LAST week, a video showing what appears to be a Chinese woman shouting racist comments in Cantonese to her Filipino seatmate on a bus in Hong Kong went viral on social media.
In the 3-minute-and-a-half long video, the Chinese woman repeatedly called Angela Sentillas Pasco a “smelly c—”, “fat” and “only good for farmwork” in the video Pasco posted on her Facebook later.
Pasco was accused to have “overstayed” and told to get off the bus and “go home”.
Posted by Angela Sentillas Pasco on Saturday, August 12, 2017
After nearly two minutes of this, other passengers confronted the Chinese woman and she calmed down. The video stops at what seems to be a happy and just ending for Pasco.
The same can’t be said for the reality Pasco lives in once she steps off the bus.
While Hong Kong likes to brand itself as “Asia’s world city”, a poll surveying the city dwellers’ acceptance towards other ethnic groups suggests otherwise.
Conducted by an advocate group for ethnic minorities, Unison, the 2012 poll found Hong Kongers hold less than favourable views towards those with darker skin. Of the 1,860 surveyed, less than half feel comfortable being friends or marrying Africans, Nepalese, Filipinos, Indians and Pakistani.
In contrast, more than three-quarters have no qualms having European, American, Japanese or Chinese friends and spouses.
The racism expressed in the bus incident, however, is “very blatant and direct”, though rare, as described by Hans J. Ladegaard, a Hong Kong Polytechnic University professor, who is also the author of the book ‘The Discourse of Powerlessness and Repression’ which examines the patterns and causes behind helper abuse in the country.
Subtler forms of racism are more common in Hong Kong, a situation Filipinos in the Asian financial hub is not exempt from, according to Nicola Constable, a sociocultural anthropologist who specialises on issues of migration and transnationalism in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Constable has heard such derogatory comments about Filipinos as far back as the 1980s.
“It is safe to say all Filipinos in Hong Kong have likely experienced more subtle racism in the form of condescending, rude or racist behaviour of some sort,” Constable wrote in an email to Asian Correspondent.
And while the bus outburst is unusual, it speaks of deeper problems brewing in Hong Kong’s society. Cases of workplace abuse of foreign domestic helpers persist, as do reports of locals finding it “unacceptable” to rent to migrants as well as of foreign workers falling to their death while cleaning windows.
“The fact people openly express racist sentiments, and that they apparently see no need to conceal or apologise for them, suggests it’s legitimate in the social environment to express such views,” Ladegaard said.
It is this “social environment” that permits the lady in the bus to launch her tirade thinking she could get away with it. While other passengers spoke up for Pasco, Ladegaard recounts another incident on a minibus where a Chinese woman hit a Filipino domestic helper on the head for talking too loudly on her mobile phone. This time, nobody said anything.
Although previously reluctant to address this issue, there are attempts by the Hong Kong government to remedy race relations on its soil. In 2008, a race discrimination ordinance outlawing any “discrimination, harassment and vilification, on the ground of race” was passed. There is also a statutory body, the Equal Opportunities Commission – which marked its 20th anniversary last year – tasked to “eliminate discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, disability, family status and race.”
Despite this, hateful views towards Filipinos persist, fuelled further by the 2010 Manila hostage crisis, where a Filipino police officer hijacked a tourist bus and opened fire after negotiations broke down. Eight Hong Kong citizens died and subsequent inquiries blamed the Philippines’ officials for their slow and bungled handling of the event.
As ties between the two countries became officially strained until three years later, so did the situation on the ground. Filipinos reported fearing retribution from Hong Kongers angry and grieving from the tragedy.
Beyond this event, Constable says there are other class and racial/ethnic factors at play as well, rooted in Hong Kongers’ belief other races and low-paying jobs are “inferior”. Some Chinese employers have been reported to think domestic workers should be grateful to them for providing jobs, and as such, not demand for their labour rights.
The situation is further exacerbated by the fact many Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong are college-educated and hold a middle-class status in the Philippines, while their employers may not be as educated or are struggling to maintain a middle-class status in the city.
“People who are disgruntled with society, often lash out at those they assume are socially beneath them, and who they assume are weaker.”
“This is easier for them to do than to criticise or attack those with power.”
For Ladegaard, the plight of Filipino domestic workers in the city-state is sad, considering the role they play in helping their employers accumulate wealth by allowing both parents to go out and work.
“They provide essential – and affordable – care for children and the elderly and therefore, really deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Ladegaard said.