19 April 2019
The government should adopt various approaches to teach Chinese language and culture to members of ethnic minorities. Photo: Oxfam HK
The government should adopt various approaches to teach Chinese language and culture to members of ethnic minorities. Photo: Oxfam HK

Govt should help ethnic minorities overcome language barrier

Of the seven million-plus people living in Hong Kong, as many as 580,000 belong to ethnic minorities, including more than 80,000 from South Asian countries, according to the latest government data.

While many of those who came from South Asia have become permanent residents of the city, they still find it hard to become a part of mainstream society, mainly because of cultural differences and the fact that Chinese is not their mother tongue.

As a result, opportunities for them in terms of education and employment are limited. Many of them live on the lower rungs of society, and they see little chance of improving their station in life.

Such a situation is not good for Hong Kong’s development and social harmony.

The government should exert more effort to turn the situation around. They should roll out programs to help them learn the Chinese language and imbibe the local culture.

Great disadvantage

South Asian people have been in Hong Kong as early as the 1840s when the British colony was opened for trading.

The British recruited many people from India, Pakistan and Nepal to come to Hong Kong to work as policemen, jailers and soldiers, assisting the colonial government in governance and defense.

During those days, South Asians living in Hong Kong didn’t encounter much problem in getting higher education and better jobs since the official language, English, was also what they grew up speaking in their home countries.

However, many of them and their descendants have found that this is no longer the case since Hong Kong returned to China.

The emphasis on the use of Chinese by the SAR government has created a huge language barrier for them and put them at a great disadvantage.

That would explain why many Hong Kong people of South Asian ethnicity are relegated to low-skilled jobs, such as those in the catering and construction industries, and earn only meager incomes.

Difficult life

Official statistics (2011) showed that the median monthly income for a Pakistani family of three in Hong Kong was HK$12,000, compared with the city average of HK$23,000, while nearly half of families of Pakistani origin were living below the poverty line, far higher than the city’s 23.1 percent.

To put it simply, most residents of South Asian origin are living a difficult life here.

A 2012 study by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that many Hong Kong residents of South Asian ethnicity don’t take advantage of government services and resources.

Why? They are not aware that such services and resources are available simply because most of the relevant literature is in Chinese language.

Given this situation, the government should roll out programs and services to help members of ethnic minorities to overcome the language barrier.

It is our suggestion that the government should adopt various approaches in teaching them Chinese language and culture.

For those studying in schools, the aim is to give them adequate competence in the Chinese language and knowledge of the local culture so as to enhance their sense of identity and help them achieve their plans for advanced education or career.

For those who are already working, Chinese education should focus on helping them understand the culture at the workplace and know how to meet the demands of various industries so that they can use Chinese as an effective tool in their pursuing their careers.

Leung Wai-mun is the co-author of this article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 24

Translation by Taka Liu

– Contact us at [email protected]


Head of Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

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