Cameroon-born Gerard Ambassa Guy has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, but has never forgotten the discrimination he faced as a young, black soccer player.
Although he was regarded as one of the best defenders in the Hong Kong Premier League, he was paid less than local or white players.
He still remembers overhearing a member of his team’s management saying: “We don’t need to pay him much. We can just go to Chungking Mansions and take any African, and he can play.”
Now 41 and a soccer coach, Ambassa Guy, known as JJ, came to Hong Kong after playing in his central African birthplace and mainland China. He says he was unprepared for the discrimination that greeted him.
“My level of football was higher than most of the other players, but I could not earn a lot of money just because I was African,” he says. “They didn’t judge you by your ability. They judged you by your colour.”
He stayed anyway, and represented Hong Kong internationally from 2006 to 2011. Now a permanent resident, he helped bring over more African players and has coached professionals and children.
He is not alone in facing discrimination in Hong Kong. Many among the more than 3,000 Africans in the city say they are called racial slurs like “hak gwai”, which means “black ghost” in Cantonese, avoided on trains, and denied decent accommodation and equal job opportunities.
Many are traders and businessmen, while some work in construction and security. A large number are asylum seekers.
Many live or work in Chungking Mansions – a warren of shops, cheap guest houses and eateries spread across five blocks of 17 storeys each – in Tsim Sha Tsui, Yuen Long, Sham Shui Po, Tin Shui Wai and Tuen Mun, where living costs are relatively low.
‘A wake-up call against racism’
The Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests gained momentum globally after African American George Floyd died on May 25, when a white police officer knelt on his neck while trying to arrest him in Minneapolis. The officer, Derek Chauvin, 44, has been charged with second-degree murder, and three of his colleagues who were present face related charges.
The movement did not catch on in a big way in Hong Kong, but a new study on African migrants, published in early June, says this group faces a range of challenges, from limited social networks to difficulty in adjusting to society, a lack of awareness of vital social services, social alienation, limited job opportunities and poor housing.
Dr Padmore Adusei Amoah, a Ghanaian research assistant professor at Lingnan University’s school of graduate studies who led the study, says discrimination against Africans in Hong Kong is common, taking a toll on their mental well-being.
“The death of Mr Floyd and the ensuing protests and discussions around it are a wake-up call to cities and societies globally to address the critical issues of racism, discrimination and rising inequalities,” he says.
Four scholars from Hong Kong universities and one from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa were also involved in the study, in which 22 adult migrants from sub-Saharan countries who had lived in the city for at least 12 months were interviewed.
A 2009 government report, the most recent data available, showed that Arabs, South Asians, Africans and Southeast Asians were consistently less accepted in Hong Kong than Chinese, whites, Japanese and Koreans.
Significant proportions of Hongkongers said they found it unacceptable to send their children to a prestigious school if most of its students were African, to rent premises to Africans, or accept Africans as family members or colleagues.
The experiences of Africans interviewed by the Post suggest that not much has changed since that report.
Cameroonian engineer Robert, 33, arrived last July to start an MBA programme at a local university. Asking to be identified by only his first name, he says he likes the city’s stable economy, efficient transport system, infrastructure, food and people, but not the discrimination.
He says supermarket security guards trail him as if to ensure he does not shoplift, but that does not happen when he is with a Hongkonger.
As the only black person in a class of 90 students, he feels he is not popular and his teachers do not give him equal opportunities to express himself.
He had a three-month relationship with a classmate, but the Hongkonger broke up with him saying her family and friends did not approve.
He blames those unhappy experiences on the language barrier, cultural clashes and racism, and adds: “I would say racism plays 2 per cent, but this 2 per cent spoils everything.”
He says he has lived in Britain, the United States, France and Singapore, and compared with people in those places, Hongkongers discriminate in a more subtle way.
“There is racism in Hong Kong. People here are scared of you and won’t harm you or tell you to your face they are racists, but the way they behave says it all,” he says. “Life is hard as a black.”
Few chances to mix
Raymond Ho Wing-keung, senior officer of the ethnic minorities unit of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), says racial discrimination against Africans may be because of their lack of contact with Hongkongers.
Ho says people’s awareness of Africans comes mostly from the media, and there was a time when large numbers of African asylum seekers swarmed Hong Kong.
“Africans are easily branded as asylum seekers or illegal immigrants by the public, and treated unfavourably,” he says.
There is racism in Hong Kong. People here are scared of you and won’t harm you or tell you to your face they are racists, but the way they behave says it all
Robert, MBA student
Asylum seeker Amanda*, from Uganda, says discrimination and unfair treatment are part of her daily struggles as she awaits her claim for refugee status to progress through the legal system.
Now 39, she arrived alone in Hong Kong in 2013, and uses food coupons provided by the government to shop at supermarkets. Sometimes, when her bill exceeds her coupon value, the cashiers yell at her, instead of explaining.
She shares a flat in Yau Ma Tei with a couple from the Philippines and even they insult her, calling her smelly when she opens the door of her subdivided space.
“I feel bad. I’m also a human being, but what can I do? I just take it and walk away,” she says.
Ho says it is unlawful to discriminate, harass or vilify a person on the grounds of race under the Race Discrimination Ordinance.
The EOC will investigate complaints and provide legal help if needed, but he says many Africans are not aware of the protection available.
Professor Sealing Cheng, of the department of anthropology of Chinese University, says the depiction of blacks in movies has entrenched stereotypes.
“Many sub-Saharan Africans have shared with me stories of public rejection by Chinese people who pinch their noses and hold their bags tight at the sight of black people, presuming poor hygiene, poverty and a propensity to commit crime,” she says.
Lingnan University’s Amoah says Africans and Hongkongers need to do more to understand “the dos and don’ts” in friendships and other social relationships, how to behave in public spaces like the train and so on, and to respect and accommodate the differences in their ways of life.
A number of the Africans interviewed for the study said they had limited opportunities to form lasting relationships with Hongkongers, whom they found to be reserved.
“We must create opportunities for migrants and locals to learn more about each other's sociocultural practices to foster social cohesion and inclusion,” Amoah says.
‘Speak up against injustice’
When the Black Lives Matter movement spread from the US to other countries, Hong Kong-born Max Percy, 25, wanted to do something in the city.
Percy, who has a white British father and Chinese-Filipino mother, organised a rally outside the US consulate in Central on June 7 attended by about 40 people of various nationalities, including some of African origin.
He initially went on Facebook to announce a march from Chater Garden to the consulate, but called it off for safety reasons when thousands of people showed interest.
Given the ongoing political unrest in the city, he feared supporters from rival political camps might clash. “Hong Kong is in a very politically sensitive position,” says Percy, who is self-employed and based in Hong Kong and London. However, encouraged by the support, he feels people should keep speaking out against injustice.
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Soccer player Ambassa Guy acknowledges that part of the problem is that Hong Kong’s black community is splintered.
“Africans are not closely connected,” he says. “Nigerians are Nigerians. Cameroonians are Cameroonians. Ghanaians are Ghanaians. We don’t speak the same language or share the same culture.”
These days, he takes it in stride when he is singled out from his soccer team for identity checks at airports, or is assumed to be too poor to use priority banking.
“Hong Kong is my adopted home, where I have spent half of my life,” he says, adding that other Africans who also call the city home deserve opportunities to truly integrate into society.
“You need to give them the same chances and equal rights – that’s what integration is about.”
*Name changed at interviewee’s request
Rebel City: Hong Kong’s Year of Water and Fire is a new book of essays that chronicles the political confrontation that has gripped the city since June 2019. Edited by the South China Morning Post's Zuraidah Ibrahim and Jeffie Lam, the book draws on work from the Post's newsrooms across Hong Kong, Beijing, Washington and Singapore, with unmatched insights into all sides of the conflict. Buy directly from SCMP today and get a 15% discount (regular price HKD$198). It is available at major bookshops worldwide or online through Amazon, Kobo, Google Books, and eBooks.com.
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