When Harinder Veriah had an epileptic fit more than a year ago, no one realised it would trigger a chain of events that have helped expose Hong Kong’s great ‘dirty secret’.
On 2 January 2000 Veriah, known to her friends as Hari, died. Shortly before, she told her husband, the British journalist Martin Jacques, that she was at the ‘bottom of the pile’ at the hospital where she was being treated. She meant her skin colour and Indian race were responsible for a lack of attention.
Today an unusually large coalition of 12 organisations, including Indian, Filipino, Thai and Nepalese groups, is holding a memorial for Veriah and meeting to campaign for anti-racial discrimination legislation. Vandana Rajwani, a lawyer who is one of the meeting’s organisers, says they have been inundated with people wanting to participate.
This is something new. Campaigners had been finding it very hard to raise public awareness of the problems facing the ethnic communities that make up about 4 per cent of the population. However Veriah’s death has given new life to the campaign. Ravi Kidumal, another organiser of today’s meeting, said: ‘This was such an emotive issue, such a personal issue, that it raised our consciousness.’
Local newspapers had published the story of how this bright, Malaysian-born lawyer had suddenly died in circumstances which do not usually cause death. It was a deeply personal story of a love affair shattered by death, of a mother leaving behind an infant son and of a potentially brilliant career suddenly terminated.
An inquest at the end of last year did not accept allegations that Veriah’s death was related to neglect stemming from racial discrimination and found that she died of natural causes. Jacques is unhappy with the verdict and remains convinced that racial discrimination was a factor. ‘Hari’s case moved people,’ says Christine Loh, a former legislator who unsuccessfully battled for two years to introduce laws against racial discrimination. ‘It was because Martin, a white person, was prepared to stand up and say there is a great dirty secret in Hong Kong that people listened’.
‘In a society where they do listen to whites but don’t listen to people with darker skins, I was able to do something,’ says Jacques. His insistence that his wife’s death was linked to discrimination encouraged members of ethnic minorities to write to newspapers about their experiences. ‘Hari’s case has become a catalyst,’ says Jacques.
Kidumal insists that racism is a big problem but that ‘the affected people are very cautious about doing anything about it’. He says that Indian business organisations shy away because they do not want to be associated with controversy. Yet they represent the biggest minority group in Hong Kong. Ethnic Indians like Kidumal, who are born and bred in Hong Kong, cannot obtain passports issued by the Hong Kong government because it follows Chinese nationality law which denies citizenship to those who are not of Chinese race.
According to the government racism is not a problem. Kwan Wing-wah, the Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs, says: ‘Hong Kong is a tolerant and cosmopolitan society where persons of every race, colour and nationality live together in a remarkable degree of harmony’.
Loh says people are denied housing, jobs and school places on grounds of race and that casual racism pervades Hong Kong culture.
– Steve Vines