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Wave of coronavirus cases brings a tide of racism in Hong Kong

Government workers operate a testing site after a lockdown in the Jordan district of Hong Kong on Jan. 23. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — A man of Nepali descent said he was denied a job after an employer saw his complexion. A woman said people recoiled from her in an elevator, apparently disgusted. A child was turned away from a school that cited a preference for "locals."

Racism, especially against South Asians, is not a new phenomenon in Hong Kong, whose population is 92 percent ethnic Chinese. But a wave of incidents during the pandemic — including comments from an official who suggested minorities were spreading the coronavirus — is bringing prejudice into sharp relief in this city of astronomical housing prices and extreme inequality.

Adding to the sting, blue-collar workers such as delivery drivers, cleaners and others providing essential services are bearing the brunt.

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“I feel angry, but there’s nothing I can do,” said Ali, a government worker who said he had been a victim of racist behavior and who spoke on the condition of using only his nickname because he feared repercussions.

While Hong Kong’s virus cases are comparatively low, the city since November has battled a fourth wave of infections that began in upscale restaurants and dance clubs catering to wealthy women.

In January, authorities began imposing “pop-up” lockdowns in specific neighborhoods. Rather than the dance clubs, which were not immediately forced to close, the ambushes have targeted mostly poor areas with high proportions of minority, often South Asian, residents.

The accounts of discrimination also underscore the barriers faced by ethnic minorities, and policies that fail to take them into account. Many ineligible for Chinese citizenship now face extra hurdles in traveling abroad after the government said it would no longer recognize the British National (Overseas) passport, after Britain granted holders of the document a path to U.K. citizenship.

'They think we are responsible'

Due to their culture and religion, ethnic minorities like to have family gatherings where they “share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together,” public health official Raymond Ho said in a news conference in January, adding that doing so without masks increases the risks. In addition, Ho said, residents in crowded living environments may need to share sanitary facilities, raising the chance of contracting the virus.

The comments sparked frustration. Bista Gandendra Limbu, 31, a Nepali who came to Hong Kong when he was 2, said the Yau Tsim Mong area, the first to come under a 48-hour lockdown last month, is a “mini Kathmandu,” fueling impressions that the entire Nepali community is carrying the virus.

“Everyone [in Hong Kong] drinks, everyone hangs out,” he said. “But we don’t have anyone who can speak up for us.”

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Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top local official, said there was nothing to suggest ethnicity contributed to contagion, but that factors included “social behaviors, living conditions and workplace hygiene.” More than a quarter of the city’s 661 locally transmitted cases from Jan. 4 to 18 involved people of South Asian descent, according to government figures, mostly from the Yau Tsim Mong area.

Lam’s intervention did little to defuse prejudice, according to ethnic minority individuals, who say they have since been targeted at work, forced to stay home despite negative coronavirus tests, and shunned by Chinese colleagues and friends.

Limbu, who runs a Facebook page for Nepali people in Hong Kong, said grievances started pouring in, including from a woman who reported that someone spat on her at a subway station.

A retail worker of Nepali descent, who spoke on the condition of being named only as Rai because of safety concerns, said his ethnically Chinese co-workers called him constantly and told him to get tested. (He has taken nine tests, all negative.)

“Suddenly they think we are responsible [for the virus],” Rai said. “They just don’t want to listen.”

With the economy in dire straits, Rai fears losing his job, especially after getting rejected for more than 100 positions.

Also last month, pro-Beijing lawmaker Elizabeth Quat proposed locking down the city’s mostly Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers on Sundays — their only day off. The government rejected the idea, but Sarah Pun, vice chair of the Union of Nepalese Domestic Workers, said many employers have asked their helpers not to go out.

'License for others'

South Asians began arriving in Hong Kong in the 1840s, when British troops brought Indian soldiers and traders. Later came Sikhs, then Nepalis who had previously worked as Gurkhas, followed by Pakistanis, Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais. The minority population rose by about 70 percent between 2009 and 2019.

But a lack of inclusion and lack of Chinese language skills are major barriers, according to a report by the Zubin Foundation, an advocacy group, and those obstacles result in limited opportunities, bias and discrimination. Of the 836 racial discrimination complaints Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission handled in the past six years, not one led to a conviction.

With a quarter of the ethnic minority population living in poverty, many have no choice but to stay in cramped subdivided apartments and share sanitary facilities, said Shalini Mahtani, Zubin’s founder.

“I don’t believe Raymond Ho was trying to intentionally demean ethnic minorities,” she said. “But because he is in a position of power it gives license for others to operate the same way.”

Dance hall outbreak takes Hong Kong’s coronavirus fight two steps back

It wasn’t the first time the government was criticized for cultural insensitivity. Last month, for the second time in under a year, officials distributed food packages containing pork to Muslim residents affected by a lockdown. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said the packages were handed out with more than one group in mind.

Judy Gurung, a Nepali community coordinator of ethnic affairs for Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, said her phone rang nonstop after officials announced the lockdown in Yau Tsim Mong. People were scared and, facing language barriers, they were confused on the specifics.

“People didn’t know if they could go to work, [if they had] enough halal food, medicine,” she said. She recounted her own recent experience in an elevator, where people flinched back from her and stood as far away as they could, with looks of disgust on their faces.

Incidents such as these have reopened old wounds. Limbu recalled how a job interview for a security guard role last year lasted only 30 seconds after the interviewer saw his face and asked where he was from — despite enthusiasm during a prior phone call when Limbu communicated like a native Cantonese speaker. He was then asked to take off his mask. His application was rejected.

The experience reminded him of all the degrading words he has heard used against his community.

“We can still hear these words, even until now,” Limbu said.

Rai, meanwhile, is struggling to enroll his son in kindergarten. He tried three to four schools but to no avail, he said; one informed him the school had a “preference for locals.” His son was born in Hong Kong.

Dance hall outbreak takes Hong Kong’s coronavirus fight two steps back

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