Zadig & Voltaire shouldn't get away with discrimination

Alice Wu says blatant discrimination, whether it involves a Hong Kong storefront or a Paris hotel, deserves our strongest condemnation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 3:18pm

We are taught not to judge a book by its cover. We understand it as the logical and right thing to do. So when luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana made headlines with its discriminatory policy of banning Hong Kong residents from taking photographs of its storefront, it caused a storm. But when Zadig & Voltaire announced plans to launch a hotel in Paris that would be closed to "Chinese tourists", all was quiet in Hong Kong.

Zadig & Voltaire's founder and owner Thierry Gillier, who made the remarks in an interview with a trade magazine, has since backtracked and his comments amended to "busloads of tourists". But the blatant racism still rankled.

Some say he was referring only to mainland tourists. But I can't see how mainland Chinese tourists can be easily distinguished from other "types" of Chinese tourists. Gross generalisations won't help to identify which Chinese-looking individuals are mainland Chinese and which are Taiwanese, Hongkongers, Macanese, Singaporeans or other Asians, for that matter. Vincent Chin, a Chinese American murdered by two men who apparently mistook him to be of Japanese descent in Detroit in 1982, comes to mind.

"No Chinese Allowed" doesn't come with footnotes - looking "Chinese" would be enough to get one banned. And do we believe that all the busloads of loud tourists hail only from mainland China? On my last trip abroad, I distinctly remember seeing and hearing a lot of rowdy tourists who bore no resemblance to the Chinese race.

Social psychologists say there are three components to prejudice: emotional, cognitive and behavioural. Resentment and anger (emotional) are usually created when there is a scarcity of resources, which creates competition among groups of people. In Hong Kong, everything from maternity beds and baby formula to the roof over our heads and our personal space have become scarce. Pitched against mainland tourists competing for necessities, we burn with resentment and anger. We even go so far as to call mainland Chinese "locusts".

Yet policies that don't discriminate can be implemented and the dangerous leap from negative sentiments to hate need not be made.

Stereotyping is a cognitive function. Most of the time, we recognise the stereotypes we hold for what they are. While we cannot and should not control such "free thought", and such prejudice cannot be eradicated by enacting laws, we must be alert to any discriminatory speech or actions towards any group of people. We must speak out against such behaviour and not condone it.

This requires constantly and vigorously questioning the prejudices we hold and seeing ourselves beyond the identity we feel we belong to.

Zadig & Voltaire deserves every bit of the venom that Dolce & Gabbana received, and we need to understand why it hasn't, at least in Hong Kong. We proclaim democracy, rule of law and human rights to be our core values. Allowing others' and our own prejudices to taint them would make them hollow values.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA