City Weekend

Is the diversity drive working for Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities?

Chinese language programmes aim to improve integration in the city’s schools, while health and job issues are also being tackled. Yet experts say more still needs to be done

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 1:56pm

Efforts to integrate and improve the lives of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities have been stepped up by the government, NGOs and the police after studies showed minority youths in particular were increasingly slipping between the cracks.

Lawmakers have primarily been prioritising the provision of teaching Cantonese as a second language to non-native speakers as a means of empowering them.

In 2014 the government announced HK$200 million would be invested in schools to enable them to teach Chinese as a second language to ethnic minority students, after campaigners maintained they were being marginalised throughout their lives because they did not speak Cantonese.

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The former practice of putting ethnic minorities into designated schools, which ended three years ago, was widely criticised by concern groups as it segregated them from the Chinese population for more than a decade.

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The dropout rates before Form Five for Pakistani and Nepali students – two of the local ethnic minority groups with large youth populations – were 15.6 per cent and 20.6 per cent respectively in 2011, according to a report by the Zubin Foundation and the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law. This contrasted with just 6.4 per cent for Chinese students.

Dr Elizabeth Loh Kah-yee, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education (Division of Chinese Language & Literature) at the University of Hong Kong, said she was encouraged by the investment from government for teaching Cantonese as a second language to ethnic minorities.

“I can say that all parties are making more effort on this issue,” she said.

Loh said her studies had found that ethnic minority kindergarten pupils who were given additional Cantonese support had improved their performance in the language by up to four times.

But she said the government did not prescribe an attainment level for Cantonese at kindergarten, so some pupils felt like failures when they were subjected to higher expectations at primary school.

“If you talk about effectiveness, I would say kindergarten would be the best time to learn Cantonese for ethnic minorities,” she said. “With specialised support, they have a higher possibility they can catch up with their Chinese counterparts.”

Free kindergarten education in Hong Kong is a welcome step towards language equality in class

She added the government’s commitment to provide one extra teacher for schools with at least eight ethnic minority pupils should be increased in instances where there was a higher density of ethnic minority children.

Dr Terence Shum Chun-tat, teaching fellow at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong, said the Cantonese language investment was encouraging but that teachers needed more training in how to support ethnic minority students.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “But I think the Hong Kong government should provide more support, not just to the ethnic minority students, but also to the teachers who teach this group of students at school.”

He added that while many students from ethnic minority groups could speak Cantonese, it was a “big challenge” for them to read and write Chinese, so it became difficult for them to enter local universities and find well-paid jobs.

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Various NGOs and agencies are also promoting Cantonese language courses for ethnic minority students.

The Hong Kong Police Force is running Chinese language courses for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds, which senior police officers hope will boost their confidence and encourage them to join the force or apply for a civil service role.

“Project Himalaya” and “Project Gemstone” are two language programmes being rolled out in Yuen Long and Yau Tsim districts respectively.

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In the voluntary sector, humanitarian organisation Health in Action has launched a new health care programme targeted at ethnic minorities for 2017.

It has received almost HK$930,000 from Operation Santa Claus, the annual fundraiser organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK, to provide support for 500 patients in two years.

But charity co-founder Dr Fan Ning, a surgeon in Hong Kong, hoped the number of people who benefited from the scheme would be significantly larger if beneficiaries went on to educate family members about their health.

South Asians were specifically being targeted, because health professionals had observed that in Hong Kong, they particularly faced rising levels of diabetes, obesity and heart conditions. Patients not being fluent in Cantonese was cited as a key barrier to accessing health care here, so Health in Action hoped to provide literature in alternative languages.

“I think [ethnic minorities] need more in their own language,” he said. “And their health problems often come at a social cost. I want to eliminate this kind of inequality in Hong Kong.”

The government also claims to have stepped up its provisions for ethnic minorities in relation to job opportunities.

The Labour Department had strengthened job referral and employment support services for ethnic minority job-seekers, press secretary Veronica Wong said. It had also adjusted the Chinese language proficiency requirements and recruitment formats of relevant civil service positions, she said.

Hong Kong is very monocultural; we need to move towards a multicultural education
Amod Rai, advocate of Nepali rights

Despite the various initiatives, Amod Rai, a long-time local advocate of Nepali rights in Hong Kong, said the government and the wider society in Hong Kong needed to start treating its ethnic minorities as cultural assets rather than a social burden.

The secondary school teacher and secretary of the Gurkha Cemeteries Trust said he was encouraged by the government’s increasing efforts to create social cohesion, but he wanted lawmakers to consult more with ethnic minority groups before implementing policies.

“In the past few years, the government has addressed some issues, and shown they are concerned, but their policies are not so effective,” he said. “I think the government is insecure at times, maybe that is a colonial hangover. Hong Kong is very monocultural; we need to move towards a multicultural education where people learn there are differences and diversity.”


Language can be a significant barrier for Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities, who account for 6.4 per cent of the population. Providing language support has been identified as a way to make society more inclusive, but how does Hong Kong compare with other places in Asia in this regard?


The island city state was ranked the most inclusive country for ethnic minorities out of 142 countries in last year’s Legatum Prosperity Index. Singapore is made up largely of ethnic Chinese people (74.2 per cent), followed by indigenous Malays (13.3 per cent) and ethnic Indians (9.2 per cent). The government adopts a bilingual education policy that encourages citizens to embrace both English and their respective mother tongues – Chinese, Malay and Tamil.


While Japan has few foreign nationals (1.5 per cent), the country has a variety of ethnic minority groups, including North and South Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians, Filipinos, Taiwanese and indigenous peoples such as the Ainu and Ryukyuans. But the government adopts the view that its citizens are all “Japanese”, and language is taught equally to all students regardless of background or ability. “The status quo in Japan is linguistic assimilation in the interests of national unity,” the Tokyo Foundation, a think tank, says. But the notion of an overarching Japanese identity “has a corrosive impact on tolerance of minorities”, according to the Legatum Institute.


In Malaysia, society is built upon preferential treatment for Malays, who make up over 50 per cent of the population. There are also ethnic Chinese (23 per cent), Indians (7 per cent) and the indigenous Orang Asli people. The affirmative action policies were put in place to account for colonial-era mistreatment of Malays, but continue to give Malays privileges such as discounts on housing and a guaranteed quota on equity in listed companies. The teaching of Malay and English are compulsory in all schools, even those where Chinese and Tamil are the primary mediums of instruction.

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng