Hong Kong banks’ utterly disgraceful treatment of ethnic minorities shames the entire city

Yonden Lhatoo shudders at the prospect of even more discrimination against the city’s ethnic minorities as banks turn away customers in the name of security

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 11:17pm

What will it take to shame Hong Kong’s banks into doing the right thing?

I’m talking about their abhorrent practice of turning away ethnic minorities seeking to open savings or credit card accounts in this town. It can be a humiliating and hurtful experience if you’re not Caucasian or Chinese.

The toothless hamster that masquerades as our anti-discrimination watchdog has done a bit of due diligence in the form of a study that recently “revealed” something we all pretty much know already: Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities – minus the Caucasian demographic – have to put up with the worst discrimination when it comes to basic housing and financial services.

But what’s interesting is that the facts and figures are directly from the Equal Opportunities Commission, based on its own research and audit checks, instead of the usual complaints and anecdotal evidence.

Among the three groups of people the watchdog sent out posing as customers to test the waters, 44 per cent of ethnic minorities were discriminated against, mostly by banks. Caucasians had it easier, with 24 per cent encountering bigotry. No issues with Chinese customers.

“Such discrimination should have no place in Hong Kong, an international city that takes pride in its diversity and openness,” the head of the commission said. “Most [ethnic minorities] do not make any complaints when they face discrimination because they do not want to be labelled ‘troublemakers’. Many of them are not even aware of the channels for filing complaints.”

Charity begins at home. How about the commission start with the basics by providing a channel for redress that actually works, minus all the red tape and burden of proof imposed on complainants?

I had an interesting chat this week with the people at Unison, an NGO that has been fighting racism and discrimination for many years in Hong Kong. They pointed out that the complaint process was too laborious and frustrating to be effective.

It also doesn’t help that the commission’s ambit is limited to the Race Discrimination Ordinance, which does not cover nationality, citizenship and residency status. That allows HSBC, or Standard Chartered or any of our hallowed lenders, to turn away South Asians, Africans and anyone with a Muslim name at the counter with impunity.

Those in charge often give us lip service about the need to “educate” and “sensitise” counter staff, but it’s obvious that bank tellers and managers are only enforcing policy and orders.

The Monetary Authority is equally useless in bringing banks to book. A couple of weeks ago, the city’s de facto central bank made some bleating sounds urging local lenders not to overdo it and put off foreign investors when vetting accounts in the name of reducing risk. A top HSBC executive responded last week by warning of even harsher gatekeeping, ostensibly to meet new international rules aimed at stopping problems such as money laundering and terrorist financing.

Great. So we can all look forward to even more of the shame. On steroids.

A Nepalese couple I met recently told me they were so deeply offended by the way banks treated them here that they’d taken to depositing their modest income in a safe at home. They’re probably better off that way. Their hard-earned money is easier to access at any time and they don’t have to take any colour-coded, xenophobic bull at any bank counter.

Perhaps we should all start putting our money under the mattress. Interest sucks anyway.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post