Racism is an ugly word for a devastating reality, it is all the more repulsive when senior government officials instinctively reach into the racist cesspool without thinking.
Any self respecting society requires its leaders not to express racist attitudes or to institutionalize racial discrimination. Yet here in Hong Kong the chill winds of intense nationalism blowing from the North seem to have encouraged a flutter of racism. That flutter reached Carrie Lam, Beijing’s favored candidate to become the next Chief Executive, who presided over plans for the Hong Kong Palace Museum which originally stipulated that only ‘local Chinese’ architects would be considered to design the museum.
After it was pointed out that even Hong Kong’s puny anti-discrimination laws could be breached by this requirement, Ms Lam’s committee amended its restriction to just ‘local’ architects.
So, am I making a mountain out of molehill by writing about this matter? I think not, because what we saw here was the kind of rather unthinking racism that might well have been prompted by the excessive zeal of those currying the favor of Beijing.
In other words this was something of a reflex action, but when the reflexes are so worrying they need to be called out. The idea that only a person of Chinese ethnicity could be capable of designing a museum of Chinese culture is primitive thinking in the extreme.
The idea is even more absurd in the case of architecture which has a special place in the international cultural exchange system where ethnicity is irrelevant to intelligent people who value creativity and skill over race. The stipulation of a racial qualification for architects is something that has not really been seen since the Nazi regime in Germany. If this comparison seems uncomfortable, ask Ms Lam to explain her reasons for harking back to this dark period.
Fortunately, elsewhere in Hong Kong, both the private and public sectors have eschewed racism in selecting renowned architects for major projects; Poly University has an iconic building designed by the Palestinian British architect Zaha Hadid, one of the most interesting new residential developments on the Peak came from Frank Gehry, Norman Foster was brought in both to design the airport and the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong and then there’s the buildings of IM Pei, the renowned Chinese American architect, who in his person defies ethnic stereotypes.
Yet Hong Kong has also experienced a kind of reverse racism where it was considered more prestigious to employ a foreign architect in preference to a local one. This in turn reflects Hong Kong’s ambiguity about things foreign and indeed foreigners.
On the one hand foreigners, especially those with white skins, are accorded privileges and deference that is entirely inappropriate; while on the other they face subtle forms of racism that can be both bizarre and unsettling.
A friend of mine, a very fluent Cantonese speaker, sometimes finds that people will ignore what he says because they believe that someone with a white face cannot possibly be speaking their language. More unsettling is the routine discrimination faced by Hongkongers of South Asian origin, many of whom have relatives who have lived here much longer than ‘local Chinese’ families.
Expunging racism altogether and getting rid of some of its more absurd aspects is probably impossible but it should, at the very least, be possible to ensure that racism does not become institutionalized and reflected in official thinking.
The reason this matters is that the well being of societies is not judged by how well they cope at their strongest points but how well they manage at their weakest points. Lamentably, issues of race and ethnicity often become these weak points.
With this in mind it is not at all comforting to think that Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive may well be someone who seemed blissfully unaware of racism rearing its ugly head in her pet project.
caption: Talking about harmony but promotes racist thinking (Apple Daily photo)