In the second half of the 19th century, the Hong Kong government began to bring in labour from other parts of the British empire.
They recruited people from British India, including what is now Pakistan and Bangledesh, as well as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They also brought in people from Malaya, mostly of Indian origin. Many of them joined the local constabulary; others were working as house servants, guards and the like.
Quite a few of them acquired British citizenship and they they eventually settled in Britain. But many did not; they were left behind after July 1997. That presented a dilemma for those who had been living in a sort of self-created enclave.
Going back to their native land does not seem like an easy choice. What about staying here without a desire to be integrated into Chinese society? That's not a pretty option either.
For one thing, the local populace does not really care. They are not hostile, but they maintain a kind of "live and let live" attitude where you have to survive on your own.
Certainly, that is not a problem if you have money or speak English well, or manage to climb the social ladder. But what if you are not a person of means? What if you need to keep yourself afloat, just like the rest of us?
To survive, you need knowledge of the Chinese language. This is why, a few weeks ago, the headmistress of a local Islamic high school, voiced her concerns in a newspaper. According to her, minorities cannot get into the Civil Service Bureau because of the language requirement. (She did not mention the private sector.)
Another problem, she says, is minorities are usually advised to take the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) or General Certificate of Education (GCE) Chinese-language exams. But the IGCSE and the GCE are only equivalent to Form Three and Primary Six levels respectively, not to mention the course content does not deal with the society they need to understand. Besides, the link between primary and secondary schools is not smooth for them, creating a headache when there are different levels within a class.
Her solution? Writing a new set of learning materials for minorities that would fit their needs. When they have to take the public exams, make it a Form Three level, not a Form Six level, for all of them.
Years ago, a Portuguese person from Macau could come to study in our middle schools, take French as a second language (English being the first, of course) and sit for our Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination. She did not have to take Chinese at all.
Today, if you enrol in an international school, you don't need to take Form Six-level Chinese. Can this be applied to our minorities? I do not know.
I agree with the headmistress when she expresses the worry that unless the "Chinese question" can somehow be resolved, there's no real future for most of them. But even if her ideas are adopted, it won't solve the problem.
Universities may be willing to take you in on an IGCSE score despite your poor Chinese-language skills, just as they admit foreigners who know not a word of Chinese. But unless you find a job that requires little Chinese skills, the prospects are not bright.
This is an issue that our education authorities have to think hard about.
Ronald Teng is the founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education