24th August 2021 – (Hong Kong)  On 16th August, a VIP customer of Pakistani descent went to a Sephora store in Hong Kong and her bag was searched by an employee before police arrived.

The incident was labelled as an act of racism by many as it resembles the case of SZA (Solána Imani Rowe), an American singer which happened in the United States. In 2019, SZA went into her local Sephora, a staff member known as Sandy then ruined what should have been a blissful afternoon of beauty shopping when she supposedly decided that SZA was stealing and called security. SZA detailed the alleged incident on her Twitter. “Lmao Sandy Sephora location 614 Calabasas called security to make sure I wasn’t stealing. We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy,” she wrote. “Can a bitch cop her fenty in peace er whut[?]”

Sephora in U.S. responded by saying that “We take complaints like this very seriously, profiling on the basis of race is not tolerated at Sephora. Our purpose has always been rooted in our people and ensuring that Sephora is an inclusive and welcoming space for all our clients.”

However, 2 years later, history repeated itself again but this time in Hong Kong. The Pakistani girl then has started a social media boycott campaign against Sephora HK (@bansephorahk). In response, Sephora then  announced that it will train its employees till this month end.

As the issue continues to attract dissatisfaction among the public, in a frantic move to savage its brand image, the General Manager of Sephora Hong Kong, Didier Perrot-Minot made an apology 5 days ago but it was criticised by many as insincere and without real substance. No facts were mentioned in her out-of-context apology.

“First of all, I want to apologise unreservedly to our customer for what she experienced at our store. My team and I are looking into this very carefully, to make sure we learn from it and ensure Sephora is always a place where everyone belongs and feels welcome. As we’ve said, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of our values. 

Our team has reached out to the customer, and I remain fully available if she would like to speak to me directly.  

This is not the first time that racial discrimination has happened in Hong Kong. Early this year, Hong Kong government officials, politicians, and media outlets have faced backlash for unfairly portraying dark-skinned ethnic minorities as more likely to spread the coronavirus – as well as generally perpetuating racist narratives surrounding the pandemic that place the blame onto minority populations. According to the Diplomat, during an advisory panel on COVID-19 vaccines, a health official singled out ethnic minorities for failing to observe social-distancing rules, which he said were due to “cultural” as well as social reasons. The comments were made after coronavirus cases spiked in several crammed housing buildings located in the city’s more impoverished areas, where many South Asians reside.

“They have many family gatherings and like to gather with fellow countrymen,” said Raymond Ho, head of the Health Promotion Branch of the Department of Health. “They like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together. If it is without masks, the risk is high. They also need to share sanitary facilities with neighbours if the living environment is crowded.”

Pro-Beijing politician Elizabeth Quat also called for a “weekend lockdown” on foreign domestic helpers to prevent them from gathering in public spaces during their holidays. The proposal was shot down by the labor secretary, who said that the suggestion may amount to discrimination.

In Hong Kong, dark-skinned ethnic minorities have a long history of being framed as scapegoats for the city’s social problems. During l2019’s anti-government protests, minorities were tokenised as symbols of diversity that set the city apart from those in mainland China – but also demonised as criminals after rumours circulated regarding ethnic minorities being hired to attack pro-democracy protesters.

Various anti-refugee campaigns – such as those in 2016 – have unfairly painted dark-skinned asylum seekers as criminals and illegal migrants taking advantage of local resources. Foreign domestic workers have also been accused of practicing “poor hygiene” and disrupting public order by politicians and members of the public for simply utilising public spaces on their days off.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said there was nothing to suggest ethnicity contributed to contagion, but that factors included “social behaviours, living conditions and workplace hygiene.” Lam’s intervention did little to silent prejudice, according to ethnic minority individuals, who say they have since been targeted at work, forced to stay home despite negative coronavirus tests, and shunned by Chinese colleagues and friends.

South Asians began arriving in Hong Kong in the 1840s, when British troops brought Indian soldiers and traders. Later came Sikhs, then Nepalis who had previously worked as Gurkhas, followed by Pakistanis, Filipinos, Indonesians and Thais. The minority population increased by around 70% between 2009 and 2019.  Of the 836 racial discrimination complaints Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission handled in the past six years, not one led to a conviction. Non-profit organisations and community groups, particularly those representing darker-skinned South and Southeast Asians, have long complained about discrimination in education, employment, and housing. 

Hong Kong enacted an anti-racism law in 2008, after pressure from international organisations, including the United Nations. But activists say it’s a flawed, toothless piece of legislation that fails to hold authorities accountable. Hong Kong’s immigration laws make it harder for certain groups to naturalise and build second- and third-generation minority communities. For instance, foreign domestic workers are not allowed to gain residency.

According to CNN, Pakistanis, Indonesians and Thais tend to have disproportionately high poverty rates. For instance, more than half of all Pakistanis in Hong Kong live below the poverty line without any interventions, according to a 2016 government report. The poverty line is defined as earning half or less of the median monthly household income, which ranges from 20,000 to 59,900 Hong Kong dollars (about US$2,580-7,729) depending on household size. Minority children whose families speak non-Chinese languages, such as Tagalog or Urdu rather than Cantonese, can face a language barrier that exacerbates structural challenges in education, setting them back once they enter the job market.

As of 2016, more than 60% of all ethnic minority students attended just 10 schools out of nearly 840 public primary and secondary schools that serve the city of almost 7.5 million, according to the non-profit organisation Hong Kong Unison.

Everyday racism appears to be so rampant in Hong Kong that everyone had their own range of discrimination stories. Unfair treatment extends to the workplace; across a range of jobs, employees who are members of ethnic minority groups report experiencing longer working hours, lower wages, unfair dismissals, and a lack of opportunity in career advancement.

A particularly pervasive form of everyday racism can also come with police profiling. In Hong Kong, ethnically Chinese residents can go their whole lives without being stopped and searched by police on the street, whereas non-ethnic Chinese people of colour say it’s a common reality for them. In a statement to CNN, a police spokesperson said that current laws allow police to stop, detain and search anybody “who acts in a suspicious manner.” The spokesperson added that all officers receive anti-discrimination training and attend seminars to “enhance their understanding” of ethnic minority cultures and languages. “The Force is committed to promoting racial equality, fairness and respect,” said the statement. “In delivering quality services, the Force is determined to ensure impartiality in all dealings with members of the public, irrespective of their ethnic background.”

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance (RDO), enacted in 2008, is supposed to criminalise racial discrimination or harassment. But critics argue that loopholes allow harmful practices to continue, and that it focuses too much on individual cases rather than addressing systemic racism. Critically, the RDO doesn’t cover discrimination by law enforcement. The government is bound by the law in areas of employment, services and provisions — but not in exercising “functions and powers.” Police operations fall under this category, meaning the law doesn’t apply when officers conduct stop and search, arrests and detention, or criminal investigations.

It is high time for the government to relook into the local legislation to take the minority group seriously and accord them with the same rights as other citizens. Activists and experts voiced concerns as early as 2006, when the RDO was being drafted. They argued that it didn’t provide strong enough protections for already vulnerable minorities, who may fear retaliation if they file complaints. At the time, the government promised to take these remarks into consideration for future revisions.

Excerpts of this article appeared in Diplomat, CNN and Washington Post.