How Indian law professor Puja fights for HK ethnic minorities

April 02, 2015 10:07
Puja believes the ethnic minority community in Hong Kong must become more active and vocal to make its voice heard. Photo: HKEJ

Puja Kapai was among the handful of ethnic Indian children in Hong Kong who could afford to go to university at one time. Although she was born to an underprivileged family, it didn't stop her from pursuing her dream.

Facing difficulties in catching up with her studies in a conventional local school, she switched to an international school, and then received scholarships to finish her undergraduate degree in Hong Kong and her master's degree in Harvard.

Today she is an Associate Professor at the Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong, and has committed herself to fighting for the underprivileged community using her law expertise.

Born in India, Puja came to Hong Kong when she was only a few months old and spent her childhood here. Even to this day she still feels an inseparable bond with this city.

"It is Hong Kong that made me who I am today, and I’m proud of being a Hongkonger. I just can’t call anywhere else home, not even India. Hong Kong has given me so much that I feel obliged to give back, to make this city a better place for everyone."

Puja grew up during a period when racial segregation was still a common practice among local schools. As a child Puja didn’t enjoy the same right for education as her ethnic Chinese counterparts did.

She could only enroll at a few "designated" schools, and was not allowed to attend the Chinese lessons, during which she and other non-Chinese students had to go to the music room for self-study sessions.

Even now, she can speak very little Cantonese. At a very young age she could tell she was a "second-class" citizen.

Puja once had a good friend, but the Chinese girl’s mother didn’t want them to hang out together. "Her mother said if we got too close, my friend would also get a dark complexion," Puja recalled. 

Later, the friends drifted apart.

After she switched to an international school Puja worked her heart out, passed the A-level exam with flying colors, and was admitted to the Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong.

The reason why she chose to major in law had to do with the setbacks she had encountered in her early life.

"I was born to a very traditional family. My parents thought education wasn't so important for girls, they even thought I should have left school after I finished secondary three," she says. Her own unpleasant experience prompted her to turn into an advocate of women’s rights.

After her graduation from the Law School Puja became a barrister, one of the few female barristers of South Asian origin in Hong Kong. Since English is the medium of instruction in the Law Faculty, Puja didn’t have any problem in lectures even though she didn’t speak or write Chinese.

However the language barrier soon became a major problem during her apprenticeship in law firms. "I was interested in human rights cases, but since I didn't speak Chinese, I was assigned to handle business cases instead."

In order to stay more focused on human rights cases, Puja then decided to switch to the academic field. Her research mainly concentrated on human rights and issues related to the rights of the underprivileged community, such as education for the ethnic minorities, their participation in politics and domestic violence.

However, since her research involved mainly local cases, and as a lot of materials of these cases were written in Chinese, she had to hire someone to translate those materials into English.

Although it is generally believed that everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, Puja points out that the existing anti-race discrimination law in Hong Kong is simply incomprehensive as there are too many exemption clauses in it, many of which concern government power.

"Discrimination often takes place in the public sector, but it is also the public sector that enjoys the most exemptions. For example, our unfair education system that has haunted the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong for so long is largely exempted from the current anti-discrimination law."

Out of righteous indignation, Puja joined the Hong Kong Unison as a consultant and a director, and since then has been dedicated to raising public awareness about the rights of the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Two years ago she even went to Geneva with her colleagues to testify before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on race discrimination in Hong Kong's education sector.

Another area of research for Puja is the political participation of new immigrants. She says many in the ethnic minority community often feel alienated from society and rarely take part in any political activity.

"If I hadn't studied law, I would probably be like one of them now, not knowing that I could bring about change with my knowledge. Last year I put a lot of effort into urging members of the ethnic minority community to register as voters and cast their votes in elections. In fact I told them that unless they got more active and vocal, the government would continue to ignore them," she adds.

Puja believes that although members of the ethnic minorities often have a lot of hurdles to clear and glass ceilings to break throughout their lives, many of them are still proud of their identity as Hongkongers. All they need is a proper channel through which they can contribute more to society.

"As a cosmopolitan city, diversity is definitely a strength, but we need to put things right in Hong Kong in order to maintain that strength," she says.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 27.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Puja (left, front) was not allowed to attend the Chinese lessons at young. Photo: HKEJ
Puja wants her son to learn Chinese, a chance she was deprived when she was a kid. Photo: HKEJ
Puja (send from left) testified before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on the race discrimination in Hong Kong’s education sector. She was granted The International Women of Courage Award (R). Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal