Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

First, a cabbie. Next, a legislator of South Asian descent in Hong Kong?

N. Balakrishnan says the election of London’s first Muslim mayor is proof of how prejudice can be overcome – and this will be true in our city, which recently welcomed its first Pakistani taxi driver

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 May, 2016, 12:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 May, 2016, 12:06pm

Two men surnamed Khan have made the news recently – one in Hong Kong, one in London. Both have a success story to tell, but the difference in what they aspired to speaks volumes about social progress and prejudice in the two cities.

Here in Hong Kong, Shehzad Mamood Khan has become the first Pakistani cab driver; in fact, he’s the only non-Chinese taxi driver in the city. In London, Sadiq Khan had loftier ambitions; he has just been elected as the first Muslim mayor of the city; in fact, he’s the first Muslim mayor of any major Western city. His father was a bus driver in London, so one could say that both Shehzad Mamood Khan and Sadiq Khan hail from the transport sector, even though they have ended up at very different points.

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Perhaps South Asians have some sort of competitive advantage in the transport sector. The highest-ranking South Asian civil servant in Hong Kong, Haider Barma, a third-generation Hong Kong-born ethnic Indian – was transport secretary before disappearing from the civil service under “localisation rules” in 1996. One cannot help but wonder whether, with another South Asian transport secretary, a South Asian taxi driver would have emerged sooner.

If London can travel the road to integrate its minorities, so can Hong Kong

I do not wish to criticise too harshly the situation for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. I remember how bad things were for ethnic minorities in London in the late 1970s when I was a student there and how it would have been unimaginable for a Pakistani Muslim to become mayor. So, if London can travel the road to integrate its minorities, so can Hong Kong.

As a student in the 1970s at the London School of Economics during the pre-Thatcher era, I noticed the city was experiencing visible signs of decay – in more ways than one. The majestic India House building nearby was streaked with black lines and soot, for one. And on one occasion, as I walked nearby, some people in a passing car shouted out: “Paki go home!” It was my first week there and it took me a while to figure out what they were shouting about, so naive was I about politics in Britain at the time. I had just arrived from the US, which is no stranger to racism – but at least no one ever shouted at me to go home.

Skinhead gangs of young white thugs roamed the streets and people in many ethnic ghettos, usually South Asians, lived in terror. I remember going to Brick Lane in East London and finding terrified Bangladeshi families living in boarded-up houses. Today, the area has been gentrified and is full of tourist attractions.

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So if London can go from skinheads to a Pakistani mayor, there is hope for Hong Kong, where minorities do not live in fear of being attacked by Chinese gangs.

I would like to believe that I contributed in some small way to the elevation of a “Khan” when I helped elect Daud Khan as the first South Asian president of the LSE student union. The majority of the students were white at the time, proving even then that it was possible to overcome ethnic divisions.

In Hong Kong today, with direct election for many legislative constituencies, Pakistanis and Nepalis, with their numbers concentrated in certain areas such as Jordan and other economically disadvantaged districts, are emerging as important “swing” voters. Despite their small number, in a situation where the majority Chinese community is divided, minority votes can be the difference between victory and defeat. So in some cases, minorities are already punching above their weight here.

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Who knows, one day, Hong Kong, too, might have its own Khan in a position of leadership. One of the campaign issues of London’s new mayor is to provide affordable housing to the masses, in a place that has become the capital city for the world’s capitalist class. So the masses of London and Hong Kong – especially the young – have one big thing in common: the hard-to-achieve ideal of “affordable” housing.

I have seen London transform itself from a place of “Paki Go Home” slogans to having a Muslim mayor. Let’s hope Hong Kong can travel down the same route and one day see a South Asian representative in the Legislative Council or even the Executive Council.

N. Balakrishnan is a Hong Kong-based businessman