A permanent underclass in HK?

Updated: 2013-10-18 08:37

By Nigel Collett(HK Edition)

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Hong Kong's minority South Asian ethnic groups can easily fall out of mind. The last census, in 2011, showed 451,183 people of ethnic minority living here, or 6.4 percent of the population. Comparatively, there are not many of them, so the issues that concern them show up hardly at all on political radar screens, though their problems are real enough. Our education system is failing their children, with severe, long-term consequences.

The problem is simple: an inability to learn in Cantonese and to read and write Chinese. Of those enumerated as ethnic minorities, 44.2 percent claimed English as their home language, and only 31.7 percent said they spoke Cantonese at home. As a very bad example of this, only 18.7 percent of the 14,180 Nepalese people resident here claimed to speak any Cantonese. Unsurprisingly, 75.8 percent of adults from ethnic minorities (and over 80 percent of the South Asians) were employed in what the census describes as 'Elementary Occupations', or jobs at the bottom of the heap.

The census revealed 2,152 Nepalese and 3,562 Pakistani children aged below 15, of a total for all ethnic minorities of 23,984. Given the figures for Hong Kong children as a whole, this is a tiny number. In 2008, for instance, there were over 55,000 children taking the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE), so the children of ethnic minorities would have made up less than 3 percent of that total. Given Hong Kong's ample reserves, providing additional educational facilities for such numbers should be easily manageable. Provision has not, alas, been made.

Non-Chinese students currently miss out in several ways. If they join a Chinese-medium school, they start way behind and never catch up. At home, their parents watch English or other TV shows, read and speak non-Cantonese languages and have no ability to help them with their Chinese homework. Sending children to such schools may seem to offer a way to evade the language trap, but it is too hard for most. It exposes children to unachievable standards and too much isolation in the classroom. It is unsurprising that few make their children take this path.

A permanent underclass in HK?

If children join an English-medium school, one of the few provided by the government (and a study in 2008 showed that 15 percent of the children of ethnic minorities have to wait more than a year for a place at one of these) or schools such as Delia Memorial, they have an easier time. However, they remain segregated from their Chinese peers throughout their schooling and are removed from immersion in Chinese languages.

Some parents seek a way out of the bind by sending their children to their country of origin. In Nepal, for instance, bright children can attain tertiary and postgraduate education in their own language. This provides the opportunity for a fuller education and a happier life (though not, of course, for the parents, who suffer the pangs of separation for a decade or more, and may never have the chance to know their own children as they grow up). The trap springs shut, however, when these students return to Hong Kong to work, for they have even worse Chinese skills than their fellows who stayed at school here.

The result in all cases is the same. In Hong Kong's highly competitive system, poor knowledge of Chinese prevents students reaching Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) and going on to university. The number of ethnic minority children reaching Hong Kong tertiary education is very low.

The end result of this process is both a failure to integrate into Hong Kong society and a life of perpetual menial labor and financial deprivation. It is the reason why Hong Kong's bars and restaurants are staffed by able, personable, but otherwise unemployable youngsters from ethnic minorities. It is the reason why young men with degrees are employed here as construction laborers. Those two areas of employment, plus security guarding and, for a few, driving, are really all that is open to most of these young people. It is all that will remain, too, for their children and their grandchildren unless action is taken to break this sorry chain of circumstance.

The solution is simple. Hong Kong needs a tailor-made Chinese curriculum for its ethnic minorities. Concentrated tuition in spoken Cantonese and an early introduction to written Chinese is needed to place the children of ethnic minorities on a platform from which they can take on the common syllabus alongside, and in competition with, native speakers. More concentrated teaching of Chinese as a foreign language is necessary for these children.

Without this investment in its future, Hong Kong is currently manufacturing a self-replicating Asian underclass that is a blot upon its pretensions to be Asia's World City. It is squandering the talents of its young people and is storing up the social conflicts that stem from segregation.

The author served in the British Army for 10 years with Gurkha soldiers, much of that time in Hong Kong. After retirement, he set up a company to employ Gurkhas and Nepalese men and women in Hong Kong and onboard cruise liners internationally.

(HK Edition 10/18/2013 page9)