Vivek Mahbubani has made a name for himself by cracking jokes about his ethnicity. An ethnic Indian, born and raised in Hong Kong, the 28-year-old builds his stand-up comedy routine around cultural and racial stereotypes about South Asian residents like himself.
His patter is that much funnier to Hong Kong Chinese because it's delivered in fluent Cantonese with clever word play and the latest slang.
The part-time comedian, who is also a web designer, knows his shtick is just that. In real life, he reckons, his ethnicity hasn't held him back in Hong Kong and he has his mum and dad to thank for that.
'My parents made a conscious decision to make me go to a Chinese school as a child, so I could adapt to local culture and learn the language,' Mahbubani says.
His mother, Bhavna, a teacher who relocated from India in the early 1980s after she married his businessman father, was motivated by her own struggles.
'Hong Kong was tough for me because I didn't speak the local language,' she says. 'I didn't want my children to face the same problem, so I sent Vivek and his sister to Chinese school.'
The youngsters found it hard going at first, with Mahbubani finishing second to last in his Chinese-language class. To catch up, he and his sister went for Chinese tuition after school every day. As a result, Vivek reads and writes Chinese. That ability, along with his talent, has led to success in entertainment as well as web design.
Literacy in Chinese also enabled two young Hongkongers of Pakistani origin to secure high-profile jobs in recent years. Nabela Qoser became a reporter for Chinese-language news on Cable TV and, since this year, TVB Jade. In May, Abdul Faifal became the first ethnic Pakistani to join the Hong Kong police force in 14 years. But they are the lucky exceptions.
Hong Kong has a long-established South Asian population dating to the 19th century, when Sikh Indians and Pakistanis made up a significant part of the police force. Today, there are about 45,000 people of South Asian descent living in the city, about half of them permanent residents. While a good portion speak some Cantonese, most cannot read or write Chinese characters. That didn't present much of a problem when Hong Kong was still a British colony. But since the handover in 1997, a lack of literacy in Chinese has become a severe barrier to a better life for South Asian residents.
Poor Chinese-language results mean lower total scores in local university applications, for example. This affects chances of getting a tertiary education. What's more, stiff requirements for Chinese-language skills have also prevented many from joining the civil service. Mohan Chugani, treasurer of the India Association Hong Kong, says the policy is a pretext for excluding the community. 'We've been pushing for years for the government to allow South Asians to become civil servants,' says the 65-year-old Hong Kong native. 'They've been stalling, and this strict language testing policy is an excuse.'
Critics say the government's failure to provide South Asian youngsters with adequate help in mastering Chinese-language education has aggravated the situation, condemning many from poor families to dead-end jobs. 'Learning how to use [Chinese] language fluently is crucial for the next generation of South Asians in Hong Kong,' says Fermi Wong Wai-fun, director of Hong Kong Unison, a group campaigning for the rights of ethnic minorities.
The chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Lam Woon-kwong, highlighted the problem earlier this month when he reprimanded the Education Bureau for not doing enough to help ethnic minority students integrate with Hong Kong society. He called on officials to provide them with better Chinese-language teaching.
Education offered the means for families to escape poverty but that avenue of escape would be cut off if youngsters still had a poor grasp of Chinese when they leave secondary school, Lam says. Many were forced to enrol in designated schools where the student body is mostly made up of ethnic minorities and where there was less opportunity to master Chinese. Ali Shan, a third-generation Hongkonger, is among those who came through this system. The 22-year-old attended Li Cheng Uk Government School in Sham Shui Po, which was made up entirely of South Asian students until six years ago. While making friends at school was easier, it also meant standards of Chinese were generally below par.
Shan realises that has to change if he wants to pursue his dream of becoming a policeman. So the 22-year-old juggles a busy schedule of school, working as an office clerk and Chinese classes.
His parents and younger brother sometimes feel Shan is wasting his time. 'I've heard my brother say 'What's the point [of school and learning Chinese]. We're outsiders in the city; we're stuck with low-end jobs,'' he admits.
His father works as a driver and his mother is a domestic helper. But Shan hopes to break the mould. 'Seeing [Qoser and Faifal] succeed makes me believe,' he says. 'But it's an uphill climb.'
Tabassum Razzak, a Pakistani mother of two, is well aware of this and is making sure her children 'grow up like Hongkongers'. Although she wears traditional Pakistani garb and head wrap, she was born and raised in Hong Kong. 'South Asians have been in Hong Kong for a long time. But for generations, whether it's through choice or lack of opportunities, we have stayed within our own circles,' she says. 'I believe it's important to find a way into mainstream Hong Kong.'
That's why both her children, a daughter aged eight and a 13-year-old son, attend a government school in Tin Shui Wai, where most of their classmates are Chinese. 'I think, if you're willing to adapt at a young age, and you learn the culture, Hong Kong can be a great place,' Razzak says. 'My children love it here.'
While she speaks Cantonese and is as up-to-date on the latest television soaps as other housewives in her Tin Shui Wai estate, Razzak also prides herself in being able to maintain her Pakistani roots. She and her husband, Malik Mateen, agreed that their children would be raised in their Islamic faith.
'They are allowed some leeway in areas to be more like Hong Kong kids, but when it comes to faith, they're taught to remain true to our culture,' she says.
Razzak reckons she's found a great balance in embracing Hong Kong and Pakistani culture. She works part time as a cook at the Tin Shui Wai Integrated Services Centre, where she often introduces Pakistani cuisine to the community. And her language skills have also made her a middleman of sorts between the Chinese and Pakistani communities in Tin Shui Wai.
Others families place less importance on maintaining their cultural heritage. Mido Dhillon, a spectacles designer, is of Indian descent, but says he has long 'lost' his ethnic identity.
His parents spoke Chinese to him and his sister, he says. They attended a local school, which is why they also read and write Chinese. Dhillon doesn't believe ethnicity is an issue: 'I just think of myself as a Hongkonger.'
Comedian Mahbubani agrees with that notion. 'The term Hongkonger, much like New Yorker, isn't really an ethnicity, but a state of mind,' he says. 'I'm Indian by blood, I speak Cantonese and live in Hong Kong. I'm a bit of everything.'
Hong Kong is a 'results-driven city', he says. 'If you're good at what you do, people in Hong Kong will accept you.'
To retain their Indian cultural roots, Bhavna Mahbubani and her husband tried to converse with Vivek and his sister in their mother tongue. But they eventually had to switch to English because their children's grasp of Hindi was poor.
'My parents don't speak Chinese and my Hindi isn't good,' Vivek admits. That has its advantages: as children, he and his sister would talk in Cantonese whenever they wanted to keep secrets from their parents.
'It drove me wild, but I was also happy they were talking in Cantonese so well,' Bhavna says.
For Bhavna Mahbubani and Razzak, what matters most is that their children are given the best opportunities for their future.
'Hong Kong is our home,' says Razzak. 'All I want is for my children to be successful here and have a bright future.
Help to fit in
Several community groups offer programmes to help South Asian youngsters integrate into society.
Teen Climbing Project
Organised by the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children, the Teen Climbing Project is for children aged 10 to 16. Evening classes deal with subjects ranging from Chinese and English, to problem solving and social development skills. Classes run year round, and cost between HK$80 and HK$400 a month. www.hkspc.org; tel: 23960264
South Asian Programme Express
A series of weekend summer courses offering a wide range of recreational activities, including photography, art, writing and cultural development classes. Two age groups: six to 10 and 10 to 16. Runs from July to September. Fees range from free to HK$80. www.hkspc.org; tel: 23960264
Organised by the Hong Kong Christian Service, CHEER (Centre for Harmony and Enhancement of Ethnic Minority Residents) is a continuous programme that's open to all ages. Language classes in both English and Cantonese, translation services, and group outings that aim to integrate participants with local Chinese culture are just some of the offerings in this free programme. www.hkcs.org/gcb/cheer/cheer-e.html; tel: 31063104
Hong Kong Integrated Nepalese Society Recreation Programme
This free programme is open to all South Asians and involves several courses a month on subjects such as art, first aid training, English and Chinese language. www.hinshk.org; tel: 34279671
Chinese Proficiency Enhancement Project
Organised by Unison, the project sends retired teachers and volunteers to 22 city kindergartens to provide after-school Chinese language tuition. The free programme resumes in September. www.unison.org.hk; tel: 27893246
This article was originally published on July 31, 2011