• Thu
  • Nov 27, 2014
  • Updated: 2:54pm
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

BIO

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

Mr Juicy
“The word "**** … no longer offends those it targets.” Really? As an ethnic Indian, Chugani is hardly in a position to say whether the targets are offended or not! Has he conducted a survey?
“Locals now use **** more as a descriptive rather than a derogatory word”. Really? Then I will await with interest the first locally marketed skin whitening product to be called “gweipo”!
If I was in a dinner party with Chugani, and heard the word “achah” uttered in his presence, I would be offended too. Why? Because, regardless of whether the intent is derogatory, light hearted, or merely “descriptive”, it is extremely bad manners to use a term which may offend “those it targets”. I am surprised that Chugani, who is evidently not insensitive about these matters, is unable to see this issue from the point of view of his fellow Caucasians.
happycamper
I beg to differ with you, sir, on the use of the word '****'. It has certainly not lost its racist intent, despite its other non-racists uses. I have had the word shouted at me in anger on many occasions in my 20 years in Hong Kong, often with very clear racist intent, and accompanied by wishes that I would return to my home country. The word '****' is frequently used by members of the African-American community in the US, but I don't think anyone would argue that it has lost its racist intent. I would agree, however, that HK is way behind in terms of recognizing and dealing with racism--it's something most Chinese people only discover when they are its target (and that's usually outside of China/HK). In my experience, most Chinese people are racists, but I also believe that is our natural state until we have sufficient experience with races other than our own and realize that we have more in common with people of other races than separates us.
kongshan2047
"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". This perception shows how obsolete the anti-discrimination law in HK is compared to many of its counterparts. In the UK for example, courts have ruled that it is possible for English to discriminate against Scottish and vice-versa, by taking into account the historical development and cultural tradition of the two places. It acknowledges that England and Scotland used to be separate country (the same analogy can also be applied between HK and the Mainland) so the anti-discrimination law needs to take this into account.
caractacus
I quote Michael Chugani: "The word "****" has lost its racist intent over the years since locals now use it more as a descriptive rather than a derogatory word."
Wrong. The opposite is true. The word "****" means "ghost man" having the connotation that everyone who is not Chinese is a ghost, i.e. not human. In my 31 years in HK I have become increasingly annoyed towards people describing me as a Ghost i.e. a non human being. It is as offensive as the word "Cha" to describe Indian or Pakistani people.
The Chinese have a long way to go before they realise that their stubborn racism is inappropriate and morally wrong.
caractacus
When Legco debated the Race Discrimination Ordinance, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (a racist description by itself) said it did not think racism was a problem in HK. Of course, they were Chinese and, because they were not the victims, racism was not a problem for THEM!
The essential problem is the mindset, backed by centuries of ignorance, conceit, arrogance, official propaganda and the teaching by parents that all those who are not Chinese are inferior. All this demonstrates that our Government, with a Chief Executive who once said he "would send all you people home" has no interest in the plight of ethnic and racial minorities.
Any society which refuses to accept the truth that every human being deserves to be judged by his or her own merits is amoral and doomed to the pit.
johndoe
Yeah, stifle free speech to promote "tolerance". This is what cultural marxism is all about. The commie SCMP is trying to sneak in communism and marxism through the back door by this type of pandering to special interest groups. If a principle does not work when applied to everyone, it does not work at all. Freedom is more important than whether someone feels hurt. If they are so touchy feely they can go back to where they came from and fix their own home countries.
Paradox314
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!!!!!
mymak
Instead of arguing the relative racist intent, Mr. Chugani should simply condemn all racist forms of address. Too often we hear 'there is G behind you' or 'the G over there' or 'the G this and the G that'. How's about just cutting out all the racist descriptors? We could all try simply saying 'the man over there' or 'there is woman behind you (that wants to get past)'. If we had any sensitivity or manners then we would make the effort.
yty07
Hong Kong's anti-discrimination law should be updated, or it is a shame to call itself Asia's World City.
Kubrick
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.

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