When was the last time you spoke to a non-Chinese ethnic minorities person in Hong Kong, not for work, but with the genuine intention to learn about their culture, and hopefully enhance social and racial inclusion?
Non-Chinese ethnic minorities take up approximately 6% of Hong Kong’s population, with Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese comprising the majority of South Asian ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. The sad reality of Hong Kong, ostensibly a cosmopolitan city, is that many Hongkongers, locals and migrant workers alike, aren’t entirely aware of the significant presence of these non-Chinese ethnic minorities, fewer still in constant contact with them, despite many of them being third or fourth generation Hongkongers - born and raised just like their Chinese counterparts, fluent in spoken Cantonese but less so in written, hence hindering their career development in the city. What usually happens to these young South Asians, when they are denied job opportunities on grounds of inadequate literacy in written Chinese, is that many would only find themselves employable at ‘3D’ jobs: dangerous, dirty, demeaning; some even resort to more seedy undertakings, such as joining triad gangs.
In 2011, the enterprising PolyU graduates Bosco Ng and Eva Wong founded WEDO GLOBAL (Worldwide Exchange Development Organisation) as a social enterprise to enhance local Chinese Hongkongers’ cultural understanding of ethnic minorities, while offering a better career prospect for the city’s underrepresented ethnic minorities. The two-pronged social inclusion approach is done via multicultural workshops, local walking tours, and overseas experiential tours for the public, schools and corporate clients; ethnic minorities individuals, meanwhile, are trained to become WEDO GLOBAL’s cultural ambassadors to conduct and lead multicultural workshops and theme-based community walking tour. For the ethnic minorities individuals who would later become cultural ambassadors, it is more than just making a living by doing something fun and meaningful: it’s a soul-searching journey for them too, as they orientate participants through ethnic minorities neighbourhoods, because, as third or fourth generation Indians, Pakistanis, or Indians in Hong Kong, their affinity to and knowledge of their root is often very limited.
We met with a WEDO GLOBAL team earlier to learn what brought them to the social enterprise in the first place, and their hopes for social and racial integration in Hong Kong. Click on the photos to read their respective stories.
Charles Fong 24 years old
At university, I was often involved in the organisation of overseas cultural exchange tours. I somehow chanced upon this social media called WEDO GLOBAL, so I decided to get in touch with them, as I thought what they were doing was quite meaningful. I got to know its founders, Bosco and Eva, who invited me to work here part-time.
In the eyes of Bosco and Eva, Hong Kong’s cultural diversity exists mostly on the surface only - actual cultural exchange and integration is rare. Take myself, for instance. I knew nothing about the non-Chinese ethnic minorities in Hong Kong before joining WEDO GLOBAL, I didn’t even try to get to know them. Through my work at WEDO GLOBAL, I hope to help myself and other local Chinese Hongkongers learn more about non-Chinese ethnic minorities community - we’re all Hongkongers, after all.
I was attending a training programme at WEDO GLOBAL when I was first introduced to non-Chinese ethnic minorities persons. Munir Muhammad Icyas, a Pakistani young man who would later become a cultural ambassador, came over to introduce himself. I was fairly surprised because, as a Chinese Hongkonger, I wasn’t used to initiating conversations with strangers. I realised then that Pakistani people are actually very friendly.
I’ve learnt a great deal about ethnic minorities’ cultures and traditions ever since joining WEDO GLOBAL. In the Ramadan just past, I learnt that Muslims would fast every day, from dawn to dusk, during the holy month - I couldn’t even finish ‘Famine 30’ without going all groggy!
With the application for our school-orientated programmes done mostly by the teachers, it is not surprising that most student participants come to our workshops or programmes showing only the slightest interest, an attitude that would change drastically by the time the programme is over. I remember leading the Sham Shui Po tour to South Asians community once, where a primary school student, who was actively engaged in the tour, came over afterwards to thank me and my colleagues for showing him a culture that he knew nothing about. That meant a lot to me.
We encourage people to initiate contact with ethnic minorities, a friendly greeting is a good way to start. The Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre is open to the public, and we encourage people to go inside and learn about the religious practices of Islam, but of course, it’s important to be respectful.
In our society today, there is a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice against ethnic minorities, and much of it is derived from the negative press on incidents involving a small population of South Asians. Many students, prior to participating in our programmes, used to think all South Asians were violent or were troublemakers. What bothers me is that the majority of South Asians in Hong Kong are decent people - they are Hongkongers, just like us too. Why do we have to single them out?
It was only a month after joining WEDO GLOBAL that I was assigned to lead a tour to a Sikh temple in Hong Kong. I was very nervous and literally recited all the reference materials! I’m glad, however, that I got to learn more about the local Sikh community, especially their religion, which promotes equality. At the canteen inside the Sikh temple, free vegetarian meals are offered for all - the fact that the meals are vegetarian means that they are available to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs. When dining at the canteen, people are expected to eat sitting on the ground, with their shoes and socks taken off - things that the impoverished are often deprived of.
I hope that through the organisation of more events of greater variety in the future, we can enhance local Chinese Hongkongers’ understanding of the ethnic minorities communities here. Only then can we really retain and celebrate the cultural diversity that is unique to Hong Kong.
Mujahida Malik 20 years old
I first came to Hong Kong when I was three years old. I received my kindergarten, primary and secondary education here in Hong Kong. I didn’t go to the university after graduating from secondary school, but signed up for a fashion course instead; at around the same time I became a cultural ambassador at WEDO GLOBAL.
I’ve heard people talking about racial discrimination in Hong Kong, but growing up in Hong Kong, I must say that I haven’t faced a lot of racial discrimination. I had an amazing childhood. I was able to interact with local kids, my kindergarten and the first two years of secondary education was had at a Chinese school. I grew up in Sham Shui Po, and most of my neighbours were very sweet and caring people. I had two best friends, a brother and a sister, who were local kids, and my brother and I would hang out with them every day. But the older I grew, I began to lose that connection. Now when I go to parks I’d think of the days I used to hang out with the Chinese kids, but I feel that I can’t do that anymore, because as kids, we were innocent, we wouldn’t worry about being the one to make the first move and ask to play together. As kids, we didn’t see the race or skin colour of the other person, we just played because we wanted to have fun together. Now that I’m grown up, I would worry about what to say to the other person, who is from a different ethnicity than mine? What would he think about the things I say? I start to have this pressure of saying or doing the right thing in case the other person doesn’t like me, so in the end I stopped interacting with the locals altogether. The remaining years of secondary education, my classmates were all non-Chinese, and it created a comfort zone for me, where I would hang out with people who speak the same language as I do, and who have traditional values and culture that I can relate with.
But joining WE DO GLOBAL has changed me. It made me realise that maybe it is us, the ethnic minorities, who need to make the first move. At the beginning, I wouldn’t reach out and talk to the participating kids at WE DO GLOBAL’s activities at all, but Bosco, the founder, was always encouraging me to initiate a conversation with the participants. I was hesitant at first. I thought it was awkward to just start chatting, what if they don’t like me? But soon I realised that they were actually waiting for me to go to them, and I was waiting for them to come to me. I didn’t realise that because I was thinking about just myself back then. So I started to reach out to them and get the conversation started. Even when I’m riding the bus and I see local people, I would nod and smile, and ask them ‘nei ho ma?’ A small conversation can lead to a bigger one. In fact, you don’t have to have a long conversation, just smile at people, and they will smile back. I think that makes the locals see that we’re actually humble people, that we’re nice too. I hope that a Chinese person would remember that one time, when a South Asian girl smiled at her.
When I started at WE DO GLOBAL, I was a trainee, I had no long-term plans of working here. I was good at henna art back then, and WE DO GLOBAL offered me the opportunity to host a henna art workshop. After that, they suggested that I gave the Yuen Long guided tour a try and learn to become one of their cultural ambassadors. That experience opened up opportunities for me because normally, I wouldn’t walk down those streets on my own. In my culture, it’s the men who do grocery shopping, so it was a bit odd for the shop owners, predominantly men, to see a woman leading a tour down their streets, a tour of 15 to 25 people, with me being the only person who speaks their language. I started to grow my confidence slowly from leading these culture tours. Leading the tours also made me realise just how little I knew about my own culture. It gives me joy to be leading a cultural tour, telling people about my own culture. My family is very supportive of what I do at WE DO GLOBAL. My father has done a lot to serve the Pakistani community in Hong Kong, and he thinks what I’m doing is helping clear the misunderstanding the locals have of us, that what I’m doing is what Hong Kong, our society, needs more of. A few people did say that it isn’t appropriate for me to lead a tour to shops run by Pakistani men, because it’s just odd, but at the end of the day, this is my work, and I want to do it.
I’ve been a cultural ambassador with WE DO GLOBAL since 2014. One of my most memorable experience here was a guided tour for Baptist University students. The aim of those guided tours is to educate people about my culture and religion, as well as to clear the misunderstanding between Chinese and non-Chinese people. The participants asked a lot of questions about, and at the end of the tour they admitted that they did have misunderstandings about our culture because of the way it is portrayed in the media, that they didn’t know the reasons that us, non-Chinese ethnic minorities, are in Hong Kong, because our ancestors’ service to the city is rarely mentioned in textbooks. Before the tour, the students saw us as just people who came to Hong Kong to take their resources and opportunities, but they didn’t know the struggles we have had to go through to come to where we are today. I was happy because I knew I had an impact on these people and the community at large.
I think that racial discrimination doesn’t really exist in Hong Kong. The problem with Hong Kong is that people aren’t willing to step forward to learn about the ethnic minorities. The way I see it is that Hong Kong Chinese people don’t have the knowledge and awareness of our existence, then how can you call that racial discrimination?
Aisha Sadyka Mahmood 21 years old
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. We are four siblings, and I’m the youngest. While my older siblings went to international schools, I went to local schools, because my mum wanted me to learn Chinese. I think my mother did that because I was born in 1996, and she thought that I might have a better future in Hong Kong if I learnt Chinese. I started to speak Chinese at home more often, instead of Urdu. It was a bit difficult speaking to my brothers and parents at home, because they didn’t understand what I was saying, and often I had to rely on body language and gestures. I received my primary education at another local school, and studying was a struggle, because there was no tuition available and my parents, who don’t speak Chinese, couldn’t help me either. But my class teachers helped me a lot. They would ask me to stay back after school so they could teach me Chinese. By the time I was in P4, my grades were so low that my mum started to worry, so she transferred me to an international school.
I wanted to grow up like a Chinese local. I wore what the Chinese Hongkongers would wear, I didn’t use to like henna, I thought it just wasn’t a part of me, because I didn’t know anything about my own culture. But later, when I started to learn more about my own culture, I’ve switched to my current Muslim style. It’s been a roller coaster ride for me. I started out wanting to be a Chinese, refuting my own culture, to now, embracing it totally. I used to think I would marry a Chinese guy one day! I used to have very little confidence in myself because of the constant changes in my childhood because I often felt disorientated.
I heard about WEDO GLOBAL’s work from my friend, Muja, and I would ask her, “Do you think the locals really are interested in learning about our culture? What’s the point of going out there and telling people about your culture?” I was sceptical. The more Pakistani friends I got to make, the less I came to think that the locals might be interested in learning about our culture. I thought that the locals wouldn't be interested to meet people who wear hijabs, that they would only be interested in people who wear jeans and t-shirt, just like they did - people who look like them.
I went to a guided tour with Muja once, and my perceptions changed totally. It was obvious that the participants were interested in knowing more about us, paying close attention to what we said, and even the Pakistani owners were more willing to talk about themselves and their culture. Last Christmas, we didn’t organise many guided tours because it was school holiday. When I went to one of the Pakistani-owned stores with my mum, the owner asked me, “Where are the kids?” I realised that both parties are willing to talk to each other, but they were just hesitant. For instance, whenever I lead a guided tour, the kids are usually scared of making that first step into the shops. But once they’re inside, they’d start looking around, touching the stuff.
I think more interaction between the non-Chinese ethnic minorities and the Chinese locals is what it takes to increase social inclusion. It can be hard sometimes. Hong Kong is a busy city, people are busy, but I think companies and schools can sign people up for guided tours like the ones we do here at WEDO GLOBAL. Trust me, one tour is enough to change all the preconceptions people might have of each other. I remember a girl from Baptist University, who came with us on a guided tour for two to three hours. She told me that she learnt how we respect each other, that we’re patient with each other, after the tour. I felt more confident about sharing my opinion with her after that too. So now, when I’m on the bus and if there’s a Chinese boy sitting next to me, I would smile at him and ask if he’s eaten yet. When I speak in Cantonese, they are always surprised that I actually speak their language too!
Munir Muhammad Icyas 李逸希 25 years old
I was born in Pakistan. My granddad had a business here, so when I was still very young, I came with my parents to Hong Kong. Growing up in Hong Kong has been a good journey. I’ve always been a people person. When I was small, I liked watching TV, especially Cantonese drama, that’s how I learnt Cantonese; I didn’t speak much but I could understand the language. We used to live in Wanchai, and one night, my parents took me to Bauhinia Garden, and we saw a filming crew shooting for a TVB drama, one of my favourite TVB actresses was present. My dad encouraged me to go over and talk to her. I was very shy and my dad did the introduction for us, telling the actress that I liked to watch the TV dramas she played in, and then she said that I was very cute - I was short and chubby then. I tried to talk to her with my limited Cantonese, asking her about her age, and then she complimented on my Cantonese. That gave me the motivation to learn Cantonese. I had the opportunity to learn Urdu. I tried that for a year, but then switched back to learning Cantonese, because I just love the Cantonese language so much. I speak Urdu fluently too, but I learnt that from speaking to family and friends.
What I like about the Cantonese language is that it gives me the ability to communicate with others in Hong Kong. At the local English-medium school I went to, everyone would speak in Cantonese during the recess or breaks, including the teachers. I took it as a sense of achievement to be able to understand what people talked about in Cantonese, not just at school, but on the streets when my parents and I went out. It makes me feel more connected to the society and people around me.
I feel blessed to be a part of two communities. Because I speak Cantonese, I make friends with the locals easily, and other Chinese locals would want to befriend me too when they see their Chinese friends having a non-Chinese friend in me. As a Muslim, I make friends with people who share my culture easily at mosques as well. It’s like I have a free pass to access two different cultures here.
My father gave me that Chinese character in my Chinese name, so my Chinese teacher in my second year of secondary school gave me a full name in Chinese because she didn’t want people to be calling me just ‘Ah Hei’ when I become a senior managerial staff in the future - it would be more respectful to be called ‘Mr Lee’.
I was one of the first cultural ambassadors to receive training here at WEDO GLOBAL. The founder of WEDO GLOBAL, from Polytechnic University, told my friend, who was studying at Poly U then, about his founding this social enterprise, and that they were looking for students who would become their cultural ambassadors and take participants on culture tours. I met Bosco through my friend, I thought what he was trying to do was very meaningful, and so I became part of the team. I worked here part-time while studying at Poly U. When I graduated last year, I couldn’t find work in my field, banking and finance, and so I came here to start working full-time.
I got an interview with a bank through referral, by my friend who was working there. The interview went well, and I was told to do a written test at their main office. I studied a bit before that. The manager told me that we’d have a written test, then an assessment, and a final interview. I was expecting an English written test where I would be required to state in particular fields in Chinese, but I was given a Chinese test instead. I asked the manager if I could have the English version, and she said, “Oh, can you speak and read Cantonese though?” I said I could, but I’d prefer the English version, and then she said that unfortunately, they only had the Chinese version left, and she couldn’t help much with that. But I remember asking beforehand if the test was going to be conducted in English or Chinese, and I was told that I could choose between the two.
I hope more employers would understand that what we, ethnic minorities, lack in Cantonese proficiency, we can make up with our other language strengths and soft skills, which could be engaging with other people, or adapting to new situations or environments. Some employers think that just because we’re not good enough in Cantonese, we won’t be able to get our job done, but most of our work-related tasks are done in English, and our conversational level Cantonese should enable us to manage day-to-day non-work-related tasks. So I would like employers to give us a chance, to let us prove that we are capable of working with local people.
I’m thankful to my teachers back at school, who would talk to me and tell me about themselves. In primary school I had a small suitcase, and my class teacher, who saw me walking with that suitcase, said to me, “One day, you’ll be a bank manager. I can see that. You look like one.” And that gave me the confidence to pursue this dream. My dad could get into accounting and all these business fields as well. My teacher could see a future in me, he didn’t think that I would end up in one of those ‘3D jobs’: dangerous, dirty, demeaning. That made me think, when I grew up, I’m going to be something, I’m going to be in finance, especially since Hong Kong is a financial hub.
When I first started training with WEDO GLOBAL, I’d just finished my DSE and started university, and there were students two or three years younger than me, who would ask me for advice on studying for DSE. I felt respected, because they looked up to me. It made me feel that I had the role of a teacher’s, having an impact on someone else’s life. The first time I lead a tour, I was a bit nervous. I was leading a mosque tour in TST, and I had to tell the participants about my culture and religion, I also had to answer some questions about stereotypes as well. The group I was leading consisted of university students, senior citizens, and middle-aged people. It was a great mix and the interactions was good. I felt good educating other people about my own culture.