He says he has been spat at, cussed at, and denied public services. When he sits down on the subway, nearby passengers often get up or move away.
Once, he saw an intoxicated woman unconscious in the middle of the road. He carried her to safety, and ran into a convenience store to buy her water. When he came back out, he says police who thought he’d drugged her shoved him against a wall and slapped handcuffs on him, before witnesses came to his defense.
The problem, he says, is the color of his skin.
“I’ve always considered Hong Kong my home, but I’ve always felt like an outsider,” said Vachha. “Being a person of color in Hong Kong, you get looked down on, no matter what. … The darker you are, the worse you’re treated.”
Hong Kong enacted an anti-racism law in 2008, after pressure from international organizations, including the United Nations. But activists say it’s a flawed, toothless piece of legislation that fails to hold authorities accountable.
“These are the ways in which we see quite clearly that there’s racial discrimination, and it’s everywhere,” said Puja Kapai, a professor of law who researches minority rights at the University of Hong Kong. “We’re supposed to be Asia’s World City, we’re supposed to have this multicultural system, but we have a great problem.”
Whites, other Asians and “Others,” which are largely wealthier groups, make up the rest of the ethnic minority population, according to the research office, which doesn’t offer any further ethnic breakdown within those categories.
The census’ income data is based on respondents’ ethnic self-identification. It doesn’t distinguish between migrant workers — who often end up in lower-paying jobs like construction or manual labor — and minorities who were born in the city.
Disadvantage in the classroom
For those minorities who do gain residency and raise their children in Hong Kong — or those like Vachha who are born there — the system can feel stacked against them from the start.
Minority children whose families speak non-Chinese languages, such as Tagalog or Urdu rather than Cantonese, can face a language barrier that exacerbates structural challenges in education, setting them back once they enter the job market.
The report cited similar experiences from a number of minority families, with one unnamed person saying: “Our Cantonese level is too basic. This is a hurdle for us. It’s not that we don’t want to learn — it’s that we are not given the opportunity to learn.”
These expat students are largely from more privileged ethnic groups like Whites and Koreans, which generally face less severe racial discrimination. This greater societal tolerance, and the students’ relative wealth, can cushion them from the disadvantage of not knowing Cantonese.
Some less privileged minority students do gain Cantonese fluency, through school classes, tutors, or social learning with peers — but sometimes it still isn’t enough.
When local schools do allow both Chinese and minority students, racist micro-aggressions can also emerge.
C.J. Villanueva, 22, is ethnically Filipina but was born and raised in Hong Kong. She remembers local classmates joking that all Filipinos were domestic helpers, a reference to the estimated 200,000 Filipino domestic workers in the city.
“Sometimes when they joke around … they’d pretend to be cleaning, and say, I’m just like C.J., I’m like a domestic helper,” she said. “It was in good fun for them, but it was offensive for me and my Filipino friends.”
Policed and profiled
Everyday racism appears to be so prevalent in Hong Kong that everyone who spoke to CNN had their own range of discrimination stories.
For a while, Vachha worked late-night shifts that ended long after the subway stopped running. “All I’d want is to get home, and no taxis would stop for me,” he said. “I’d have to get someone else to stand on the street and get the taxi — I’d literally hide behind a pillar, then get in the taxi when it stopped.”
Being denied taxi service “happens quite a lot,” Villanueva said. When she was about 17, one driver told her “he does not serve people of my skin color.”
Finding housing is just as hard, Vachha added. A few years ago, he was about to sign the contract on an apartment when the landlord met him in person. Later, as Vaccha was standing next to the real estate agent, the agent got a text from the landlord saying he no longer wanted Vachha in the building.
Villanueva remembers seeing such reports while growing up. “Locals have a fixed image on ethnic minorities,” she said. “Like, they think Nepalis are all gangsters, or South Asians like Pakistanis or Indians are members of gangs. In the news, they’ll always say, this robbery happened, it was a South Asian who did it.”
Unfair treatment extends to the workplace; across a range of jobs, employees who are members of ethnic minority groups report experiencing longer working hours, lower wages, unfair dismissals, and a lack of opportunity in career advancement, according to Kapai’s study.
A particularly pervasive form of everyday racism can also come with police profiling. In Hong Kong, ethnically Chinese residents can go their whole lives without being stopped and searched by police on the street, whereas non-ethnic Chinese people of color say it’s a common reality for them.
Leo Verceles-Zara, a Filipino American who moved to Hong Kong in 2017 for a job in hospitality, said there was a period when he was stopped by police at least once a week. One time, he didn’t have his identification, and he says he had to bring the officers back to his apartment to show them his passport.
“Sometimes I’d just be leaving a restaurant and I’d be stopped,” he said. “It wasn’t overtly racist, but it was like, what am I doing? I’m just walking out of a restaurant, that’s not suspicious activity.
“How can you invite these people to come to your country and work for you, then arrest them or stop them for their skin color, the way they look?”
In a statement to CNN, a police spokesperson said that current laws allow police to stop, detain and search anybody “who acts in a suspicious manner.” The spokesperson added that all officers receive anti-discrimination training and attend seminars to “enhance their understanding” of ethnic minority cultures and languages.
“The Force is committed to promoting racial equality, fairness and respect,” said the statement. “In delivering quality services, the Force is determined to ensure impartiality in all dealings with members of the public, irrespective of their ethnic background.”
An insufficient law
Critically, the RDO doesn’t cover discrimination by law enforcement. The government is bound by the law in areas of employment, services and provisions — but not in exercising “functions and powers.” Police operations fall under this category, meaning the law doesn’t apply when officers conduct stop and search, arrests and detention, or criminal investigations.
“Now, 14 years later, they continue to drag their feet,” said Kapai.
In a statement to CNN, the government’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB) said the government was committed to racial equality. The Basic Law — the city’s de facto constitution — already includes language protecting fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to equality before the law.
“It should therefore be emphasized that acts of racial discrimination on the part of the HKSAR Government have in any event been proscribed according to the Basic Law, that the Government must act in accordance with the provisions thereunder when performing or exercising its functions or powers,” said the statement, which added that the RDO had been created to “better protect” people.
But Kapai pointed out that the RDO has only been used in court a handful of times as evidence of its inadequacy.
“If the law signals that a specific group of perpetrators like police, immigration officers, the government more broadly, are exempted from the law, then it signals … that there’s nothing wrong with that kind of discrimination,” said Kapai.
The Equal Opportunities Commission, which oversees the implementation of the RDO, told CNN it had formally recommended in a 2016 review an amendment to make it “unlawful for the Government to discriminate in performing its functions or exercising its powers.”
In their statement, CMAB said the government would continue to “study the remaining recommendations of higher priority in detail, including the recommendation of bringing all government functions and powers within the scope of the RDO.”
Yet Kapai says that even if government leaders genuinely want to help, they sometimes don’t grasp the root of the problem.
When she presented her 2015 report to Lam, who at the time was Chief Secretary for Administration, Kapai said the panel of officials agreed minorities were important to the city — but didn’t acknowledge that racism was an institutional issue. Kapai explained the government seemed to suggest that the “experiences [of minorities] are misunderstandings, not racial inequality.”
It signaled a fundamental failure to understand the ethnic majority’s role in perpetuating racism and upholding discriminatory systems, she said. The burden often falls on non-ethnic Chinese people of color as a result, some of whom simply decide to leave — like Vachha, who eventually moved to Singapore and says he feels freer than he ever did in Hong Kong.
This summer’s Black Lives Matter movement across the United States has sparked similar reckonings with race around the world, with dozens of anti-racism protests and calls for police accountability in countries ranging from Australia to Brazil.
“In other countries there are clear movements — but in Hong Kong, there’s a continuous apathy and complicity because we don’t want to believe we could be contributing to racial discrimination,” said Kapai. “Hong Kong’s racism does not model the trajectory of racism in the West, but we have our own story of how we perpetrate racism.
“Misunderstanding cannot explain systemic racism. Systemic racism is deliberate, and that means we all have a part in it … so denial is not an acceptable response.”