Brownout in "Asia's world city"


Racism is back in the headlines, with "unserious" calls to kick out foreigners in general or exclude brown-skinned people from certain clubs and swimming pools on the grounds that servants cannot be guests. Whether or not legislation is the right way to address the problem is debateable, but the issue itself needs debating.It is, in one sense, at the heart of Hongkong's search for post-1997 identity.

Is Hongkong indeed a world city which easily accommodates all races, religions and nationalities? Or is it, post re-unification, to be defined by reference to the singular and ethnocentric nationalism of the mother country? In particular, if it is to be, as it claims, "Asia's world city" it had better come to recognise that when it comes to definitions based on skin colour and appearance Chinese, and indeed northeast Asians in general, are outnumbered by brown people from the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.

Unfortunately it is still living with its own as well as the European colonial notions of racial hierarchy. The colonialists at once regarded themselves as superior but also accorded, through the law, special status to ethnic Chinese regardless of where they were born. A Peruvian or Malaysian of Chinese descent, for example, could easily settle here regardless of whether he could speak Chinese or was in any way conversant with the culture.

The successor form of discrimination is that which enables people from, for example, Canada who speak no Chinese but "look Chinese" and have Chinese sounding names get job preferment - for example in the media - over locally-born people of Indian origin who speak the language and know the territory. Do not ask me to name names. You know that is true.Equally those who frequently come through the airport here can see that immigration and customs officials routinely take longer dealing with those with darker skins.

Debate about racial issues must however start from a basis of understanding our terminology. Many from the west who preach most fervently against racial discrimination may sometimes make things worse by indulging in their own generalisations and failing to draw important distinctions. Recently I received a readership survey from The Economist, a magazine which prides itself on its ability to draw distinctions and avoid simple categorisations. Yet this august publication was asking readers to identify their ethnicity by ticking boxes labeled with such definitions as "Middle Eastern" - at best a geographic description -- and "Hispanic", a linguistic one.

This nonsensical categorisation is essentially American. The US, despite its multi-ethnic reality, is still bedeviled by the language of its segregated past. Hence people who are partly black, in the sense of having some Afro-American ancestry, are placed in that category though in reality they may have an equal claim to be white, or Caucasian. How "black" is Colin Powell?

This literal black/white divide dates back to the time when the law, at least in some states, required people to be one or the other. Doubtless today it is kept alive partly by those who make a living from race-based politics. But it is surely in decline.

Tiger Woods is one to have taken a lead. Despite the efforts of some African-American groups to claim him as their own, he has refused to be categorised, acknowledging his very mixed ancestry by describing himself as a "Cablinasian".

In the US, as in Hongkong, the word "Asian" is normally used to refer to east Asian, those from China, Japan, Korea etc. Those from elsewhere in Asia are often ignored when the media identifies the "first Asian" to do this or that, or wants a quote from an "Asian" organisation. Some of these "Asian" organisations turn out to be exclusively Chinese. Others have a wider east Asian representation but in practice exclude Filipinos on the grounds that they are "Hispanic" simply because most have Spanish-origin names, though in reality browner skins may be the bigger issue. Indonesians and Malays also tend to be ignored by "Asian" organisations as though cultural identification with Confucius was a necessary component of Asian-ness.

European immigrant groups always identified themselves by reference to their original nationality - Poles, Greeks, Italians etc. It would make sense for the Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese etc to insist on doing the same rather than be categorised by reference to broad and largely meaningless term Asian which in practice, albeit with the best intentions, encourages racist thinking on all sides.

The same is true in Britain. There the word "Asian" applies almost exclusively to those originating from the Indian subcontinent. That usage is simply the result of the fact that large numbers of migrants that have come from there compared with from other parts of Asia. But the blanket use of "Asian" and the failure of the British media to draw distinctions between different people from the subcontinent is not helping race relations there.

There have recently been riots by "Asians" in the depressed northern cities of Bradford and Oldham. Coverage has given the impression that Asians in Britain as a whole are impoverished, discontented and prone to rioting. The rioters may be "Asian" but to define the problem in those terms rather than look at the specifics is liable to undermine race relations in general.

The fact is that there are several very different south Asian communities in Britain. They may look much the same but are divided both by religion and place of origin. They are to be found at both ends of Britain's income and education spectrum. In very broad terms, Indians, and particularly those who came from East Africa, are upwardly mobile, excel at school and in small businesses, have adapted to local customs and have low unemployment. At the other end are the Bangladeshis huddled in self-created ghettos in northern cities, attending their own Muslim schools, strongly opposing inter-marriage and trying to maintain their traditional ways of life. The result: segregation, poverty and high unemployment.

Of course, all generalisations - including the above paragraph -- on racial issues are dangerous. Recently I read of a survey showing that most other Americans thought those of Chinese origin were "untrustworthy". This was interpreted as proving that anti-Chinese racism was still strong in the US. But the very same survey also said that Chinese were hard-working, valued education, made good businessmen etc - all the positive stereotypes of overseas Chinese.

Positive comments about one race are by implication criticisms of other races. A survey which produces no negative opinions is useless. Just to ask the questions could be deemed as racist. Yet the answers are instructive and stereotypes usually have some basis in fact.

There is anyway no point in pretending these issues do not exist in Hongkong. They also matter. Some countries may be able ignore racial issues by maintaining ethnic and religious homogeneity. But that cannot be the case for Hongkong, where more than 5% of the population is from an ethnic minority and which aspires to be as global as New York or London. ends




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