Tragedy and Farce in Hong Kong

Two disparate incidents, one involving tragedy the questionable death at the hands of a police of a Hong Kong-born Nepali resident, and the other a farce that started with a misunderstood humor column, illustrate just how much of a gap exists between the city’s largely Chinese citizens and its minorities.

The tragedy involves Ram Limbu, an apparently mentally unstable Nepali man who was shot dead at point blank range by a policeman who first unloaded a full can of pepper spray on him over allegations he had urinated in a public place. Allegedly Limbu attacked the policeman with an old chair. The farce concerns a standoff between the Filipino government which has declared a humor columnist persona non grata over a tongue-in-cheek column actually meant to poke fun at Hong Kong – not the Philippines.

The tragedy culminated last Sunday in an almost unprecedented display of solidarity among minority groups when 3,000 people attended a demonstration demanding an independent inquiry into the shooting to death of Limbu 12 days previously. Organized by Hong Kong Nepalese Federation the demonstration attracted residents of Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and Indonesian origin and some sympathetic local Chinese, including the Civic Party’s representative in West Kowloon where many Nepalese live, and Hong Kong Unison, a multi-racial community group.

Racial discrimination is now illegal in Hong Kong. But changing the attitudes of the police force and much of the media will be a long process. Limbu was apparently mentally unwell and living rough in a small patch of woodland in the heart of Kowloon. The police alleged that a "South Asian man" attacked the officer with an old chair. Allegedly to deter the assault with a baton and a full can of pepper spray, the policeman fired two shots at the Nepali supposedly in self-defense. One killed him. The policeman reportedly sustained minor injuries.

The media almost all assumed that the death of a South Asian who, it was insinuated, was probably an illegal immigrant, was of no great consequence. The shooting got far less coverage than the story of a whale lost in Hong Kong waters or the latest in the long series of minor food safety stories. None of the media disputed the official claim that the policeman was justified in his shoot-to-kill response. The South China Morning Post also quoted police sources as claiming that the man had probably been unable to understand what the policeman said to him in Cantonese. The media didn’t stop to ask how an old chair could be a deadly weapon, or why the policeman could not have withdrawn and called for help.

It did not need much investigative sense to wonder how anyone could continue an assault with an old chair in the face of whole can of pepper spray – a spray used to great effect by Hong Kong police in the past against demo-hardened Korean farmers. And, far from being an illegal immigrant or transient South Asian worker, the victim was a locally-born Nepali with a permanent identity card and right of abode in the territory. In which case he should have had little to fear even if he were urinating illegally. It is also unlikely that a locally-born Nepali would not be able understand basic Cantonese.

It is certain that if the police had killed a mainland illegal immigrant in this manner there would have been an uproar, and an even greater one had the dead man been Hong Kong permanent resident. Imagine the local uproar about racism in Canada had a legal Hong Kong immigrant to been shot dead in similar fashion by a white policeman in Vancouver.

But this is Hong Kong, where the level of disdain for brown Asians, particularly those from South Asia but also including Indonesians and Filipinos, is evident at many levels of society, including some top level officials with an innate belief in Han superiority.

The event so shocked the large Nepali community, mostly locally born descendants of Gurkha troops who served with the British army, that this normally quiescent and disorganized group, who mostly earn very modest livings as security guards, was able to pull off the March 29 demonstration – and finally get some coverage from the local media. Publicity for it was helped by the arrival from Britain of Ram Limbu’s brother and later that of his wife and daughter.

That the Nepalis were joined by a significant number of local Chinese was evidence that the assumptions of the mainstream media about Hong Kong citizens’ views of South Asians may not be entirely justified. An educated population aware of Chinese positions as minorities in many countries and noting the progress of non-whites in some western countries see local racial chauvinism as socially backward. Hong Kong’s Chinese underclass too may feel a common identity with their fellow low-paid workers.

But the police force may have a long way to go. Unlike many other world-class cities, includikng, for instance, Singapore, Hong Kong has failed to recruit from locally-born South Asian groups, even though they are mostly descended either from military or police personnel who served with the British.

However, now that public awareness of this case been raised, the police will be under pressure to come up with a comprehensive investigation for the coroner’s court. And if the coroner does not order an inquest, expect more demonstrations by perturbed minorities.

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The Farce

The farce, or to be more precise a serious loss of humor, is between a Filipino government and local community unable to appreciate satire or to distinguish between friend and foe. Hong Kong’s Chip Tsao, a witty and irreverent writer with a superb command of English, had written in his aptly named "Politically Incorrect" column in the weekly HK Magazine an article entitled The War at Home, a tongue in cheek piece about local Chinese pretensions to patriotism.

It included the following:

"Manila has just claimed sovereignty over the scattered rocks in the South China Sea called the Spratly islands, complete with a blatant threat from its congress to send gunboats to the South China Sea to defend the islands from China if necessary. This is beyond reproach. Why? Because there are more than 130,000 Filipina maids working for HK$3,580 (a month) in Hong Kong. As a nation of servants, you don’t flex your muscles at your master from whom you earn most of your bread and butter.

"As a patriotic Chinese man, the news has made my blood boil. I summoned Louisa my domestic assistant who holds a degree in international politics from the University of Manila, hung a map on the wall and gave her a harsh lecture. I sternly warned her that if she wants her wages increased next year she had better tell every one of her compatriots in Statue Square on Sunday that the entirety of the Spratly Islands belongs to China.

"Grimly, I told her that if war breaks out between the Philippines and China I would have to send her straight home for I would not risk the crime of treason by harboring an enemy of the state by paying her to wash my toilet and clean my windows…

"Some of my friends have already told me that they have declared a state of emergency at home. Their maids have been made to shout "China, Madam/Sir" whenever they hear the world "Spratly…"

Someone with limited knowledge of English could be forgiven for taking this literally. But to anyone with both a modest command of the language and a slight knowledge of Hong Kong – and most Filipinos have both – should have instantly realized that this was a barb aimed at Hong Kong Chinese claims to patriotism and at their treatment of Filipina domestic helpers.

But so defensive have the Philippine government and the local community become about the nation’s role as supplier of domestic help to the world that they immediately expressed outrage. Philippine Immigration Commissioner Marcelino Libanan announced a ban on Tsao visiting the country and local representatives expressed outrage. Even the bureaucrats of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission joined the bandwagon of the dumb by saying the language was derogatory and "inappropriate for racial harmony". Tsao was forced to issue a groveling apology saying he had been misunderstood.

Indeed despite this he continued to be misunderstood by the secretary general of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, Eman Villanueva, who insisted in the face of reason that it was not satire.

Of course any reference to their role as domestic helpers is naturally as sensitive for the government as for Philippine nationals. But they do not help their cause when they make a fuss over an article by a journalist known for poking fun at Chinese pretensions and assumptions. A former editor of the now defunct Eastern Express, Tsao has a reputation for supporting the underdog. He is one of the few local journalists who is willing to address the issues of local discrimination against brown Asians, most of whom are domestic helpers or construction workers.

Instead of Tsao’s joke being on the local Chinese maid-employing middle class, those now being laughed at in Hong Kong and beyond are the Filipinos and their government.

In any case, Hong Kong’s minority population may be set to shrink a little as a result of a British decision to allow those left stateless at the time of the 1997 handover to move to Britain. Believed to number about 1,000, they are mostly of south Asian origin. They currently hold British National (Overseas) passports which enable them to travel but not to live in Britain. However, many may elect to stay in Hong Kong.