Asylum seekers in Asia

Hong Kong refugee musicians put on hip-hop shows – a form of release while they’re stuck in bureaucratic limbo

Musical act Talents Displaced offer a creative outlet for those caught in legal limbo, who survive on handouts for years while they wait for their cases to be processed in a city with one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates in the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 February, 2018, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 10:35am

It’s a chilly January evening and the Great European Carnival on Central’s harbourfront is in full swing, the faces of fun-seekers – and giant teddy bears – aglow under neon lights. Occasional screams from amusement rides fill the air.

Next door, in a small, cordoned off area of the Maritime Museum, another great show is about to take place.

It’s 7pm and members of Talents Displaced, a group of refugees, asylum seekers and their friends, have gathered a few hours before the group’s scheduled performance. Frank, one of the group’s founding members, is helping to set up the space. A rapper, singer and songwriter, he’s excited about spreading the group’s message.

Formed in November, 2016, Talents Displaced are an Afro-fusion group that integrates hip-hop and African drums. Occasionally there’s a DJ. There’s always dancing.

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“We started about a year ago,” says Frank, who does not want to reveal his surname. “Sealing was looking for a group of talented asylum seekers to showcase their talents to help change public perception about us,” he says.

Sealing is Sealing Cheng, a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). She has been researching the city’s refugees and asylum seekers since 2012 and found among this community a number of talented artists with much creative potential.

“This group provides a platform for asylum seekers and refugees to bring their creative energies together, showcase their musical talent to the Hong Kong public, and express their ideas,” says Cheng.

“People in Hong Kong think refugees are here to dupe the system, to make fake claims,” Cheng says. “I’ve also had young people in Hong Kong tell me that they didn’t know that asylum-seekers could be such amazing performers.”

Cheng blames the mainstream media for the public’s perception of asylum seekers as merely threats to Hong Kong society, and not people who have a lot to contribute, people who can enrich our lives.

And she has valid reason.

In 2016, a study commissioned by the Education University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and Policy Studies and conducted by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme found that only 4.7 per cent of those surveyed viewed asylum seekers and refugees positively.

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Interviews with 1,001 Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong Chinese over the age of 18 found 26.8 per cent held negative views, with 64.3 per cent taking a neutral stance. Of those with negative views, 61.1 per cent said the group made “society unsafe”; 37.5 per cent said that they cause a disturbance in the community.

Frank, who moved to Hong Kong from Colombia five years ago with his parents and younger brother, says Talents Displaced are slowly building a fan base.

“We started with gigs at the CUHK and now we’re getting more shows around town.”

As well as public spaces, the group have performed at The Wanch in Wan Chai and in the Jockey Club Street Music Series.

“Rapping has given me confidence and hope through the dark times of this process. Slowly I have become more open, so my music has become more open, the lyrics guided by people who have influenced me,” Frank says.

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For those who join – the group’s membership policy is pretty flexible – Talents Displaced are a light at the end of a bureaucratic tunnel.

Danny agrees. Describing himself as “Blasian” – half African and half Chinese – he studied music in Hong Kong and currently raps and plays bass. He was asked by Frank to join as a rapper, having collaborated with him on their first music venture, 7on7, a multicultural hip-hop crew. With 7on7, they have performed at the underground event space XXX. Their songs have been posted on SoundCloud and social media.

For Talents Displaced, music has been a life-saving creative outlet. For another performer that night, writing has been a positive outlet.

Before the group takes to the stage, John Outsider, who has not yet been recognised as a refugee, stands in front of the crowd reading an excerpt from an upcoming book. Originally from Iran, he has three self-published books to his name.

It’s another example of how creative arts is providing hope for the city’s refugees. It also helps occupy their minds, as they wait for years, decades even, for the Immigration Department to process their cases.

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The prospects are bleak: of almost 9,000 refugee claims since 2009, the city has approved just 52. Most refugees come from Pakistan and India (about 20 per cent each), 15 per cent are from Vietnam, 13 per cent from Bangladesh and 11 per cent from Indonesia. The remainder come from other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Sri Lanka, and from Africa, including Somalia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The struggle of refugees in the city has been well documented. At 0.6 per cent, Hong Kong’s acceptance rate for refugees is among the lowest in the developed world. The global level is about 43 per cent, says non-profit human rights organisation Justice Centre Hong Kong. The city also has one of the smallest global refugee populations – and the numbers of outstanding claims has declined from 10,922 in 2015 to 8,956 in 2017.

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and refugees can’t do paid work in the city, study beyond the age of 18, or volunteer.

Instead, they rely on handouts, with most support coming from NGO International Social Service (ISS) Hong Kong. Refugees receive HK$1,500 a month for rent and a monthly HK$1,200 food allowance, which doesn’t go far in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Another Talents Displaced member is a rapper from Rwanda. “I joined when Sealing saw me dancing,” he says with a laugh.

“Being part of the group gives us a lot of hope. When you’re stuck in the system, it’s frustrating … I know people are doing their best to help, and that’s really appreciated, but it’s really hard. That’s why I’m making music – I’m also recording in a studio. It helps a lot,” he says, adding that mental health problems are rife among the refugees stuck in legal limbo.

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He wants to see the group grow, to play a transitional role for asylum seekers where they can express themselves safely and, most importantly, where they can keep playing their music.

“Back in Rwanda I would rap in my mother tongue, Kinyarwanda. Rapping in that language has more rhythm. People can feel it even it they don’t understand the words.”

He also plays the ngoma, a traditional African drum made of wood and covered with cow skin.

Refugee Union – the city’s first refugee-led society – will be holding its monthly fundraiser, Drink for Justice, on February 8 from 6.30pm to 8.30pm at Fishsteria in Wan Chai.

The event is all about the music, focusing on how it can transcend barriers, a philosophy Talents Displaced know all too well. For more information, visit