African-themed cafe in Hong Kong offers coffee and a taste of diversity
Inspired by trips to the continent, Charlene Hua, 44 quit her corporate job to pursue a love for caffeine and her vision of an unprejudiced society
“People are people, why are we seeing Africans so differently?” Charlene Hua asks.
As a former corporate investor relations consultant, the 44-year-old last year quit her job to set up cafe Africa Coffee and Tea, aimed at raising awareness to combat racism in Hong Kong.
Her career change was spurred by the inequality she has observed in the city, especially the challenges faced by underprivileged ethnic minorities. What particularly got under her skin was a culture of prejudice held by Hongkongers, who seem to associate those from Africa, a continent steeped in culture, with crime and poverty.
“I am trying to show Africa from a different angle,” says Hua, who has travelled to Uganda, Rwanda and Angola over the past two years.
“Every time when I talk about going to Africa, my friends would warn me to be careful and come back in one piece.
“A lot of Africans in Hong Kong don’t have vast employment opportunities – part of it could be the language barrier or their education background," she adds.
Armed with the inspiration from her trips and a fierce love of African cultures, she set up her cafe and hired mostly staff from Africa.
Behind the counter, Rahel Wondimu is busy taking orders.
Wondimu moved to Hong Kong from Ethiopia two years ago, and has since been part of Hua’s vision to uplift the city’s African community.
Hua, herself a coffee enthusiast, says: “I wanted to invite them to work here, where they’ll be nurtured and guided on how to fit into local society.”
The name of her cafe shortens into the acronym ACT, which according to her, also stands for “taking action” against racism and discrimination.
Tucked away on the 15th floor of a commercial building in Wong Chuk Hang, the hidden gem has been operating since November last year after more than a year of preparation.
From chapatti – unleavened flatbread – from Uganda to freshly picked coffee beans from Ethiopia, Hua’s shop imports nearly all its products from different parts of the continent.
As customers make their way over for their daily caffeine fix, they are greeted by a colourful display of vintage artwork and handmade quilts hung on the walls of the hallway leading to the cafe’s doors.
Once inside, lustrous tribal decor and delicate statues from Africa conjure up the feeling of having left Hong Kong’s familiar shores for a foreign but welcoming land. As you take in the visual treat, sounds of steam venting and the aroma of fresh coffee gently brings you back into the realisation that this is a cafe.
“One of the reasons I pushed so hard to create a pleasant atmosphere is to allow people to see vibrant Africa and get to know the community and its people. It is only by knowledge can we lift the stigma on ethnic minorities in the city,” Hua says.
There are about 2,000 people from African nations living in Hong Kong, based on the Hong Kong African Association, a figure the group says is not available in official data.
Government figures in 2016 show that there were about 580,000 residents from ethnic minority groups in the city, accounting for 8 per cent of the total population. Of this, about 90 per cent of them are non-white people.
A survey conducted by Lingnan University and the city’s Catholic community highlighted a relatively high unemployment rate among the city’s ethnic minorities, with nearly 45 per cent of jobseekers with a post-secondary education unable to find a job.
This may be because many white-collar jobs have a high requirement for Chinese-language standards, but Hua warns that employers shouldn’t let this be a barrier to entry.
She stresses that while extra patience is needed during on-the-job training, team leaders should show empathy and appreciation for the talent and skills that ethnic minority employees bring to the company.
“Let’s not look at something and immediately have our own perception of it. I think locals perceive ethnic minorities as – they’re here to try to take jobs and use our tax money.
“Instead, keep an open mind and you may be surprised.”