Market Malady

Ethnic Segregation, Maids and Shopping in Hong Kong

Hong Kong at night, by wok, with Creative Commons licenceHong Kong is renowned for two things: its libertarian economy and its cosmopolitan outlook. Here the dollar is king, and people from around the world can meet, exchange and learn in the market. It’s the economics of the human condition. Or it would be, if the city weren’t ethnically segregated.

No, you say, surely not! But consider this first up: in presenting the 2006 by-census data, the Race Relations Unit of the local government describes the 95% majority in ethnic terms as “Han Chinese”. Then it labels all fair-skinned non-Chinese residents as “self-identified” (because that’s the only choice they’re given on the census) “white”, and lists other minority groups under national designations such as “Indonesians”, “Filipinos” and “Nepalese”.

Raceposter1, by tamarabianca11, with Creative Commons licence So, despite a Race Relations Unit committee that is supposed to promote ‘racial harmony’, for minorities we have one term that coheres a range of dissimilar ethnic groups under a skin colour that is no more white, and often less so, than the appearance of many ‘authentic’ locals, and designations that deliberately separate ethically similar people (Indonesians and Filipinos are both ethnic Malays). Framing this wayward categorisation we have the curious use of “Han Chinese”, when almost everyone here identifies with the Cantonese ethnic subgroup.

But, of course, we’re part of China now, and all Chinese should be the patriotic same.

Still, how does this somewhat peculiar way of seeing people square with Hong Kong’s claim to being Asia’s World City? Surely a ‘world’ city should be outward looking, inclusive – and dare I say it again? – cosmopolitan.

Take a peek at the government’s branding website and you’ll understand the situation better. The term ‘cosmopolitan’ is quickly brushed aside for a description of Hong Kong as “Asia’s business centre”. True as that might be in some regards, it does point to the limits of tolerance: come to us with money, but if you stay, play by our colour-coded rules.

Segregation, by Alcino, with Creative Commons licenceSo it’s not hard to understand why the government has continually stalled on enacting legislation against racial discrimination. Business minded as ever, it has drafted a bill that will apply mainly to the workplace, even though it has obligations under China’s membership of the United Nations to do much more. Oh, and when it’s finally enacted, the bill probably won’t cover bureaucrats, although the government is prevaricating on that now. The whole thing might sound a bit slapdash until you realise that the workplace coverage, which pushes the burden on proof onto the victim, and likely exclusion of officials from the Immigration Department will help to maintain the status quo for ethnic minorities.

Most people who come here from overseas do so for economic opportunities. I certainly did, and that’s okay if you’re like me, work in a professional capacity and earn enough. But the great majority of immigrant workers in Hong Kong are domestic helpers – maids to be blunt – who work almost around the clock for a pittance, are subject to draconian ‘curfews’ and other control measures by many employers, and are often pushed aside by a fundamental segregation.

If you leave aside the emotive aspects of this and focus on how it works you’ll learn something surprising about Hong Kong’s market orientation.

Maids only have one day of rest each week here – that’s part of their labour contract. It’s the price they pay to send money back home. And because they’re required to live with their employers, although some thankfully don’t, they tend not to stay in on their day off. So where do they go? Well, it’s never good to generalise, and this doesn’t always hold true, but the largest group, Filipinos, tend to head into the Central district, and the second largest, Indonesians, gravitate towards Causeway Bay.

H&m, by tamarabianca11, with Creative Commons licenceIn both areas, on any given Sunday, you’ll see many people – overwhelmingly middle-aged women – sitting on the ground, chatting in groups, making the most of life without much help from anyone else, or any purpose-built facilities for that matter.

The two destinations also have epicentres. In Central the locus is Worldwide House, in which reside three floors of shabby retail space catering almost exclusively to Filipinos. In Causeway Bay, most people would say the focus is Victoria Park, and that’s certainly a place where Indonesian maids rest and play on the weekends. But nearby Sugar Street – fittingly the original location of the Hong Kong mint – is the place to go, with its Indonesian shops and remittance centres.

So what’s peculiar about these two locales? The answer is simple for Worldwide House. Apart from some shopkeepers, you’ll rarely see Chinese on any of the Filipino floors. Occasionally you’ll see other people, like me, passing through, but rarely Chinese people. This is where people go to shop and send money home only when they have few other alternatives.

Sugar Street is a little different. It also houses a mini-bus stop and is in one of the busiest shopping districts. Local Chinese are everywhere, but not in the Indonesian shops. Walk into the Causeway Bay Shopping Centre and you’ll see what I mean. The narrow corridors house an array of shops, from a local CD seller to stores that sell Chinese manga and Japanese figurines, and two that specialise in American comics. There are also remittance centres for Indonesians and Filipinos, and businesses that cater to Indonesians alone.

Capitalist exploitation, by 3arabawy, with Creative Commons LicenceSo this is the market face of cosmopolitanism, right? Well, no. The Indonesians shop in their stores and the Chinese shop in theirs. This is where the market for tolerance fails. Perhaps that’s because Indonesian maids are continually ripped off by their employers. The Asian Migrant Centre released figures last year which suggest that local employers are withholding US$48 million a year from their Indonesian maids.

Or it might just be the result of an ethnically segregated mindset, resting deep within Hong Kong’s market mechanism. There’s a name for it too: agoraphobia. In the original Greek, an agoraphobic feared not crowded spaces in general but the market in particular. And the market, the agora, was where disparate citizens met not only in commerce, but also to debate the ways of the city, to share their views on important civic matters.

Buzy Hong Kong . . . by burningmax, with Creative Commons licenceOn Sugar Street, things aren’t so sweet. The market doesn’t level – it separates. People pass each other by, as they do in Worldwide House. They’re agoraphobic, separated by economic circumstance and ethnic determinism. But alarmingly few of the 95% majority outside of academia and the legal practice ever notice.

Hong Kong: more than a small part of this puzzling world.

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