WITH the weight of the world on her shoulders, Camy Lok Mei-ching takes a deep breath and strides into a rural committee meeting. About 10 people turn to face her. She recognises lawmakers, government officials and residents of Shek Wu Tong Village in Yuen Long district.
Lok is president of the Hong Kong African Association, which she hopes will be allowed to convert an abandoned school in their village into an activity centre.
Despite approval by the Town Planning Board, Lok’s plan faces strong opposition from villagers.
Over the past months, various protests have been launched, with residents citing security concerns and accusing African people in the community of being more likely to be criminals.
Lok, in her 50s, is married to 45-year-old Nigerian Ezeakunne Sylvester and has been leading a lonely battle against what she says is a clear-cut case of racial discrimination that is part of a long-standing yet often neglected problem in Hong Kong.
“They say they fear a rise in crimes (if the centre is located there),” Lok says of her detractors.
“It’s such a ridiculous excuse. Every time our association wants to do something, we are chased away like stray dogs.””
Her husband adds: “We Africans here want to be together, but some people don’t want to give us that chance.””
The couple are not alone in their uphill battle against a prejudice faced by ethnic minorities in all aspects of life in Hong Kong society, from job opportunities to flat rentals and daily interactions.
According to government data, there were about 580,000 residents from ethnic minority groups in 2016, accounting for 8% of the city’s total population. Of this, about 90% of them are non-white people. The majority are Filipinos and Indonesians, constituting 31.5% and 26.2% of the population of ethnic minorities respectively. This is followed by South Asians, who make up 14.5%.
A recent survey conducted by local universities revealed that six in 10 Hongkongers believe there is a prejudice against these groups.
In the past five years, the Equal Opportunities Commission received a total of 397 complaints lodged under the Race Discrimination Ordinance, comprising 57 employment related and 340 non-employment related cases.
There are about 2,000 people from African nations living in Hong Kong, according to Lok’s association, a figure she says is not available in official data.
Almost half of them – about 800 to 1,000 people – live in Yuen Long, the largest African community in Hong Kong.
The area is favoured by Africans because of its relatively low cost of living and more job opportunities in the secondhand goods market, according to Sylvester.
“I love Yuen Long more than any other place to live in Hong Kong. Here I feel as if I am at home in Africa,” says Sylvester, who arrived in 2002 without a long-term visa.
He was arrested and served 11 months in jail for staying illegally in Hong Kong. Still, he holds a bittersweet sentiment towards this foreign land.
This is also where he met the love of his life, Lok, a secondhand goods dealer who knows most African expatriates in the neighbourhood.
“The day I walked out of the prison, she was the first person I saw. She was there waiting for me,” he recalls. “I wanted to marry her at that moment.”
Lok says she was first taken aback by how some African men sweet-talk girls, which was a sharp contrast to less outspoken local men in Chinese culture.
“(My husband) used to call me ‘angel’ and ‘baby’, but I asked him to stop,” she says. “I told him: ‘I am a very practical person, you need to do things instead of talking.’”
What finally impressed her, Lok says, was that Sylvester proved himself to be family-oriented and respectful of women.
“He knows when to compromise. He takes good care of me, that’s it,” she adds.
They tied the knot eight years ago and now live in a remote two-storey country house in Yuen Long, surrounded by mango and banana trees planted in a muddy front yard, with three dogs and four cats.
On the weekends, Sylvester visits the wet market sourcing for fresh ingredients to cook African cuisine.
Life is happy for the couple, but Sylvester is still an outcast. He is unable to get an identity card because of his criminal record. He is not allowed to contribute through employment or even volunteer work.
His Nigerian family wants him to return to his homeland, but he refuses to leave Lok. His love for his wife is his only anchor in an unwelcoming city.
“The most important thing is that I am happy with my wife. I just want to take care of her when she gets older. I’m so proud of her. She’s so smart, so perfect,” Sylvester says.
Four years ago, Lok was inspired to form an NGO and build a community centre to unite Africans in the district.
She applied three times to start an activity centre on a plot of vacant government land that will not only serve Africans, but also welcome Hongkongers to learn more about African cultures.
It took four years to identify a suitable site, amid hostility from residents who hold a deep distrust for their African neighbours.
But her dreams of integration and acceptance were crushed by fellow locals.
After the group gained approval from the Town Planning Board to use an abandoned school in Shek Wu Tong as a centre, more than 100 villagers signed a petition in May to force the Lands Department to suspend the plan.
Villagers even threatened to block the car park outside the school to cut off access to the building.
Village representative Choi Chi-wai admits that there are public security concerns in the village. He says he has received about 10 complaints in recent years from locals about undisciplined behaviour of ethnic minorities, such as urinating on the street and hanging around half-naked.
He claims there have also been burglary cases linked to minority members.
Choi says the harsh opposition is because of “cultural differences”.
Asked if he made any efforts to persuade villagers not to block the car park, Choi says: “It’s private land. There was nothing I could have done to stop them.”
On the morning of the meeting with the rural committee, Lok receives two messages from helpers of her association. They will not accompany her because they are scared.
She attends the gathering alone and after a heated discussion and pressure from villagers, she eventually gives up on her proposal to use the abandoned school.
Shortly after Lok withdrew her bid, village representatives applied to use the same abandoned school to build a recreation centre for locals.
Kelley Loper, associate professor and director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of law, calls the events in the Yuen Long village a “worrying development”.
“Blocking the establishment of the activity centre is likely to violate the Race Discrimination Ordinance, which prohibits direct and indirect racial discrimination in the provision of facilities, goods and services,” she says.
Loper calls for the government and Equal Opportunities Commission to investigate the matter, saying: “The case highlights a clear need for much greater efforts to educate the public and promptly address racist attitudes.
“Views that racial minorities are more likely to engage in criminal activity perpetuates negative and discriminatory stereotypes about minority communities in Hong Kong and are not based on fact.”
The Town Planning Board says its responsibility was only to ensure that the application process complies with the land use regulations, stressing that it is up to the owner of the property, as well as the Leisure and Cultural Department, to approve the booking of facilities and venues.
Lok may have lost this battle, but she is not giving up. She says she will look elsewhere for a suitable site.
“Whining doesn’t change reality. I do things to make changes,” Lok adds.
The problem of racial discrimination against ethnic minorities, especially Africans, is not confined to Yuen Long.
A government report released in February shows that one in five of the city’s ethnic minorities lived in poverty in 2016, with an employment rate of 65.5% The report attributes it to their “lack of education and professional skills”.
But this is clearly not the case for Lebo Mhlongo, a South African from Pretoria working as a kindergarten English teacher, who says she faces racism on a daily basis.
“When I open the school doors in the morning, I see some unpleasant faces. I guess some parents don’t feel comfortable having me teach their kids,” she says.
“Children are different. I can tell they’re curious about by my skin colour in the beginning, but that’s because they rarely see someone of my ethnicity,” Mhlongo says.
“After a while they get used to it, then it’s like they see me just as they do everyone else.”
Outside the workplace, Mhlongo has been refused rentals three times because of her skin colour, since moving to Hong Kong more than two years ago, she claims.
“It seems so backward that Hong Kong – a place that labels itself as an international city – still tolerates racism against ethnic minorities,” she says.
Over the years, Mhlongo has become resigned to the fact that people tend to react a certain way when they see someone of a different race.
“I know who I am and I represent my country, loud and proud,” she says.
Cosmas Ben, a Nigerian who, like Sylvester, lives in Yuen Long, says he enjoys the less busy lifestyle of the area.
The 40-year-old businessman rents a two-bedroom flat near his workplace for HK$5,000 (RM2,585) a month.
Having been in Hong Kong for eight years, Ben says he tries to turn a blind eye to the discrimination he faces on a daily basis, such as getting ignored by passers-by when he asks for directions.
“I’m in Hong Kong, not Africa. I understand that there are differences between Chinese people and my people,” Ben says.
The way to deal with racism is to “treat people politely and show them that we are all human beings”, he adds.
“I just want to tell the locals: ‘I didn’t come to harm you. So don’t be scared.’” – South China Morning Post
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