18 September 2019
Shormi Ahmed was born in Bangladesh, and has lived in Hong Kong since she was 13. She is now the art project manager at Duddell’s. Photo: HKEJ
Shormi Ahmed was born in Bangladesh, and has lived in Hong Kong since she was 13. She is now the art project manager at Duddell’s. Photo: HKEJ

A Bangladeshi pursues a career in art in Hong Kong

She is often mistaken for a Filipina, an Indian or a Nepalese.

But Shormi Ahmed was born in Bangladesh, and has lived in Hong Kong since she was 13.

Ahmed, now 28, considers herself a Bangladeshi, but also a Hongkonger, although she can’t speak Cantonese but for a sprinkling of phrases.

Ahmed’s father first came to Hong Kong in the ’90s as part of his import/export business. In 1999, he moved his family to the territory and has made it their home ever since.

Ahmed loves the city and its people. “Living here can be tiring, I would feel so exhausted at times coping with soaring living expenses and the hectic lifestyle. But Hongkongers tough them out and burst with vitality,” she says.

She was impressed with last year’s Umbrella Movement. “People got connected because of love. It’s like a mutual understanding and trust in marriage. It was like a real family bonding, too.”

Whatever are the difficulties of living in Hong Kong, Ahmed loves the city.

“Hong Kong has a character of its own, and everyone here is unique. The locals are not good at expressing themselves, but when they do so, they do it out loud. The Umbrella Movement is a very strong example of it. I see boundless possibilities in Hong Kong and every day I work hard to learn something new, making new progress.”

But Ahmed has not forgotten her roots. Asked about marriage, she says the parents’ wish always prevails in Bangladesh.

“The previous generation was even more conservative, where only arranged marriage was allowed. My father met my mother because of business and they were attracted to each other. Soon their parents arranged their marriage.”

Ahmed is glad Bangladesh has started to open up amid the winds of change brought about by globalization. “Love marriage is now acceptable. However, unlike in Hong Kong, once you engage in a relationship, you have to get married to your date. Most Bangladesh people still follow Islamic teachings strictly and insist that women should be faithful to one.”

Ahmed, who has become an art enthusiast, laments how little art education she had in Bangladesh. “Visual arts and music lessons were supposedly part of the curriculum, but we never got to study them. Music was not considered important. Academic performance was the top and only priority.”

She regrets it that she was not able to master the local language at school in Hong Kong. “I studied at Delia Memorial School in Mei Foo. I was assigned to a special class for ethnic minorities. Though we had two Hong Kong local students as classmates, we spoke to each other in English. In all those years I didn’t have the chance to get along with Hong Kong students in my class.”

Having lived in the city for 16 years, Ahmed can now understand more of the local language, although her spoken Cantonese only allows her to give directions to the taxi driver or get off the minibus. 

Swear words she can understand; those where the first things she learned from her local buddies.

She got 16 marks in the HKCEE public exam but an “F” for mathematics. Interviewers often criticized her performance in maths, saying that she could never enter any local university with such a bad grade in one of the core subjects.

But Ahmed persisted and was able to complete associate degrees at the University of Hong Kong School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU SPACE) and Hong Kong Community College (HKCC). She made her own way to the University of Hong Kong, majoring in art and comparative literature.

Her career path so far could be described as bumpy.  She’s fluent in English, French, Bengali and Urdu, but her lack of facility in Cantonese doesn’t give her a competitive edge.

“During my studies, I was actively seeking internship opportunities, including volunteer work. I love literature and art and I am determined to pursue an art-related career. The reality is cruel. People understand my passion but I often get rejected as I don’t know Chinese.”

Once, she applied for a job at an art gallery, but the owners turned her down because they were looking for someone who was bilingual, meaning, fluent in English and Cantonese. She had thought that was fair until she learned that the position was taken a few months later by a British lady who doesn’t know any Chinese at all.

“I don’t think every institution will use it as an excuse on me, but you know what I mean,” says Ahmed.

Not being able to find her dream job, Ahmed worked in public relations. Meanwhile, she took up art-related volunteer work.

A year later, her persistence paid off. She is now the art project manager at Duddell’s. She got the offer while working as a tour guide in an art festival.

“It was not an easy decision. My career in public relations was good. My boss appreciated my work and I was earning a good income. However, art is the love of my heart and I must give it a try.”

Ahmed considers herself a Bangladeshi and a Hongkonger. She loves dai pai dong. That’s part of her being a Hongkonger. Eating in these streetside restaurants reminds her of the land of her birth. That’s part of her being a Bangladeshi.

Sometimes locals call her a gwei mui — a young foreign lady. “I don’t see myself as a gwei mui. I have been living in Hong Kong for 16 years! I was born in Bangladesh but I have been cultivated with Hong Kong’s essence.”

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 24.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Shormi Ahmed was one of the speakers at My Art Future 2015 organized by Asia Art Archive. Photo: HKEJ

Ahmed is driven by passion and determination to pursue a career in art. Photo: HKEJ

Ahmed has to work closely with curators, artists, art galleries and other institutions in organizing and managing exhibitions. Photos: HKEJ

Shormi Ahmed is the youngest in the family. She is thankful that her loving parents are open-minded and supportive. Photos: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal writer