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Being Black in Hong Kong

Nigerian writer and creative Christopher Onoja explains what it’s like to be Black in Hong Kong.

Like many new arrivals, when Christopher Onoja first moved from Russia to Hong Kong in 2017, he was awestruck by the city’s bright neon signage and towering skyscrapers. “Hong Kong is the most international city I’ve lived in,” says the 27-year old Nigerian creative and founder of hip-hop events platform Mama Told Me

Yet for all its worldly, cosmopolitan qualities, Onoja quickly came to realise that Hong Kong could do much more in its acceptance of non-white foreigners. “Being Black is associated with negativity, I think that’s the problem in [Hong Kong] culture,” says Onoja, who also teaches film studies and drama at local schools. For instance, Onoja says Hongkongers may believe stereotypes about Black people, in their unfair, yet frequent portrayal as drug dealers and gang members in mainstream American culture and Hollywood cinema.

Hong Kong’s racial dynamics are complex and fraught, due to the city’s colonial legacy under British rule. In addition, unspoken class hierarchies – a byproduct of both Hong Kong’s lengthy history as a trade hub and current status as a global commercial and finance centre – further complicate the issue. As a result, Hong Kong’s multiculturalism advocates believe the city still has a long way to go when it comes to the treatment of darker-skinned foreigners and African refugees. 

This summer, Onoja took part in Black in Asia, an anthology featuring stories by Black writers about their experiences living in Asia, conceptualised to honour the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism in the US. The movement, which swept across the country in July, has also sparked solidarity around Asia, with rallies taking place in Tokyo, Seoul and Australia this summer.

Published by Spill Stories, an Instagram-based social justice-themed storytelling platform, Black in Asia aims to provide insights into the experiences of Black individuals across the region and raise awareness regarding diversity and Black experiences in Asia. Spill Stories founder Tiffany Huang says it can be difficult to find literature on racial justice in Asia and she wanted to add to the conversation. 

“Black people living in Asia do not get much positive representation in the media, [and] people local to Asia usually do not have much exposure to Black people,” she says. “I hope people in Asia who regularly wouldn’t come into contact with Black people read [this book] and learn something new.”

Ariana speaks with Onoja about life in Hong Kong and the reality of living abroad as a person of colour (POC). 

Christopher Onoja. Credit: Christopher Onoja.
Christopher Onoja. Credit: Christopher Onoja.

ON FIRST IMPRESSIONS

“I was born in Zimbabwe. My dad is a Nigerian diplomat. Every four years, he moves to a different country. 

Before I graduated from university, I would move with him every time. I have lived in a total of nine countries and regions, including Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Gambia, Russia and Hong Kong since I was born. 

When I finished high school, my dad was serving in Russia. I decided to stick with him, so I ended up going to university in Moscow where I learned to speak fluent Russian. 

After university, I decided to come to Hong Kong with my parents. Even though I studied engineering, I was always into the arts. After school, I realised that I wanted to work in the arts industry in audio-video production. So I came to Hong Kong and enrolled in the International Academy of Film and TV. 

Usually, when I tell Hongkongers I am from Nigeria, they ask me: “How come your English is so good?” 

I explain that Nigeria is a former British colony, so English is generally spoken everywhere. Then they say: “You speak with such a clear [American] accent”. But [I’m like]: It’s 2020, people from Africa do study abroad [and absorb different accents]. 

[Read more: The Siddi: An African tribe’s story of slavery, racial oppression and hope in India]

ON FEELING LIKE A SPECTACLE 

Every Black person who lives in Hong Kong can relate to being stared at all the time. It gets uncomfortable, especially when it happens every second of the day. Once you step outside your apartment, it’s like a constant reminder that this can never be your home. 

I think it’s bad for one’s mental health to be constantly stared at like a spectacle. However, it’s also understandable. If a Hongkonger were to live in Africa, [for instance], they would have a similar experience. But it’s something you never really get used to. 

The non-confrontational approach many Hongkongers take [towards my ethnicity] can also make it feel worse because sometimes I end up in situations or spaces I could easily have avoided if I knew how the people truly felt about me. 

For example, if my skin colour makes you uncomfortable – imagine how that makes me feel in your presence… If I knew how you truly felt about me, I would remove myself from your presence immediately to avoid a situation that makes us both uncomfortable. 

If everyone acknowledges this discrimination exists, then why is it still an issue? 

ON WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION

I have noticed there’s special [more favourable] treatment towards Caucasians. A lot of companies in Hong Kong would rather hire a Caucasian because of the image. 

Even within Hong Kong, Black people [depending on their background and accent], get treated differently. If you’re African-American or a Black Brit, you get treated [better] than an African. 

I don’t necessarily have an African accent, so I am treated [better] than some friends here who have only lived in Africa and have an African accent. For instance, if you interview for certain jobs and they hear your African accent, it’s [a no] immediately. 

At the end of the day, if you’re a POC, you tend to be looked down upon. Even Hongkongers have admitted this to me, that this is just the way it is. But if everyone acknowledges this [discrimination exists], then why is it still an issue? 

Christopher Onoja. Credit: Christopher Onoja.
Christopher Onoja. Credit: Christopher Onoja

ON MEDIA DEPICTIONS OF BLACKNESS 

I get frustrated. Media plays a big role [in the way] Black people are viewed in Asia.

With local news sites and blogs, [coverage of] Black people or Black culture is always negative. I don’t know if it’s an intentional thing, that they’re not aware that there are also Black people making a positive impact on the world. 

[For instance], the way the Black community is depicted on the internet [on Hong Kong sites] tends to be negative. Images of Black people stealing, fighting, committing crimes – something that happens in every society [regardless of skin colour]. 

[As for more positive stereotypes], Hongkongers assume that if you’re Black, you’re super into basketball and you like hip hop and know everything about it.  

That said, I organise hip hop events in Hong Kong and I know a lot of people in the local fashion and music scenes – they don’t see us as stereotypes.

I guarantee that every Black person in Hong Kong has had at least one of these experiences. 

ON STAYING DESPITE THE CHALLENGES

The racism we face here is just like the racism Black people face all over the world. Being offered a lower salary in comparison to a Caucasian, even when you are more skilled; landlords who won’t rent their place to you because you are Black; people don’t want to sit next to you on the train or covering their noses when they do. 

I guarantee that every Black person in Hong Kong has had at least one of these experiences. 

At the end of the day, as a Black person, you’re going to experience racism everywhere so that’s something you just have to accept.  

There’s also a pleasant side to Hong Kong. My experience has always been to grow up with people from different countries – co-existing as one. Hong Kong is a society that embodies that. I love that it’s bilingual. Hong Kong is my favourite city in Asia – it is the most welcoming city in the region [for foreigners]. 

Since my parents were based here [they’ve since left], that gave me an advantage over other Africans and Blacks who came to Hong Kong because I immediately had a place to stay and family to support me. So I try to acknowledge their struggles, too. We need to shed light on their needs and challenges.  

ON SPREADING THE WORD

However, I think Southeast Asians and Indians have faced even more discrimination because they have lived here longer and in greater numbers. My Southeast Asian friends say Hongkongers tend to be even more aggressive towards them… At the end of the day, it all stems from [Hong Kong-Chinese] residents not knowing about other cultures and being misguided by the social hierarchies that exist.

[Read more: Stranded in Hong Kong: The plight of domestic workers during Covid-19]

For example, most domestic helpers are from The Philippines and Indonesia. I’ve heard derogatory comments from Hongkongers about people from the Philippines simply because they grew up in a society that supports these class and racial hierarchies. 

I wish I had the answers so we could solve racism. But the truth is no one does. Do you see what’s happening with #BlackLivesMatter in American right now? We are only aware because it’s on TV. 

There’s racism in Eastern Europe, racism in Asia, which is not being publicised. I believe journalists, bloggers and people with a platform and the ability to spread information have a role to play to discuss and cover these issues. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.