On Being White-Passing In Hong Kong

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… Maybe that’s true for some of us, but there’s nothing self-evident about it.

Twenty-six years ago, my Filipino mother left behind everything familiar to work abroad as a domestic helper. Around the same time, my British father also left his home country in search of better opportunities. Then in 1995, I won the lottery of birth by being born in a Hong Kong to a British father and a Filipino Mum. That day, I gained a British passport, white skin, and a lifetime of privilege.

I grew up in local schools in Hong Kong for the most part of my life. As such, I can speak, read, and write Chinese fluently and half of my friends are Chinese. Which is why despite not being Chinese in Hong Kong, I never felt like I was different or didn’t fit in. Until this one time, when I was seven years olds, my teacher started explaining to the class how the Chinese term “Gwai Mui” (literally ghost girl in Cantonese, used to describe western females) came about. Apparently when Westerners arrived in China for the first time, Chinese people thought they were so white, they could almost be ghosts.

Being the only foreigner in a local Chinese school, I was naturally the “ghost girl” in class. What followed was a week of my classmates shying away from me, and occasional “Gwai Mui” remarks. That was the first time I realised skin colour means something, and my only close-to-negative experience from being white-passing in Hong Kong.

My Mum & I.

I learnt how society views colour and race when my Mum was mistaken for my helper. She was out shopping with my sisters and I when a lady came up to her said, “Your employer’s daughters are so cute! How old are they?” It wasn’t the first nor the last time it’s happened, but that was my first concsious memory of such incidents. Given the prevalence of Filipino helpers in Hong Kong, it may seem like a fair assumption, but the problem is when a Mum of a different colour to her child is mistaken for the nanny or helper, it suggests a subtle social hierarchy assumption linked to race, that a person’s race is tied to her social and economic station in life.

This became even more clear to me when I started teaching. Despite having zero relevant qualifications or experience, I was able to wrangle my way into teaching in centres and kindergartens simply by being white-looking. I knew my teaching abilities had nothing to do with me getting the job when I was told repeatedly by my employers that my students and their parents cannot know I’m half Filipino. “Just say you’re British,” my boss would tell me. Even when I started to gain more experience, this never changed. When one of my student’s Mum found out I’m half Filipino, she withdrew her daughter from my class — after one year of teaching her with no complaints. My last boss — who only hires white foreigners, even said,

“You know, because you’re mixed, it’s a little difficult to tell where you’re from. Perhaps you should dye your hair a lighter brown, and maybe put on more makeup to emphasise your western features. Oh, and please don’t get a tan.”

Being white in Hong Kong is like winning an award for hard work you never did. People tell me, ‘You don’t look Filipino’, ‘You look more British than Filipino’ or ‘I would never have thought you were half Filipino! I always thought you were [insert random western or hispanic race]’, and expect me to take it as a compliment.

I wish I could say this isn’t the majority attitude in Hong Kong, but it is. Hong Kong is a peculiar place. Even though British rule ended two decades ago, the colonial mentality continues to put white people on a pedestal. There’s still an unspoken bias that those who are from the West are superior, and those who are from Southeast Asia are inferior. And this bias exists in varying forms all over the world.

My understanding of human rights is that there’s a social contract that’s applicable to everyone – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But from a critical distance of observation, there’s a huge discrepancy between what human rights is and what our reality often reflects. All man and races may have been created equal by God, but they’re not always treated equally.

Race is often uncomfortable for us to talk about for fear of saying something wrong, but it’s important to keep that discourse going in order to overcome our biases. Human nature isn’t just force acting upon us, it’s also something we create together when we decide how we treat each other and the world we share. Becoming aware of privilege shouldn’t be viewed as a source of guilt, but rather, an opportunity to be responsible in working towards a more just world. Talking about our experiences, be it on the side of privilege or not, is important because a transformative dialogue on race can demystify the structural dynamics of our social, economic, and political disparities, and assist in dismantling racial hierarchy.