What it’s like to be black and African in Hong Kong: ‘there is racism literally in every corner’
Racism and other prejudice

A mere 3,144 of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people are African, or of African descent, according to the 2016 Population By-census. But in the past five years, a massive 492 complaints of racial discrimination against them were lodged with the city’s equality watchdog.

In reality, that may be a conservative measure of discrimination. A 2016 study by the Equal Opportunities Commission revealed that many members of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong would not consider filing a complaint, worried that they would be labelled “troublemakers”.

Africans began settling in Hong Kong in the 1990s, says Dr Lisa Leung Yuk-ming, a professor at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University specialising in ethnic minorities and culture. These arrivals were usually businessmen coming to the city for trade, or to make deals with mainland China. Many stayed, leading to ethnically African people being born and raised here, or having lived here long enough to feel that they are Hongkongers.
Chinese residents don’t always see it that way. “Ethnic minorities with darker skin are often portrayed in a very negative way,” says Leung. “They are criminals or they must be lazy … the list goes on.

“Hong Kong has a specific context because it has got its own racial and cultural history. The colonial era sowed the first seeds of racial superiority and racial hierarchisation. We should know how it feels to be the subjugated race, but we don’t always take the lesson, do we?”

Businessman Daniel Udong, from the Republic of Cameroon, moved to Hong Kong in 2003. “It was very difficult because there were not a lot of Africans living in Hong Kong, I was very visible going around in the city, in the MTR,” he says. “When you sit down, people get up and leave some space between you and them […] People look at you like you are some­thing different or strange.” Udong says people tend to cover their nostrils when they see him. “I put on nice perfume and go out,” he says. “I am a hygienic person. I ask myself, what did I do? Am I not clean?” Photo: Miguel Candela
“People look at all Africans as being asylum seekers or refugees,” says Udong. “There is nothing bad about being an asylum seeker or a refugee because a lot of people have had such an experience at one point. But when people stereotype all Africans as refugees or asylum seekers, it is really hurtful. “I feel that I am a Hongkonger even if the local people don’t consider me as one. I lived most of my adult life here and I feel naturally attached to the city. I feel entitled to the sense of belonging, because I know Hong Kong more than my own country.” Photo: Miguel Candela
Chidi “Alex” Uwaoma Madu (in black T-shirt) and other Nigerians podcast the history and culture of Biafra, a short-lived nation that existed during the Nigerian civil war (1967-70). “If black lives really want to matter, I think the protesters should go to Africa first,” says Alex, a six-year resident of Hong Kong, one of 745 of his countrymen in the city. “They should protest against these big corporations in Africa, because if Africa is better, most of us would not be here. Even the people in America would start going back to Africa […] But try protesting in Nigeria. They will send the military. They will shoot you and nobody will talk about it.” Photo: Miguel Candela
Sunday mass at The Light of the World International Ministry Hong Kong, in Cheung Sha Wan. The church was founded by Joshua Leta, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is attended by members of several African nationalities. Photo: Miguel Candela
Many young members of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong can speak and write Cantonese. They learn the language in school from an early age, public schools having started teaching Chinese as a second language to ethnic minority children in 2014. A 2018 study by Lingnan University showed that some encountered discrimination when seeking jobs, or on the job, including being slandered in Cantonese by colleagues who thought their darker-skinned co-workers could not understand. Photo: Miguel Candela
Esther and Helen Ajaezu, aged nine and 12, respectively, can speak and write fluent Cantonese and Mandarin. Their parents – a Hong Kong Chinese mother and a Nigerian father – sent them to a public school in Wong Tai Sin that caters to ethnic minorities as well as locals. However, discrimination forced Helen and Esther to grow up quickly. “I would hide in a corner and cry,” says Helen. “Teachers would tell the bullies that just because your skin colour is different, it doesn’t mean you can do that. I received comments from a class­mate who said I am black, I am fat and that I should go die.” Photo: Miguel Candela
“Some say to our faces that we look very dark,” says Esther, “I am not happy with that. We hear that sometimes when we play in the park,” where they are sometimes called “chocolate girls” or “nasty black girls”. Like Udong, the sisters have also experienced locals covering their noses when they walk past. “They probably think we are bad people or have a bad smell, but we don’t,” says Helen. “I am sure if people covered their noses when they pass them, they wouldn’t like that, too. They should consider other people’s feelings.” Photo: Miguel Candela
Helen and Esther are no different from other children. Helen enjoys watching local and Western celebrities streaming live videos, and likes to upload jazz dance videos of herself. In school, she is the only African in her dance class with about 20 Chinese and Filipino schoolmates. “I hope they [Hongkongers] don’t have to care about our skin colour and our different cultures,” she says. “I hope they treat us as normal human beings. We are equal.” Photo: Miguel Candela
Born and raised in Hong Kong by parents from Sierra Leone, 19-year-old Mulee Kanagbo asks, “What makes a Hongkonger a Hongkonger? I believe that is not defined by race. By looks and by blood, I am from Sierra Leone, right? Everyone thinks that, but I have no connections to my country. I was born and raised here, everything I know is from this place in the world.” Mulee and his family live in a Tuen Mun village house, with a rooftop overlooking a tree-covered hillside, and they interact well with the locals, he says. “I wish they understood that although I look different, dress differently, that my hair looks like a cotton ball and theirs is like silk, we all think the same. We are all a family. You are not better, I am not better. We should all be good friends who love each other and care about each other. That’s all I want.” Photo: Miguel Candela
“When people don’t know something, they tend to associate it with something negative,” says Mulee, who enjoys singing karaoke with friends. He feels Hongkongers have yet to develop racial sensitivity, that they are not wholly aware that they are doing something offensive. “Local people think we have to prove to them that we are ‘good’ before they think about accepting us,” he says. “That’s what ‘blackness’ feels like. We are not seen as horrendous, but we are seen as ‘just not there yet’ for Hong Kong people.” Photo: Miguel Candela
“I don’t feel safe when there are a lot of people on the train,” says Mulee. “I tend to move away from the crowd, because I am afraid that I will be judged. Often when I am standing, I notice that people give me strange looks. Why can’t I just be on a train or any public transport in general? I want to sit down on the train without second thoughts, scroll through my phone and then get off like any other passenger.” Photo: Miguel Candela
“I was looking for a job in the marketing industry,” says 21-year-old Muvah, Mulee’s older brother. “They told me they would not accept me because I would not want to work with their colleagues. I told them I speak Cantonese, I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and have the legal right to stay and work here. They still turned me down simply because I am black. And that was straight to my face.” Photo: Miguel Candela
Muvah was the only black student in his primary school. “You can imagine how much difficulty I went through,” he says. “There is racism literally in every corner. One time I was standing in line as usual after a class recess. I happened to stand behind a girl, with whom I had never interacted before. She told me, ‘Hey you shouldn’t stand behind me or next to me. My mother told me if you do, I’ll become black also.’ It was the most insane thing to me. At that time I was nine years old and was still trying to figure out what racism was. People saw it, they heard it, but they didn’t do anything. Even the teachers didn’t react. I complained about that to the teacher but the girl received no punishment. Nothing. That hurts, even until today.” Photo: Miguel Candela
Brothers Mulee and Muvah both feel discomfort around Hong Kong police. Whenever Muvah sees officers on the street, he has the urge to turn the other way, having been surrounded by about 10 of them one evening for no apparent reason, he says. Mulee has chosen to take a different tact. “I walk up to them, show a nice smile and say, ‘Good morning, sir. How are you? I love your uniform.’ I want to make them feel happy and not be seen as a threat. I am a local. I speak your language. No one needs to be afraid of me. My dad once told me to put a thought in someone’s head before they do. You better show them you are nice before they can think otherwise.” Photo: Miguel Candela

This article has been updated to include more recent figures on the population.