Diversity: The Education Segregation in Hong Kong

Dr Theresa Cunanan calls for a more cohesive and coherent Chinese language curriculum for non-Chinese speaking students to kick-start Harbour Times’ Diversity series in collaboration with The Zubin Foundation.

(Government image)


Hong Kong has cornered itself by promulgating segregation in kindergartens, primary schools and secondary schools. This could have transpired unwittingly, but segregation is thriving well and unmanaged in the treatment of ethnically non-Chinese students in various areas of our education system.

It boils down to how they are labelled and how they are schooled. Whether we notice it or not, Hong Kong has a secret love affair with acronyms which reveals our knack for compartmentalising.

By labelling and compartmentalising, I am referring specifically to the segregation of non-Chinese children in Hong Kong who attend local schools which are mainly subsidised by government funds, as opposed to those who attend privately-funded international schools or the English Schools Foundation.

Up to this point, I have painfully tried to avoid using the term, ethnic minorities, for that is how children in Hong Kong of Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan (the list goes on) descent are pigeon-holed. Other school age children who do not share a similar complexion but not ethnically Chinese either are called international students.

Ethnic minorities have become synonymous with being acquiescent, chronic and taxing. The word minority renders being lesser, and that can have far-reaching effects for a child with brown skin in Hong Kong. It is not easy to grow up and be empowered if we have been labelled a minority throughout our formative years at school. The term is socially contrived and it not only enforces social marginalisation, but also perpetuates segregation. Being referred to as ethnic minorities is hard to ignore because the term can be found everywhere; in the local newspapers, talk shows, dissertations, the Policy Address and dismally, in this article as well.

My favorite acronym is NCS which stands for non-Chinese speaking student. NCS is an evolved adjective unique to Hong Kong which is used to describe students who cannot read, write or speak Chinese. It is also the blanket term that herds all ethnic minorities (there, I said it again) under one haven for schooling convenience. On occasional jaded lapses while writing, I would wonder if there were students in respective places who were NVS, non-Vulcan speaking or maybe NKS, non-Kryptonian speaking. But those are minority languages. Let’s not get carried away.

In a global movement led by UNESCO, politicians and education strategists collaborated to form the Dakar Framework for Action in 2000 at the World Education Forum. It called upon education leaders to implement Education for All and one of the issues addressed was to make education for children both inclusive and equitable. Since 2000, many of the countries that participated at the Forum declared that they had increased spending on education.

These governments recognised the importance of measuring learning outcomes, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills. Those nations harnessed their resources to offer equitable access to appropriate learning.

In contrast, back home in Hong Kong, we have also been trying to ensure that all children who grow up here and consider Hong Kong their home, become functionally literate in Chinese through equitable access to learning. Thus to achieve this, the Education Bureau wove together a start-up curriculum for non-Chinese students to earn qualifications that are sufficient to serve as higher education entrance requirements.

However, these start-up curricula are shoddy attempts at inclusive education in terms of bringing second language learners to literacy. For example, the Applied Learning Chinese course is a quick-fix for older students to acquire qualifications on paper. These solutions are tenable but only in the short-term. Based on that policy, 350 hours of lessons are supposed to enable students to cope with the demands of daily communication. However, it is often the case that students cannot write an email or read a newspaper article, let alone read a menu at a local cha chaan teng.*

Another example of a warped form of inclusive education manifests itself in the ‘School-Based Support Scheme Grant for Schools with Intake of Newly Arrived (and non-Chinese speaking) Children’. This scheme offers schools HK$3597 for every non-Chinese primary student it accepts and HK$5331 for every non-Chinese secondary student. These are piecemeal incentives. Firstly, the block funds can easily be misdirected and secondly, the funding does not guarantee that the non-Chinese students are directly benefitting from it.

Here’s what can happen. If a school is in danger of closing down due to poor enrollment, the above Scheme is the lesser of two evils which the School Head can resort to. Instead of being axed, the school could accept more non-Chinese students and apply for the grant. It’s a win-win situation. However, the grant is not necessarily put into second language teaching for the non-Chinese students.

Here’s how it gets more complex. The more non-Chinese students are enrolled into that school, the likelier the Chinese students are going to pull out of that school. Eventually, there is an imbalance in the ratio of Chinese to non-Chinese students. The result? An exodus of Chinese students, rendering the school segregated. Of course, that school did not plan on serving the non-Chinese community exclusively. Let’s face it, Hong Kong is xenophobic, but only to the non-whites. Many people are simply too polite to admit it.

But here’s a thought experiment: Chinese as a Second Language curriculum for all non-Chinese students should be implemented by the Education Bureau as a mandatory “through-train” programme. It should not be sourced out for tendering procedures only to be fragmented into Chinese courses targeted at a particular year group.

Here’s what I think, this Chinese as a Second Language “through-train” curriculum should have a clear framework for 4 to 5 levels of Chinese language acquisition as a child progresses from kindergarten to secondary school. If the Education Bureau can design a curriculum for

Liberal Studies or Literature in English, it can certainly pull in resources to design a curriculum for Chinese as a Second Language. Money invested in this manner is better than investing in piece-meal Chinese courses. Surely, although fewer in numbers as opposed to their Chinese counterparts, our non-Chinese students and their families are assets because they have so much cultural capital to offer. Hong Kong does not need to look far to capitalise on diversity.

All the Education Bureau needs to do is to take full accountability in developing a cohesive and coherent “through-train” Chinese language curriculum to equip non-Chinese students so that they can reach capstone in whichever school they wish to enroll in and become functionally literate as future working adults.

Here’s another idea: Rather than dishing out money for every Nepalese or Filipino student that enrolls into a local school, the monetary incentive ought to be shifted toward a different direction, but still aimed at benefitting the school. Instead, we can mandate fixed ratios of Chinese to non-Chinese student intakes. 80/20, 70/30 or 51/49. In other words, an extra stipend will be awarded to schools for sustaining an international student population alongside Chinese integration. The nearer they are to being equal in percentage, the higher the stipend. This is not yet well-thought out of course, but it is better than fostering an atmosphere of collecting students like refugees of the education system.

In 2010, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Development put forward ‘The New Era of Infrastructure Development in Hong Kong’. The commercial viability was attractive because infrastructure could be visualised in buildings, bridges and roads. But people are also infrastructure. More importantly, students, both Chinese and non-Chinese are the ones who will be the pillars of tomorrow. If Hong Kong can take pragmatic steps into bringing to the forefront the diverse human infrastructure within our ethnographic context, then we can redeem and rebrand ourselves again as a global city.

The Secretary for Development in 2010 is now the Chief Executive. Maybe it is time for the next ‘New Era of Infrastructure Development in Hong Kong.’

*cha chaan teng is a transliteration of the Chinese words, “tea restaurant” which is the go-to place for any meal of the day in Hong Kong.

(Printer – R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)

Contributing Authors

Theresa Cunanan

Dr Theresa Cunanan is Senior Lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, School of Continuing Education. In 1964, her parents came from the Philippines and made Hong Kong their home. Theresa is part of the Diversity List endorsed by the Zubin Foundation.