Disenfranchised: Education for non-Chinese-speaking children in Hong Kong

A real ‘World City’ values cultural diversity.  Xaviera Artaza asks if Hong Kong fits the bill.

Photo: Minorities took part in the July 1st march, demanding better education for their children. (Credit: Ashley Kong)


For those trying to help ethnic minority students succeed in Hong Kong, the government is still failing, but not for lack of effort. A toxic mix of society-wide discrimination, a confusion between integration and assimilation and administrators just not getting it, suggests Hong Kong hasn’t cracked the code on helping minority students succeed as adults.

Integration execution

The government has pledged to enhance education support for ethnic minorities (EMs) in Hong Kong in the hope of helping them integrate more easily. In the 2014 Policy Address, the Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) framework was introduced. A subsidy scheme was founded as well for Non-Chinese Speaking (NCS) students sitting Chinese examinations under other approved, internationally recognized alternatives for admission into higher education.

In this year’s policy address, the government promised to provide more support and teaching materials for the CSL framework. There will be additional funding for schools implementing the framework as well, to create an “inclusive learning environment” in schools.

“If you ask the government they would say it is all rosy”

According to the Education Bureau (EDB), NCS students are encouraged to study in the local curriculum. It also claims to have placed “various support measures” for NCS to help them adapt to the local educational system.  To be fair, these programmes have only recently been announced and take years to have an impact on a broad societal issue.

As always for government programmes, sceptics abound as to the efficacy of future and past programmes.

Unison diverges

According to Ms Holing Yip, research officer of Unison, the government’s efforts are not truly giving an advantage the EMs communities due to a lack of communication between schools and government. Unison is an NGO advocating EM rights and racial harmony in Hong Kong.

“If you ask the government they would say it is all rosy,” she says.

Although NCS students are given access to alternative Chinese qualifications such as the GCSE, GCE and IGCSE, that does not guarantee university admissions because their Chinese skills are not up to the local standard. After all, switching to another qualification does not actually improve EMs’ Chinese proficiency — and therein lies the real problem.

It’s the language

“Chinese [courses in other qualifications] can supposedly be an alternative to the qualifications of HKDSE Chinese but […] schools didn’t get the memo yet,” Ms Yip explains. “[They] rejected [NCS] students […] because they thought they weren’t eligible.”

Yip pointed out that some local university programmes do not accept graduates who have done Chinese courses in alternative curricula, despite completing other courses in the local system.

“Most university degree programs will accept the alternative Chinese, but not all though. Things like Music, Applied Mathematics CUHK (Chinese University of Hong Kong) don’t accept alternative Chinese [credentials],” she explains.

She suggested that the government is becoming less transparent and responsive than before, possibly trying to avoid criticism by shutting down public access to official statistics. “If you don’t know, you can’t do anything about it,” she says.

Chinese Hongkonger or ‘World City’ Hong Konger

Most integration policies carried out by the SAR government focus on helping EMs learn the Chinese language. Mr Dev Raj Rai, Public Relation Officer at Pat Heung Central Primary school and journalist for Nepali Online Radio and Alopalo, challenged the government’s implicit message that only by learning Chinese can one genuinely become part of the Hong Kong society.

“They think I want soft drink, they just give me Coke, they never ask me would you like to choose Coke or Fanta or Sprite or Pepsi,” he remarks. “At least you can ask what I want because I’m also a resident of Hong Kong.”

Dev Raj Rai stands proud next to his school, Pat Heung Central Primary School.

Dev Raj Rai stands proud next to his school, Pat Heung Central Primary School.

In addition, he believes that Hong Kong education should prepare children not only for the local community, but for the bigger world. In his view, the new CSL framework would only narrow down the chances for EM students to attend university.

“Chinese as a Second Language education will not solve all educational problems currently faced by EMs students,” he says. “[With] Chinese, they can survive in Hong Kong, [but with] English you can go everywhere.”

Not like us

Yip points out that low racial sensitivity is a problem in Hong Kong. EMs  are often unintentionally excluded from the rest of the community due to difference in cultural practices.

“They think I want soft drink, they just give me Coke, they never ask me would you like to choose Coke or Fanta or Sprite or Pepsi. At least you can ask what I want because I’m also a resident of Hong Kong.”

“We really feel that we need more sensitivity in schools,” she remarks. “[In] schools [which] hold Christmas parties, the teachers would order food. [There are] Muslim students who are Halal and [the teachers] ask ‘What are we going to do with them?’ There are many things you can do, you can ask them to bring food and share a culture.”

According to her, EM parents often come to Unison and express their frustration with the local teachers’ feedback.

“Teachers are stigmatising the children […] in parent-teacher conferences, ‘Your child is like that but I think that is your culture,’” she quotes. “It is often the teachers stereotyping the students, rather the students [really] doing that behaviour.”

According to Rai, many NCS students experienced unfair treatment by teachers and school administrations:

“For example, the teacher might come in [and] there are Indian or Nepalese [in the classroom]. Their [preconceptions of the EM students] are ‘Naughty’ or ‘Hyperactive’” he explains, “The teacher already have the [preconception that] ‘EMs [are] naughty.’ How can they teach?”

The government has been trying to create a fair environment for NCS students, but like mainstream society, the officials do not seem to be able to grasp what exactly is needed.

“The children, once they are allocated in a Chinese as the Medium of Instruction (CMI) school, they are put aside in a corner [in the classroom],” Rai says.

According to Mr Limbu Krishnarj, team leader of the Hong Kong Integrated Nepalese Society, many Nepalese graduates in Hong Kong cannot find a suitable job due to a lack of connections with industries other than those practised by their parents such as security, hairdressing, and construction. The community lives in the safety of the known, usually repeating the career paths of their family relatives.

The lack of English information for EM could be a reason for them to not to be able to make use of government services.

“His father [works] in construction site, mother [works] in salons. [Their] mentality is in the same area. They try to find a job their mother has done, or their father has done,” he says.

And that is why EMs in Hong Kong are often caught in the middle of cross-generational poverty.

The forgotten

EMs ranging from Pakistani, Indians, Nepali and Africans constitute 5% of Hong Kong’s population. Some of them have lived in Hong Kong for generations. Many of the Nepalese are born and raised here in Hong Kong.

“We are all Hong Kong residents because of our parents, all Nepalese fathers served in the British army. Almost all [are] born here, and get married,” comments Mr Krishnarj.

However, Mr Rai, himself a Hong Kong-born Nepali, said that their history and contribution to the city cannot be found in a textbook or museum anywhere in Hong Kong.

“[We] have done something good for this country, this place, but they never mention about this positive aspect. You cannot find [the history]. At the same time, you cannot find any context, anything. You cannot learn anything [about EM history] in the textbook.”

Like the rest of the Hong Kong society, EM children are directly subjected to growing competition in an ever-changing world. They are perhaps even more vulnerable as many of them are doubly marginalised by both the Hong Kong society and their countries of origin homeland.

“If I don’t speak Urdu, or Cantonese, where am I from? Where do I belong?” asks Rai.

The issue of identity crisis has sparked a debate among NGOs and individuals, who try to raise awareness and bring change, not only in government, but in society itself. The question of whether government should aim to assimilate ethnic minorities is thus raised.

“The government[‘s] aim is assimilation,” Rai says. He believes that instead of the government integrating EMs, they are removing their identity and uniqueness. “Assimilation [to them] means […] making us Chinese. They want to make everyone Chinese, so it is very harmful for Hong Kong as well,” he explains.

“I want my children to be the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Can they?”

Hong Kong is depicted as Asia’s World City. However, if the government aim is assimilation, as Mr Rai suggests, then Hong Kong’s image of a diversely populated world city rings hollow, and it loses out on the richness of experience and perspective that diversity brings.

Mr Krishnarj shares the same view. “From my point of view, the Hong Kong government trie to force [the integration of] EM people.”

The EMs of Hong Kong are divided on the issue. Some, like Rai and Krishnarj, believe in an approach where each person and culture is encouraged to preserve its own identity in a larger, cohesive picture. Others, such as Unison, focus on integration policies such as the CSL framework, believing these programmes should be further developed and funded by the government. For now, they remain a framework, lacking the development that would make them full-blown, effective, programmes.

“[Full development would mean designing and delivering] teacher training, teaching material and school support,” Yip remarks. She believes that the government should use their funding to design academic material for the framework, which would benefit NCS students.

Future plans

Both Unison and the Nepalese community have a common goal for the near future: Hong Kong government action.

For now, many members in the EMs community feel that supportive policies are minimal and do not really address their needs. Rai thinks equal opportunities for all races in Hong Kong has not yet happened.

“I want my children to be the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Can they?” he asks.

Rai believes that their voices are not really being heard. Being allowed to practise their cultural customs does not adequately constitute diversity. He believes a multicultural approach in policy, curriculum and support services is the way forward.

“They let us dance but never respect our culture, they just think diversity means dancing and singing. No. It’s something else, in education,” he says.

HT contacted EDB for this year’s figures on the Secondary School Places Allocation System, but the Bureau stated that they simply did not have the analysis on the amount of Non-Chinese Speaking students in the system and that only general figures can be accessed at this time.

Qualifications explained
GCSE

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations are an international qualification awarded to specific subjects, offered by Pearson Edexcel. Edexcel is an International British education and examination board. Not good enough for university.

iGCSE

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (iGCSE) examinations are the internationally used curriculum, equivalent to the GCSE to prepare students for the International Baccalaureate, A Levels or the International Diploma. Normally finished by 16 years old to prep for pre-university exams and courses.


GCE

The General Certificate of Education examination (GCE) is similar to the previous qualifications however is composed of three levels: Ordinary Level (O-level), Advanced Level (A-level) and most recently Advanced Subsidiary Level (AS-level). These qualify students for university.


HKDSE

The Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) is an academic qualification offered by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. It is the only public examination introduced in Hong Kong secondary schools, replacing the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination. This qualifies students for university. However, some local universities demand Chinese competency in this scheme, and EMs often take other languages, disqualifying them for local universities.

Government efforts and Funding Schemes

Since 2008, the government has introduced laws to protect ethnic minorities, such as the Racial Discrimination Ordinance which aims to stop discrimination based on the ground of his/her race.

In the 2014 Policy Address, various support measures were addressed. The government would extend community outreach to EM communities through the setup of new service centres to provide classes, counselling and integration, and to ensure equal jobs opportunities for EMs by strengthening public awareness  of racial sensitivity.

This included the Home Affairs Department recruiting five additional staff members who are experienced in EM language and culture, and all Land Department job centres to have special counters to provide job referrals to EMs. Furthermore, EMs were ensured access to public health services without being denied as a result of a language barrier.

In this year’s policy address, in addition to the Chinese as a Second Language framework and the increased funding to schools, the government also implemented the Professional Enhancement Grant Scheme which would provide professional training and support for teachers.

The Education Bureau (EDB) are providing services such as the “Initiation” and “Induction” programme which gives a platform of newly arrived children, providing real classroom experience to enhance their Chinese and English language standards and adjust to local society.

Contributing Authors

Xaviera Artaza
Intern Journalist at Harbour Times

Xaviera attends West Island School, class of 2017. She is the daughter of Mario Ignacio Artaza, who was also a journalist before becoming a diplomat for Chile. She is aspiring to become a professional journalist.

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