In the past two days, renting an apartment in Hong Kong has made me experience first hand the notorious racism and discrimination that still prevails in the city. As a journalism graduate, and an upstanding citizen, I feel the need to write down this article.
I am a recent graduate from HKU, and was lucky enough to have found a good job in the field that I am interested in here in Hong Kong. I have been trying to escape from this city for various reasons, and I struggled with myself for a bit to make the decision to stay, after studying about all the systematic vices of this extreme capitalistic society in school and handing in my thesis about how post-colonialism and other non-class factors influence the life chances of people with different country of origin, skin color or race. I decided to press the reset button and start fresh again in the city, with the beginning of my career. However, my experiences renting a place in Wanchai yesterday shocked me deeply about how racism or discrimination could be so upfront, and at places I never expected would happen.
I first reached out to several real estate agents on “squarefoot.com”, which later on I found out that it is mostly for “Gwailos (white people)”. Most of the agents couldn’t figure out where I am really from because of my not so common “pinyin” name that they couldn’t pronounce. When I met them, they were all quite surprised that I am actually from Shenzhen, a city that merely means “cheap karaokes and erotic massages” to many Hong Kongers, right across the border in mainland China. Almost all of the agents and the landlords asked me immediately if I had lived abroad or have another citizenship, so that it would be easier for them to “negotiate with the landlord”. Does that mean that simply being a mainlander does not get you anything or you lose the right to bargain? I was puzzled but still went along with it.
I have to be fair, most of the agents I met were all very nice and polite, and tried their best to find the perfect option for me. But some of them would tell me about how they have had bad experiences with many South Asian tenants, and landlords now choose very carefully, and often would require to check your official employment contract, salary and background. And many South Asian tenants fail to meet the requirements because they could not provide proof of “proper employment”.
But then it came. I did not take the underlying discriminatory messages embedded in the tones of landlords and agents as a big deal, until one of the landlords told me out loud that she only rents to white people “no matter how much more you’ll pay”. The agent seemed to have expected this happening and said, “see? I warned you that this landlord only rents to white people. She wouldn’t even rent to locals, not to mention you mainlanders.” I was furious and asked her the reasons behind this unfair rejection, she simply gave me an absurd excuse that “white people cook less”.
Eventually, when I tried to negotiate for the agent commission, I received text messages from the agent saying, “Please kindly note that this is HONG KONG, NOT CHINA”.
I felt helpless when this happened, and I am sure if I try to be serious about the discriminatory acts of these landlords or agents, I would end up in vain. They could simply argue that I am not their most “ideal tenant” or that they want to rent a place to “someone they like”. And indeed, western expats do generally make significantly more than other races in Hong Kong. According to the Census published by Hong Kong government, the “whites” have the highest median of monthly salary with $59,000 for males and $30,000 for females. This is around 3.6 times higher than that of the entire male population ($16,500) and 3 times higher than the female population ($10,000)(both statistics originate from census released in 2011). It is perhaps safer for the landlords to assume that white people would bargain less because of their higher income, and pay the rent on time. But of course this is completely depending on the person and such stereotypical generalization is incorrect in all senses.
I did find a good deal in the end, but I wasn’t thrilled. I was very disappointed at what had happened. I did live abroad, studied overseas and travelled extensively in the world, and I have always been treated with respect. People tell me sometimes that it is difficult to face racism everyday living abroad, but I’ve never encountered such incidents to make me believe it still exists today. I never thought that I would have to face so much obvious or subtle discrimination against myself in this city that is technically “part of my own country” with a more capitalistic and democratic system. If Hong Kong still believes in democracy, human rights and social virtues, then there’s definitely a lot to learn and work on for everybody. In the end, it’s not just your human right, your freedom and your belief that matter.