Like other newcomers to Hong Kong, Fermi Wong Wai-fun struggled when she first came to the city in 1981. Originally from Fujian province in the mainland, her family lived in a wooden shack at a Diamond Hill squatter settlement. Back then, there were no services for new arrivals. But there was plenty of discrimination towards mainlanders.
“You come to Hong Kong and you sink or swim,” said Wong, the director of human rights group Hong Kong Unison. “You had to manage on your own.”
And she did. Her mother juggled two factory jobs taking a day and night shift, to save up money and eventually the family was able to move out of what Wong describes as a “nasty living environment”. Meanwhile, Wong learnt Cantonese and eventually made it to college.
Now, Wong considers herself a true Hongkonger and doesn’t feel like an outsider. Yet, she considers herself lucky - it was easier for newcomers back then. Wong says that now the situation is getting worse. Not everyone is welcome in the city that prides itself on being Asia’s “world city”. For decades Wong has sought to improve the life of Hong Kong’s sizeable, but often overseen, ethnic minority resident community.
“Some people are not as equal as others,” she explains, adding that this is especially true of the city’s South Asian communities. “Hong Kong is losing its uniqueness - those very important core values the British left for us. Without them, there will be no difference from Shanghai or Beijing.”
In a city that is leaning further towards the mainland by the day, Hong Kong’s minorities may be further marginalised due to the ever rising centrality of Chinese language and culture. What used to be an exceptionally cosmopolitan society is now seeing de-facto racial segregation, Wong says.
When Wong began advocating the rights of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities she says they were invisible to policymakers. Many members of ethnic minorities were not aware they were entitled to welfare, education and housing. Wong wondered why children of third and fourth generation Hongkongers still did not speak Cantonese. She concluded that something must be wrong with the system.
“Language is not only a tool for communication, it also carries culture, and it carries power,” she explains. Wong said that while education might not solve all problems, was the best way to solve most of them. So education was where she began.
For the first three years in her new role, Wong worked every day, surviving on pocket money from her sister as she tried to deal with Hong Kong’s policymaking bureaucracy. At the same time, she was organising her own activities for ethnic minority communities.
“It was very crazy,” she says, laughing. “I needed to fight so many different people in so many different departments. There was a lot of fighting, but I wanted to make them [the minorities] visible.”
Once, she describes writing more than 1,000 government housing application forms for people who did not know they were entitled to housing. She then told them to tell their friends. Nowadays, they know what to do, she adds, smiling.
Her work did make her popular with everyone. Wong said she lost friends and made enemies - some of them her fellow social workers. Working for the government, they were not impressed with the added workload Wong gave them. They asked her why they had to accommodate “outsiders” - showing the very mindset Wong believes is the root of the problem, and the kind of prejudice she has been combating for 15 years.
There is still a long way to go. Most sectors of Hong Kong’s government currently have no ethnic minorities represented at all, she says. Others have one or two people. Most minorities are still concentrated in a few fields - catering, security, construction sites - leaving little space for social mobility. In practice, the education system is still not advocating equal opportunities, according to Wong.
“Why do I do this? It’s a very simple answer; this is a matter of fairness and justice,” says Wong. “As a Christian and a social worker our belief is that no matter how desperate or frustrating the situation, you need to hold on to your dreams and your hopes. You have to count the small steps.”
Now, her organisation Unison, based in Mong Kok, oversees a number of educational projects. Wong has been a driving force for a number of policy changes - including in education. Today more than 500 schools accept ethnic minority children - before 2004 only a handful was accepted. While much remains to be done, the city has come a long way.
“Most importantly, they’ve gone from invisible to visible,” she says about the ethnic minority communities. “Now the government can’t simply forget about them. Before, social services did not serve them - now some of them have opened their doors, they can’t close them again.”