• Thu
  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 2:18pm
PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 11:57am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2014, 2:02am

Government’s double standards on tackling racism in Hong Kong

Michael Chugani wonders why officials were slow to tackle racism against ethnic minorities but quick to condemn attacks on mainlanders


Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London. Aside from being a South China Morning Post columnist he also hosts ATV’s Newsline show, a radio show and writes for two Chinese-language publications. He has published a number of books on politics which contain English and Chinese versions.

Last week, a local Chinese friend used a racist slur I have not heard in quite a while. He told me a friend of his had asked if he had seen that achah speak Cantonese on television. He was referring to a show I host with former legislator Chim Pui-chung on ATV's Chinese channel. Locals routinely used the word achah or cha tsai to describe Indians back when I was growing up in Hong Kong.

On a racist scale, I would say it's more offensive than pun mui, which refers to Filipino domestic helpers, and on a par with gar tsai, a racist taunt against the Japanese. The word "gweilo" has lost its racist intent over the years since locals now use it more as a descriptive rather than a derogatory word. It no longer offends those it targets. There is even a restaurant near me called Gweilo. But many Filipino maids and Indians still bristle when called pun mui and achah.

As I suspected, my friend told me the person who used the slur is middle-aged. I rarely hear today's young Hongkongers use it. The same goes for gar tsai, which is mostly used by older Hongkongers who have a historical dislike of the Japanese.

At a dinner party a few years ago, a senior civil servant, now retired, liberally used the word achah to describe Indians, despite my presence. The others at the table, including civil servants, took no notice. In their minds, it was an inoffensive word. When I asked if they would be offended if I used "chink" at the dinner table, they all fell silent. But, oddly enough, young Hongkongers sometimes do use pun mui, possibly because they grew up with the Filipino domestic helper phenomenon. Many were raised by helpers. Indonesian maids came later, which may explain why there is no equivalent slur for them.

Young Hongkongers gave rise to the slur wong chung, or "locusts" in English, to describe mainland visitors. By choosing this, the slur originators wanted to depict mainland visitors as invading swarms destroying Hong Kong's way of life. The slur has not worked its way into everyday use, as achah and pun mui did in the past.

Whether the originators intended it to be racist or a backlash against the ever-rising numbers of mainlanders here, I do not know.

Hong Kong's anti-discrimination law excludes protection for mainlanders with the logic that it is not possible to be racist towards your own race. The law was enacted with little enthusiasm after decades of resistance by the government, which had insisted there is no racism in Hong Kong. The Legislative Council passed a watered-down version that is more a joke than a racism law.

It is worth comparing the decades the government took to half-heartedly act against widespread racism towards ethnic minorities with its speedy condemnation of the small group of protesters who recently taunted mainland tourists as "locusts" in Tsim Sha Tsui. Equal Opportunities Commission chairman York Chow Yat-ngok now even wants to amend the anti-racist law to cover mainlanders, which could make calling anyone wong chung an offence. I wonder if he would be equally outraged by a civil servant calling me achah at a dinner party.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com


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This article is now closed to comments

But can one also not argue that 'acchaa' has lost its racial connotations the same way as 'gwei--lo' has?
The word Chinese was adopted by the English and derived from an Indian slur still used in a derogatory/racist manner today to refer to northerners (eg. South Tibet/Arunachal, Manipuri, Assam) and other "Oriental" ethnicities.
The word "Chinese", to describe the people of the "Middle Kingdom" comes from the word for porcelain, which in Arabic is "Cinni". In the 14th Century, when European traders asked where all the porcelain came from, the response by the Arab traders was - The Cinnise. Over time, since the Ming people were the most prolific porcelain makers, the Europeans named the porcelain makers, the Chinese, and the country, where most of the porcelain came from - China.
I don't doubt the overlap of words in Arabic and Indian languages and their variant use. Indians use Chinki and the British used ****/Chinky/**** as a slur and, these days British use Chinky to refer to Chinese food. A correlation in their sound and usage (plus British Empire heritage) suggests shared origin. The porcelain example shows that the meaning of a word can come from different routes. I question the -ese sounding part as it is used in multiple nationalities eg. Japanese, Burmese, Sudanese, Congolese.
I had the honour, in my early years befriended quite a number of Indians, Portuguese and Brits together with a host of other ethnic minorities. I refrained from using the a-word or the g-word though nicknames were unavoidable just for fun's sake. We Chinese were called 'chins' by some but I didn't take offence as it didn't seem to mean anything. Its worse when the a- or g- words are preceded by 'sey' meaning nasty although pronounced like 'dead'..
How can you, SCMP, account for your censoring of **** (g-w-e-i-l-o) within these comments and yet allow your own journalist to use the word in his article where it is claimed not to be offensive! What hypocrisy!!!!!
For your information, I do NOT appreciate being called '****'. NOT ONE BIT. I hate it when I'm walking along and I overhear some people taking in Chinese and the muted '****' is mouthed and I know they are likely referring to me and I think they probably often not speaking admiringly. Of course I know many people don't intend to offend with the term so I don't get my knickers in a knot over it. But the truth is - I don't like it.
Michael, if anyone is guilty of double standards it is you. And who appointed you to be the arbiter of what and what is not racist. I personally find that the Hong Kong Chinese use the G word as an intended insult against white people, and as such it is offensive and racist. I encounter this on a daily basis. The fact that the white person on the receiving end of the insult may be wealthy makes no difference. I believe you owe an apology for your racist views and you need to undergo sensitivity training. The fact that the SCMP is censoring the term on this forum suggests they understand its offensive nature.
Hong Kong-One of the most racist places on the planet.
One wonders if a public slanging on the media serves any purpose - definitely it has no positive impact on an otherwise sensitive issue like racism which itself has no significant place in a society like Hong Kong composed of people from all walks of life and from around the world! It is impossible to ensure all learners in a class grasp good values being taught and at the end of the day there could be some sticking to their old beliefs. As time goes by, such black sheep will get weeded out naturally. Meanwhile, life must go on and let it so! Let us nurture positive rather than negative energy!




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