This is a guest post by Vanessa Sterling. Vanessa is Director of the University’s Pitt-in-China Program and an historian of ethnic relations in China.
I rarely get to see my colleagues engaged in their actual research process. So, I was thrilled to take my graduate school colleague and friend, Kevin Ming, up on his offer to introduce me to one of his research sites in Yuen Long in mid-July. His work with Project Share seeks to understand and support programs that contest the current situation of educational and socio-economic inequality that many young people in New Territory towns like Yuen Long face.
After having just spent a month living and working in Shanghai, my senses were immediately taken by the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the area.While winding through the commercial centers and markets in Yuen Long, I found myself watching, listening to, and thinking about the substantial number of South Asians I saw. Perhaps falling to a trade hazard, instead of focusing on the contemporary I was thinking about how they and their families initially came to be in Hong Kong, what keeps them there, and what they represent.
Indeed, they are a living, breathing remnant of the British colonial project. And, I would argue, that inauspicious beginning has plagued their community and probably fosters some of the prejudice they face from their Chinese neighbors.
The British were infamous for “importing” people, moving folks from one colony to another to provide a visible buffer between the white colonialists and the local masses. Indeed, one can find Indians and Pakistanis scattered all around the former empire, where they initially served as middle men in the East African tea trade, overseers in the South African and Jamaican sugarcane plantations, and a visible non-white but non-local population. In Hong Kong, many South Asian men served as the first police officers before the Crown allowed native members. Often indentured, the British relied on these “colored people” (to borrow the African term for them) to stabilize and suppress the vast majority of the colonial subjects. As such, these South Asians were encouraged to maintain their separation from locals, to not speak the vernacular tongue but instead to concentrate on learning proper English, and hopefully remain economically tied to their home countries to allow for trade to continue between the colonies without the British having to pay the fare.
During the colonial period, this arrangement worked well for the Crown but caused a huge amount of resentment and anti-South Asian sentiment to grow in native communities across the former Empire. One can easily see this today in Yuen Long. Nepali men, sons and grandsons of the celebrated Ghurkas who came to Hong Kong in the 1970s, hang out in parks during the day drinking for lack of better opportunities. Halal butchers serve Pakistani customers that file past their working-class Chinese neighbors with neither acknowledging each other at all. Outside of the Indian restaurants, I did not see Chinese patronizing of the any South Asian businesses.
What results, it seems to me, is a sense that these people, this community (which, to be fair, is not homogeneous by native place nor religion) is really a group that continues to represent the inequalities of the colonial experience to all. So, the post-colonial experience sees them increasingly stigmatized and moving to the bottom end of the economic spectrum almost as though as retribution for their previous collaboration.
Those familiar with the scholarship on Hong Kong know that this often is played out in the arena of education, where South Asian children struggle for access to quality education. The vast majority do not grow up speaking Cantonese in the home; indeed, if there is a non-heritage language spoken it is English. With the post-handover education reforms, being a non-Chinese speaker (NCS) greatly limits a child’s ability to gain an even basic education in Hong Kong. Wai-chi Chee’s recent research shows a fundamental disconnect between (Chinese) education officials and Pakistani families as to priorities in education which stems from the Education Bureau’s unwillingness to recognize the existence of cultural and religious difference when building policy and curriculum. Add to that little social support in South Asian communities for kindergarten—indeed, only 3.2% of South Asian children attend!, and it is no wonder that South Asian children have trouble entering a Chinese language-speaking primary school classroom. Without a strong basic education, these young people are not able to matriculate to higher schooling, are barred from joining the civil service and most other professions, and thus have little to no opportunity. This lack of education maintains the separation between South Asians and Chinese, and negative stereotypes persist. So, we are right back where Project Share comes in.
The historian in me couldn’t resist going to the primary sources to see how the Hong Kong government introduces, explains, and proposes to deal with this problem. In its October 2014 position paper “Education Opportunities in Hong Kong”,  the Education Bureau advocates that NCS children attend a Chinese-speaking kindergarten, and started providing vouchers in 2007 to help defray costs. It additionally states that with the 2014-15 school year there will be a “Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework”, one long advocated for by education and minority activists. However, when I looked at the online brochures for parents (which is only available in English above the Kindergarten section), all I saw were pictures of Chinese students, Chinese teachers, and Chinese social settings. So, not a very inclusive picture, to say the least, but perhaps one that accurately portrays the influence of South Asians on the education system.
When I was in Cape Town several years ago for work, I had a long conversation with a native Capetonian whose grandparents had emigrated from the Punjab. He spoke of being “colored” and how under Apartheid, his community was sandwiched between the whites and the blacks with little room to maneuver or gain access to education. While he was ecstatic that Apartheid had ended and that democracy had come to his homeland, he said that his fellow “colored” people where worse off under the new government, as blacks were given tangible support and encouragement from the government and whites were “still white”. He then went on to say that the few times he’d traveled to India he found it bewildering and so he preferred to stay in South Africa, preferably within sight of its iconic Table Mountain, because that meant home to him.
From my day in Yuen Long and the admittedly small research I’ve done since (so far), it seems that South Asians in Hong Kong are suffering a similar fate, the leftover people of a previous system the current government would like to move beyond and the majority still doesn’t really understand or see a place for within its culture.
 Wai-chi Chee. “The perceived role of religion in the educational attainment of Pakistani immigrant secondary students in Hong Kong”. Asian Anthropology, Vol. 14, Iss. 1, 2015.
*Photo Credit: http://www.chinesemartialstudies.com