As the phone line went silent, Kaur had a sinking feeling.
She had just revealed to the property agent on the other end that her family was Indian.
After a pause of a few seconds, the agent said: “I’m sorry, the landlord doesn’t want to rent to non-Chinese … as they would make the place smell, and neighbours would complain.”
Since February, the 37-year-old office worker, who only wants to be identified as Kaur, has been trying to find a bigger flat at a rental price of up to HK$10,000 a month for her 64-year-old mother, her younger brother and his wife.
The trio, all permanent residents in the city, now live in a 170 sq ft cubicle on the sixth floor of a dingy To Kwa Wan walk-up building. They pay HK$5,500 a month and share the kitchen and bathroom with another family.
They are among roughly 27,000 Hongkongers from ethnic minorities – excluding those working as domestic helpers – living in cheap partitioned flats, where hygiene is suspect and fire safety risks are high.
The latest census figures reveal that a much larger proportion of Hong Kong’s ethnic minority population lives in such homes compared to the city’s majority Chinese population, even though their poverty rates are similar.
For example, 26 per cent of South Asians and 19 per cent of Filipinos lived in poverty in 2016, compared to 20 per cent of the city’s overall population. But in the same year, 17 per cent of South Asians and 21 per cent of Filipinos lived in subdivided homes, much higher than the citywide proportion of 3 per cent.
While the poor can resort to low-rent public housing, families and property agents say minorities left in the private market face an uphill battle due to discrimination and stereotypes. This happens even among those with better incomes.
Their plight is another facet of the grim reality Hongkongers face in the world’s most expensive property market.
But racial discrimination in housing is a rarely discussed subject in a city where 92 per cent of 7.3 million residents are Chinese.
The only option: leftover flats with no lifts
Half of Hong Kong’s 584,000 residents classified as ethnic minorities are domestic workers and are regarded as non-permanent settlers.
Among the rest, about 70 per cent, or 170,000, are new immigrants or long-term residents, either of South Asian and Southeast Asian descent or from less developed countries.
Social worker Ansah Majeed Malik said many ethnic minority households had four or more people and most often, the husband was the only breadwinner.
“It’s not hard to imagine how they would struggle in Hong Kong,” said Malik, who is from Caritas Community Centre’s Kowloon branch and is the city’s first woman of Pakistani descent to be registered as a social worker.
Two years ago, a government survey showed that, before handouts, one in four ethnic minority individuals lived below the poverty line.
The city’s average poverty rate increased by 1.5 per cent from 2011 to 2016 but for minorities who were not white, Japanese or South Korean, the figure spiked dramatically by 16 per cent.
While waiting in the notoriously long queue for public rental housing, the families often prefer staying in cheap private flats.
But even if those with stable jobs and better incomes – such as Kaur’s food delivery driver brother and his office worker wife – were willing to spend more, they were not likely to get a bigger flat of their choice, Malik said.
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Two property agents in To Kwa Wan, a low-income and culturally diverse neighbourhood, confirmed that landlords and agents they knew often discriminated against ethnic minority tenants.
The first had been helping non-Chinese house hunters but wanted to remain anonymous in case landlords thought he catered only to the group.
He said Kaur’s brother’s HK$10,000 budget was enough for a flat of at least 300 sq ft in a building with a lift – but only if the tenant was Chinese.
“Most landlords wouldn’t want to rent to ethnic minorities. Even fewer would rent flats in buildings with lifts to them,” he said.
From his experience, the easiest flats to get for ethnic minority tenants were shabbily-furnished subdivided units in old walk-ups.
“Nobody else wants these flats anyway, so it’s easier to persuade landlords to rent to non-Chinese,” he said.
The agent said landlords’ reluctance to rent to certain non-Chinese groups boiled down to negative stereotypes of such tenants not paying rent on time, discarding garbage irresponsibly and blocking corridors with furniture.
He said this behaviour was more common among low-income residents, regardless of ethnicity.
But, he added, the most common complaint from landlords was the “strong smell of curry” from flats rented to non-Chinese tenants. Neighbours often grumbled about the smell, he said.
“Strictly speaking, this attitude is of course discrimination, but if you want people to respect you, you should first follow the norms of neighbourly behaviour,” he said.
“I think non-Chinese are also used to it.”
Hui Kwok-sum, whose property agency is in To Kwa Wan, estimated about 60 per cent of the landlords he had come across refused to rent to ethnic minority tenants, no matter how much they were willing to pay.
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A vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty
The adverse effects of living in subdivided housing have been well documented.
“The elderly and children suffer more from substandard living conditions,” Malik said.
She explained that poor hygiene, ventilation and lighting would harm the physical and mental growth of children and the health of older people. Concern groups have also pointed to how substandard housing affected academic performance.
Past studies brought to light cases of children losing sleep because of bedbugs and having no place to do their homework.
A 2016 study by the Hong Kong Chiropractic College Foundation found 80 per cent of 142 primary pupils living in subdivided housing developed spine problems.
With discrimination comes segregation, Malik added.
In some buildings, ethnic minority tenants are clustered on specific floors, living apart from their Chinese neighbours. They are also over-represented in certain districts, such as Yau Tsim Mong, Yuen Long and Kowloon City.
An agent Kaur spoke to told her he could only look for available flats on a higher floor of a building “where the whole floor is occupied by non-Chinese”.
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Malik said this made integration even more difficult.
“It’s like a subdivided society as well,” she said.
Sociologist Eric Fong Wai-ching cited several negative effects resulting from poor integration of minority communities with a majority group. A lack of communication and interaction would further prejudices and foment misunderstandings, he said.
The immigration expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong added that a combination of growing up poor and segregated from the larger community could lead to a vicious “cycle of poverty” – where youths were left without role models, adults lacked diverse social networks to build their careers, and the marginalised group as a whole developed their own culture that might not fit into the mainstream.
Malik said Hong Kong’s future would be thrown into jeopardy if this scenario came to pass. Hong Kong was an ageing society with a low birth rate, except within ethnic minority communities. In the five years from 2011 to 2016, the ethnic minority population increased by 6 per cent, while overall population growth was just 0.5 per cent.
“We call Hong Kong our home. Our upcoming generations are the future of Hong Kong. We don’t want our future to be one of poverty,” she stressed.
Fong pointed out that migrants from mainland China – 150 are allowed to become residents every day – could also boost the city’s population.
But according equal opportunities and resources to ethnic minorities was important to build a healthy society, he said.
Ensuring equal treatment
The unconscious and institutionalised discrimination Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities face is something the government and community agencies are well aware of, and small improvements have been made.
For instance, the government has pledged more funding for Chinese language training in schools so that minority children will find it easier to go to university and secure jobs. Chinese language requirements for specific public sector jobs have been lowered or removed.
The Race Discrimination Ordinance, in force for the last eight years, sets out disciplinary action such as fines and licence revocations against property agents who do not treat ethnic minority customers fairly.
But unequal treatment seems to have persisted, especially in the private flat rental market.
A study by the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in September 2016 said many ethnic minorities considered discrimination in the property and financial sectors “most critical and intolerable … as these services would definitely affect their basic living”.
The same study though found that most of them would not complain for fear of being labelled “troublemakers”, while others were not aware of channels for filing complaints.
An EOC spokesman said the commission received four complaints under the ordinance related to flat renting between 2009 and last year, while the Estate Agents Authority said it had no record of any such complaints against agents.
To increase awareness of the ordinance, the commission said it had distributed leaflets translated into seven languages to improve tenants’ knowledge of their rights, and had educated agents and landlords on the law.
According to Phyllis Cheung Fung-mei, executive director of minority advocacy group Unison, the ordinance had deterred ethnic minorities from speaking up.
This was because they had to prove that discrimination did indeed occur, unlike in countries such as Britain and Australia, where once victims put forth facts from which discrimination could be presumed, the burden of proving otherwise fell on the alleged perpetrator.
Two years ago, the EOC submitted 27 suggestions to the government to strengthen the ordinance, including shifting the burden of proof, but the government indicated it was only interested in nine less controversial suggestions, including a law to protect service providers from racial harassment.
The government has said it will table the nine amendments at the Legislative Council this year, while the EOC spokesman said it would continue to encourage it to adopt the rest of the suggestions.
Meanwhile, Malik’s NGO, like other community groups, has been holding cultural activities to encourage bonding between residents of different ethnic groups.
Asked what the district councils – which decide how to use government funds for local-level improvements and coordinating community initiatives – could do, Yeung Chun-yu, a Kowloon City District Council member, said there should be neighbourhood committees empowered to intervene in “building management matters and community conflict”.
Examples of conflict would include instances of agents and landlords refusing to rent to people because of their ethnicity, he said, adding that if mediation failed, the committees could help victims start official complaint procedures.
Change can not come soon enough for Kaur.
On a humid spring weekday last month, she spent nine hours traipsing from To Kwa Wan to Hung Hom, visiting every property agency she came across.
She fretted about her mother, who has knee problems and was recovering from surgery on her uterus.
“She can’t possibly climb up and down six flights of stairs every day. So she hasn’t gone outside for two weeks now,” she said.
Some agents waved her away before she could even set foot in their offices. A few said they would call her back.
“But they never do,” Kaur said as dusk fell and she returned to her public rental flat where she lives with her husband, her mother-in-law and two sons.
“I’m really unhappy. I know the agents have flats I want. But they just won’t give them to me.”