Interview: Perceptions about Migrants in Hong Kong

Migration Café

Migration Café

Katy Lam ist Postdoctoral Fellow in the research project “Migration, China, and the Global Context”, initiated by the Max Weber Stiftung and its German Institute for Japanese Studies and the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU). Together with Kara Fleming (University of Leeds) she hosted a “Migration Café” in December 2015 that gave students and researchers an informal platform to discuss questions about migration.

How did you come up with the idea to host such a get together? Are you planning on further cafés?

Katy Lam: We are a joint research group of the Max Weber Foundation of Germany and Hong Kong Baptist University, established in 2015. Our main research theme is on “Migration, China and the Global Context”. The objective of our Migration Café is to provide an informal and open platform for strengthening exchange among researchers, students and organizations that are based in Hong Kong working on and/or interested in migration issues. In Hong Kong, many researchers in various disciplines and practitioners like NGOs working on migration related subjects, especially on Asia. Through diverse perspectives, it is helpful to understand what migration tells us about the society and its ongoing changes.
An yes, we are planning further cafés: the next one will be held around this June, on internal migration and gender in China.

Kara Fleming: It’s a great chance for researchers working on similar topics in different fields to have an avenue to meet and exchange ideas about their work. But I can not take any credit for the idea, thanks to Katy for asking me to participate!

How is migration perceived by the public in Hong Kong? Are there certain stereotypes about migrants?

Kara Fleming: There are certainly a number of stereotypes about migrants in Hong Kong, which are very different for different migrant groups. In Hong Kong migrants tend to be thought of as belonging to one of several different significant groups. One of these is the “new migrants,” which is a term applied to recent immigrants from mainland China. Another is the “ethnic minorities,” which is usually understood to mean South Asians, particularly people of Indian, Pakistani, and Nepali descent. People who come to work as foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong households form another social grouping, and are primarily from the Philippines and Indonesia.
All of these groups face various social stigmas and prejudices. Mainland Chinese are characterized as unending swarms using up Hong Kong’s limited resources – “locust” is a common anti-mainlander slur in Cantonese – and stories about the rudeness and bad public behavior of mainland Chinese frequently make headlines in Hong Kong papers. South Asians have a long history in Hong Kong dating back to its earliest days, and thus many Hong Kong South Asians have been in the city for generations and are not actually “migrants” at all. However, this legacy is not known or is ignored by many Hong Kong Chinese. South Asians are often portrayed as poor and/or criminals who refuse to take part in mainstream Hong Kong society. Foreign domestic helpers face stringent legal restrictions on migration that differ from people in all other occupations and that contribute to a serious problem of domestic helper abuse.
Western “expatriates,” on the other hand, are usually portrayed positively, and their presence in Hong Kong is used as proof that Hong Kong is an “international” city. So perceptions about migrants are tied in with a lot of race and class based prejudices, as well as anxieties about Hong Kong’s status and future.

Many Westerners also move to Hong Kong because of their jobs. Do they face different expectations than Asian migrants that come to Hong Kong?

Kara Fleming: Yes, certainly, as I said above. It’s an issue of both race and class. Westerners, especially white and upper-class Westerners, are considered desirable foreigners who make Hong Kong seem more international; most other groups are considered problematic in various ways.

Mrs Lam, you study the patterns of Chinese migration within the Global South. China is seen as an economic powerhouse and had an impressive economic growth and change in the recent years. Why are people moving away and where are they moving to? And what influence does this migration have on the Chinese society?

Katy Lam: Many Chinese in the Global South are brought by Chinese companies or by turning themselves as migrant entrepreneurs. The starting point of this research is about understanding mobility – linkages of spatial and social mobility in the new Chinese migration in developing countries, particularly Africa and Southeast Asia, and how it should be articulated in the Chinese globalization and development context. Through my previous research on Chinese in Africa, I found a pattern of mobility paradox: ‘spatial  mobility is transformed to social mobility then is led to physical immobility’. Moving to Africa, Chinese experience social promotion during their migration process. But the social promotion is not easily to be transferred back to China, because migration social capital resources are localized. For keeping their social mobility and accumulating enough resources to be transferrable, they have to stay, which led to physical immobility, or bi-locality (back and forth between China and hosting country).1

Cantonese and English are both official languages in Hong Kong. How important is it to be fluent in both?

HK Residential (photo: Jonathan Leung under CC BY-SA 2.0)

HK Residential (photo: Jonathan Leung under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kara Fleming: Thanks Katy, she has done a great job of summing up my research and my arguments. As with migration, when it comes to language, it depends on who you are and what your social position is perceived to be. For the Hong Kong Chinese, English is said to be the most important language to know and plays a key role in determining university admissions and getting prestigious (and even many low-paying) jobs. Learning Cantonese is presented as obligatory for working-class South Asians, but optional for expatriates, and Western expatriates can usually get by just fine if they speak only English. However, I have argued that in all of these cases, language requirements are used to cover up social and racial inequality. So although speaking Cantonese and English are considered very important and of course both do have a great deal of practical benefits, neither language is actually at the root of social stratification, as is claimed by many in Hong Kong.

Katy Lam: A central question of Kara’s research is whether the emphasis on the Cantonese Language (the local spoken Chinese language in Hong Kong) as the key to successful “integration” of South Asians into Hong Kong society is actually justified, or whether it serves to hide or normalize underlying racial and class hierarchies. Those that are constructed as “ethnic minorities” such as South Asians, are supposed to assimilate to Hong Kong culture, mainly through language learning. But, as Kara points out, South Asians are at the same time “othered” as permanent foreigner, representing exotic cultures due to their non-East-Asian phenotype, even those who speak flawless Cantonese. Westerners, on the other hand, are not pressured to learn Cantonese, the fact that they are non-local and non-Cantonese speaking is constructed as a desirable fact making Hong Kong more “international”, “an Asian World city”
Thus, Kara argues that racial and class factors are overlooked, “integration” is constructed as a linguistic problem, and the responsibility for “integration” is placed on the minority, absolving other social groups in Hong Kong of any responsibility. She also pointed out the different valuation of English for various groups: For Elite groups (local and non-local), English skills are highly valued and placed above Cantonese skills. However, for non-elite groups, such as South Asians, English skills have little value, while Cantonese skills are positioned as a key factor.

  1. Some details can be found here: Lam, Katy N. (2015) “Social mobility of Chinese migration in Ghana: The making of Chinese entrepreneurs” (published in French: La mobilité sociale des migrants chinois au Ghana : « The making of Chinese entrepreneurs») in Entrepreneurs Africans et Chinois: Les impacts sociaux d’une rencontre particuliere, edited by K. Giese et L. Marfaing, Karthala, Paris. []

Gesche Schifferdecker

Gesche Schifferdecker works as a press officer with a focus on online communication at the Max Weber Stiftung. She is editor of various scientific Blogs (e.g. trafo.hypotheses.org and wwc.hypotheses.org) and organizes the "WeberWorldCafé".

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