To really shed Hong Kong's colonial mindset, stop putting white people on a pedestal

Yonden Lhatoo says it’s time, nearly two decades after Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, to confront the unspoken bias here that those from the West are superior, and hire only the best person for the job.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 7:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

There’s been a lot of heated debate recently about Hong Kong’s colonial roots. The spark was lit by former Beijing official Chen Zuoer, who blamed our political, social and economic problems on the failure to “de-colonise” our city.

Chen, who was a key player on the Chinese side during Hong Kong’s handover, also bemoaned the “revival of de-Sinofication” here, referring to the perceived rejection of Beijing’s influence.

I’m no fan of Chen and his hardline rhetoric, probably provoked by sightings of the clueless, British flag-waving boneheads at every pro-democracy or anti-mainland rally here these days, but he – along with everyone else – is missing the point.

Hong Kong needs to shed its colonial mentality in the context of racial reverence, not the physical trappings or abstract political notions of what should or should not be preserved of our British-era heritage.

Let me substitute political correctness with factual bluntness for the sake of further clarity: we need to stop putting white people on a pedestal so much.  

I remember striking up a conversation with an affable young man from Eastern Europe some years ago. He told me in heavily accented pidgin English that he was earning a living as an English tutor in Kowloon Bay.

I don’t know what kind of English his students were learning, but that’s a typical example of Hong Kong’s colonial mentality. The families who hired him would never have accepted a much more capable tutor from the Indian subcontinent, for example, even if his English was perfect, simply because he wouldn’t have the “advantage” of skin colour deemed necessary for the role.

The truth is uncomfortable, but income disparity based on whether you’re Caucasian or not is too commonplace in this town. No one likes to talk about it on the record, understandably, but it’s time someone brought it out in the open.  

This is not a xenophobic rant against a particular demographic – I’m just saying enough of all the kowtowing. I’ve spoken to so many disgruntled Asian professionals in white-collar jobs complaining about their Caucasian counterparts getting paid more for the same work. I’ve also heard from senior executives in well-known companies that it’s a similar story at the highest levels of business.

As ludicrous as it sounds, almost two decades after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, local talent is often sidelined for high fliers from the West because “it’s good to have a white face”. I’m not kidding – this is a direct quote I’ve heard more than once.

When I was covering the transfer of sovereignty as a reporter back in 1997, there was an enthusiastic “localisation” drive to phase out expatriates in top government positions, even if some of them were more competent than those taking over.

Now, curiously, it seems to be the other way round. Even though we’ve had our share of disappointments in hiring overseas talent for multimillion-dollar jobs, from people like Hank Townsend who managed our airport all the way to its disastrous opening, to railway chief Jay Walder who left us a trainload of unfinished mega projects that are over budget and behind schedule.

In yet another manifestation of this colonial mentality, former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang recently insisted that Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal must always have overseas judges, in keeping with tradition, from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Our local judges are not good enough on their own, apparently, and Caucasian faces somehow add more credibility to the bench.

Just appoint the best candidates – black, white, brown or yellow. They can still wear those silly wigs to look as colonial as they like.