ebb and flow of low-end globalization. Home to traders from across the developing world and the shop-keepers and small businesses in the informal economy with whom they do business, Chungking Mansion is a potent symbol of Hong Kong’s robust socio-economic and cultural diversity. Inside, a world resembling the markets of Karachi, Kolkata, or Lagos — or a mishmash of each — reaches from the entrance of the building to the far corners of the upper floors. A majority of the South Asians are shop owners, selling everything from samosas to cellphones to traders of low-end goods, often Africans buying inexpensive goods to transport home in bulging suitcases — unbelievably, this is how many independent traders move cargo transnationally. Also present in large numbers are asylum seekers willing to work for low wages in this “cash-in-hand economy” while waiting for their claims to be processed.

Hong Kong’s civic identity

Modern Hong Kong began to take shape in the years after the communist revolution in China when thousands of mainland Chinese sought refuge in the city. The flood of new arrivals acted as an engine, driving the industrialization and economic renewal that pulled Hong Kong out of its post-war slump. The city’s booming economy also attracted non-Chinese migrants from Europe and South Asia looking to Hong Kong for business and job opportunities. In this Asian melting pot and microcosm of the world’s different socio-economic, demographic, and cultural stratums, a robust civic identity emerged. Together these migrants gradually contributed to the emergence of a new identity — the “Hong Konger.” And although still relatively young, Hong Kongers exude an almost palpable confidence.

Hong Konger identity thrives in spite of the gradual “mainlandization” of the former colony since the return of Hong Kong to China by the British in 1997. An average of 150 mainland Chinese immigrants re-locates to Hong Kong each day, about 54,000 per year. Additionally, a mass influx of Chinese tourists from the mainland, about 25 million each year, further amplifies the Chinese presence in the already tightly packed city. The flood of mainlanders into Hong Kong since the handover has caused some tensions between Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese, with mainlanders regularly blamed for everything from a shortage of school slots to a hyper-charged property market. Although most Hong Kongers were from mainland China themselves in the past, or have ancestral roots in greater China, over the years, the identity of the “Hong Konger” has made its presence felt. A prime example is when in 2012 tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong rejected a Beijing-backed plan for a “moral and national education curriculum.” The protests were a defining moment for the distinct identity of Hong Kongers in the face of the growing mainland Chinese influence.

Rapid change in recent years in this fast-paced, capitalist city has created its fair share of problems. Hong Kong’s multicultural society is home to many ethnic groups — not just mainlanders. While cultural sensitivity to other ethnicities in the city is predominantly a challenge to the older generations, many of whom have had less exposure to the rapidly globalizing scene in which they live, discrimination is rare and more likely to erupt over language barriers than ethnicity, socio-economic standing or the colour of one’s skin.

In 2009 Hong Kong introduced anti-discrimination laws and programs to protect its citizens against race-based discrimination and minimize race-related conflicts across the population. How the diversity of the city continues to unfold will be a fascinating subject given that social integration policy is a relatively new concern for the Hong Kong government and its social sectors.

For example, it is a surprise to learn that migrant domestic helpers from South East Asia are a source of much public controversy in Hong Kong. Numbering over 300,000, domestic workers represent the largest community of non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Unlike foreigners working in other industries who are eligible for permanent residency, domestic workers are denied such entitlements. Unfair, and for many exhibiting undertones of racism, the policy is also reflective of a city deeply concerned with the impact of so many potential new residents (and their families) on the city’s spatial footprint and service infrastructure.

As the city government and its social sectors start to move past the basics, such as the recent establishment of support service centers for immigrants across the city, I hope we’ll see more “Good ideas” for integration that are truly innovative and safe-guarded by policy. At the top of my wish list for Hong Kong is the preservation of the city’s distinctive identity, and that its multicultural, shifting, dynamic character will continue to accept and embrace its diversity.

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