Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Global City

On Hong Kong’s multi-ethnic character

On Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, I wander past a proud squat mosque and into the hot, crowded blocks leading to the harbour. Around me is a whirl of humanity. African women in flamboyantly coloured dresses struggle to pull suitcases through the crowd. Black men rest languorously against the fences that guard the sidewalk from speeding buses, surveying the scene. Slick-suited Indian men rush along, yelling into their mobile phones, while other more tackily dressed hawkers accost passersby with cries of “Tailor suit!” and “Copy watch!” Outside the subway entrance a gaggle of Hindu women, saris wrapped carefully around their plump figures, watch a bearded Muslim man walk by on his way to prayer.

I can imagine what the uninformed tourist thinks when emerging from one of Tsim Sha Tsui’s many corporate hotels: “Isn’t Hong Kong supposed to be, you know, Chinese?” And, for the most part, it is—it is estimated that 90 percent of Hong Kongers are ethnic Chinese—but that hardly does justice to just how cosmopolitan this place really is; it is a city that operates beyond the scope of nationality, on a distinctly global level.

Modern-day Hong Kong was built through the brains and brawn of mainland Chinese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Vietnamese, ambitious Western expatriates—and Indians. South Asians have long been Hong Kong’s most prominent ethnic minority. (Along with Indians, Hong Kong is also home to about 100,000 people of Pakistani, Nepalese and Sri Lankan descent.) Ever since the British claimed the island in the haze of the first Opium War, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent have made their mark on the city. Sikh Indians, seen by the British as more trustworthy than the local Chinese, were recruited to police Hong Kong—in fact, the British were so keen to have them that recruits were transported to the territory on swanky first-class steamers. Most South Asians came to Hong Kong as traders, however—several of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank's founding members were Indian, and hundreds of other immigrants laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s thriving export economy. Indians have always been Hong Kong’s link to the world.

Today, Hong Kong’s Indian community remains as globally focussed as ever, punching well above its weight in economic terms—with about 1,000 businesses, the 35,000 Hong Kong Indians control up to 10 percent of the territory’s trade. A lot of their success has to do with savvy investment in property—which, in land-deprived Hong Kong, translates not only into wealth, but also smart international connections.

Raj Sital is a case study unto himself. Born in Hong Kong to a Hindu family that fled Pakistan after the partition of India, Sital is an archetypical Hong Kong businessmen whose hands are in every pot: manufacturing, exporting, real estate, print media. Sital has even served as a justice of the peace. Currently, he is the chairman of the Hong Kong Indian Chamber of Commerce.

As Sital explains, Hong Kong’s Indian community thrives in large part because of its role within the global Indian diaspora. “A local Chinese of Hong Kong would not go to Nigeria for instance, except probably with a cast-iron letter of credit—and even so, he will be worried,” he told Asian Affairs magazine in 2001. “He would probably rather go through us. The result is that more than ninety of the Chinese products sold in Nigeria are handled by the Indian community.” The same connections have allowed Hong Kong’s Indians to break into the lucrative mainland Chinese market, and South Asian businesses to trade with China under the radar of India’s restrictive tariffs and duties. “It’s not quite legal,” concedes Sital, but it works.

Like many Hong Kongers, Indians feared the worst before the 1997 handover to China. To everyone’s relief, little changed—and what did change might actually have been for the best. Unlike the years under British control, Hong Kong Indians can now operate businesses on the mainland and can even become Chinese nationals. “Once you have a Hong Kong residence card, you can request to be naturalized as a Chinese citizen,” Sital tells me over the phone. “Over the past couple of years, the [mainland] government has been more willing to give ethnic minorities passports.” Meanwhile, Indian power in Hong Kong has remained stable. “The influence the Indian community holds over the government hasn’t changed since the handover,” Sital says. “Culturally, it’s still fairly marginal, partly because many second and third generation Indians are immersed in Western culture.” Young Hong Kongers of Indian descent tend to enroll in English schools, but they also speak Cantonese and are slowly becoming influential beyond the business sphere.

Gill Paul, a comic actor born into a third-generation Indian family, is a rising star in the world of Hong Kong film and television. Growing up in Hong Kong, Paul was no stranger to racism. “I’ll be sitting in the MTR and the people sitting around me will cover their noses and say, ‘Oh, that brown guy smells,” he told Next Magazine last spring. But discrimination against Indians is less common than it once was. “The Hong Kong government has gone out of its way to show that it’s an international city, so there’s no discrimination in things like the housing authority,” explains Raj Sital. “That said, on the local level, the Chinese have [traditionally] had the perception that they are part of the Middle Kingdom and are thus superior to foreigners.” That is changing, however. “Today there is probably more discrimination by Hong Kong Chinese against mainland Chinese than against the ethnic minorities.”

In Hong Kong, immigrants aren’t subjected to the kind of hand-wringing over national identity they face in Canada. “Will they integrate?” our newspaper pundits are fond of asking, and opponents to official multiculturalism claim that Canada’s lack of a focused identity is creating a “divided country.” Our government, meanwhile, is content to celebrate the superficial and make token gestures towards diversity (ethnic dance, anyone?). Hong Kong, by contrast, is a transnational city, one that is adept at navigating the cracks and loopholes in international commerce, comfortable in its role of being a world city—but it is hardly alone in its potential. Toronto draws people from far more parts of the world than Hong Kong, for instance, and it is home to dozens of large ethnic communities that still retain ties to their homelands. So can Canada’s metropolises adopt a bit of the Hong Kong attitude, even if they don’t have the benefit of being city-states?

Somewhat ironically, it is Hong Kong itself that may help us do that. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, spooked by the possibility of a disastrous handover, more than 200,000 Hong Kongers (some 70 percent of all those who left the territory) came to Canada. They transformed the urban landscapes of Vancouver and Toronto with malls and huge real estate developments and made an indelible impression on the Canadian business world. Recently, about a third of the Hong Kongers who immigrated here before the handover have returned overseas, but they took Canadian passports back with them. Over 250,000 Canadian citizens now live in Hong Kong, including some of the territory’s richest businessmen, and fourteen percent of all Hong Kongers travel to Canada at least once a year. Canadian exports to Hong Kong are worth $1.4 billion annually, and each year, Hong Kong invests $5.3 million in Canada. These are huge numbers for a single city.

It’s these kinds of international links that create a thriving metropolis. If Hong Kong is a global city, and a lot of that has to do with its Indian community. If there’s any lesson to draw from this dynamic, it’s this: embrace the diasporas in your midst. The world awaits.

Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve’s urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf