Sarah Zheng and Aaina Bhargava, South China Morning Post, December 2, 2020
For Marie-Louisa Awolaja, a British-Nigerian, life in Hong Kong often means she is highly visible as a black woman, yet simultaneously invisible.
“I was surprised at how invisible I was, in a way,” she said. “I expect to be stared at on this side of the world. People don’t necessarily, especially locals, they just carry on – most of the stares you get are from [Chinese] tourists. But when it comes to service, it becomes more evident. They sometimes just don’t acknowledge you. It’s as if you don’t exist.”
Her voice is one of many shared on HomeGrown, a new podcast she co-created with fellow British-Nigerian Folahan Sowole as a guide to the black expat experience in Hong Kong. It invites a wide range of guests from the black community to explore racial dynamics in the city in a lighthearted but revelatory manner, touching on issues from the workplace environment to how school systems work and the chasm between local and expat communities.
Even as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum globally after African-American George Floyd was killed in May by a white police officer in the US, it did not spark conversations in the same way about institutional racism and anti-black discrimination in Hong Kong and China.
Discrimination against black people has long been an issue in China, as deeper economic ties between Beijing and the African continent have seen the number of African traders and immigrants in the country grow. But rights groups say there have been institutional barriers for Africans, including targeting by police for immigration enforcement and being turned away from restaurants or shops.
A report in February led by Adams Bodomo, from the University of Vienna, said that approximately half of 1 million African migrants in China had restricted access to local health services, and that their quality of life was “also affected by racial discrimination and visa policy restrictions”.
In April, widespread reports emerged from the large African community in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou of harassment during the coronavirus outbreak, including being evicted from their homes or subject to forced quarantine. A McDonald’s restaurant in Guangzhou was also forced to apologise after it put up a sign banning black people from entering.
Black Livity China, a platform for the African diaspora in China, has posted on its website advocating for more awareness of discrimination against Africans in the country, including posting about racist articles on WeChat and blackface in Chinese ads. “Naturally, this anti-African sentiment isn’t echoed by all Chinese people, but it is contributing to a growing sense of insecurity among many in the community,” its editorial team wrote in October.
In Hong Kong, there have also been complaints of discrimination among the estimated 3,144 people of African descent among the city’s 7.5 million population, according to the 2016 Population By-census. The city’s equal opportunity watchdog said that 492 complaints of discrimination against the community have been filed in the past five years.
A new study on African migrants in June by four scholars from Hong Kong and one from the University of Johannesburg found that African migrants in the city faced challenges including limited social networks, lack of awareness of social services, social alienation, limited job opportunities and poor housing.
On the HomeGrown podcast, honest conversations about race have resonated with a broader community, as people relate to what Sowole, also known as Fantastic Fo, described as “random acts of ignorance”. One listener from Sri Lanka told the hosts how she was assumed to be a cleaning lady when trying to visit a wellness centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Sowole said he has felt the weight of representing his race, something that white expats don’t need to bear: “When one black person does something bad, the entire race is stereotyped, so you’re much more aware of how you behave,” he said. “One drunken white person doesn’t change the perception of their entire race, whereas one drunken black person can be a reflection on everyone from Nigerians to African-Americans and Jamaicans.”
Experts say that Hong Kong has a complex racial history as a former British colony that has often left ethnic minorities – including Africans, South Asians and Southeast Asians – feeling alienated from their ethnic Chinese counterparts.
Li Yao-tai, an assistant professor at Baptist University, has researched how the colonial legacy in Hong Kong – highlighting the value of whiteness and English proficiency – has affected the city’s labour market. He said that white privilege exists in everyday life, as white people “may receive more respect or enjoy greater status in Hong Kong”, although this has been mediated in the labour market by the desire for Cantonese proficiency and familiarity with China.
Li urged more support for ethnic minorities and immigrants in the city to help them gain Cantonese proficiency and an understanding of local culture, and called for greater awareness of negative tropes about different racial groups. Instead of blaming these groups for not fully integrating into Hong Kong, he said there should be more understanding of the institutional barriers and discrimination they face.
“That could be the mindset that needs to be improved or changed,” he said. “As a global city, the government and the individual Hongkongers should be more open-minded and embrace the differences existing in this society.”