Tackling racism in Hong Kong, one joke at a time

The everyday experience of Indians in Hong Kong is a central theme in the comedy routines of Vivek Mahbubani.

February 19, 2022 10:47 pm | Updated February 20, 2022 02:11 pm IST - Hong Kong:

Vivek Mahbubani. File

Vivek Mahbubani. File

One of stand-up comedian Vivek Mahbubani’s favourite bits in his routine is the one where he has an encounter with a Hong Kong policeman.

He recalls how, in an experience that is sadly all-too-familiar for Hong Kong’s minorities, he is stopped yet again for a “random” search on the street. One cop mangles the pronunciation of his name as he checks his ID. As soon as they discover he isn’t a foreigner but a Hongkonger fluent in Cantonese, the second cop immediately tries to recruit him, seeing a useful asset in “community outreach”.

Beneath this seemingly simple tale is a layered and withering criticism of the discrimination that is rife in Hong Kong, an open secret that most of the majority is somehow oblivious of, yet is part of life for minorities.

Most of Hong Kong’s 40,000-plus South Asians will have some story to tell of everyday indignities that they have become inured to, from being routinely stopped at the lobbies of their workplaces or apartments – the assumption is a South Asian entering a building is usually a deliveryman and couldn’t possibly be residing there – to hearing comments passed in Cantonese with the wrong assumption that a “foreigner” couldn’t understand the language. Then there are the “random” stops on the street.

If it is an open secret, it is still a secret: discrimination faced by minorities, from South Asians to the many foreign domestic helpers many of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia, remains rife, but a subject still remains on the margins.

Mr. Mahbubani wants to change that. The experience of Indian-Hongkongers is a central theme in many of his routines, which he performs in both Cantonese and English.

Born in Hong Kong to a mother from Mumbai and father from Kolkata, Mr. Mahbubani went to a local Chinese school. That gave him fluency in Cantonese, but also an acute sense of his identity and the complications that came with it.

“In my whole year, there were maybe three non-Chinese,” he said. “I remember in my first year, another kid raised his hand and asked the teacher, ‘Why is there an alien in our class?’”

Humour, he said, became a “self-defence mechanism”. He would respond to stereotypes with jokes.

Growing up, his favourite comedians were American stand-ups Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. In university in Hong Kong, Mr. Mahbubani started making notes for a career in stand-up that he thought would remain a a pipe-dream. Everyday life in Hong Kong, and his experience of being a minority, offered no shortage of material.

“What speaking Cantonese gave me,” he said, “was that I got to enjoy Hong Kong from a very local point of view, something foreigners might not get to see, while still not being Chinese. It is like living in two worlds.”

He joked that “playing the dumb foreigner” can, on occasion, help – “if you’re caught jaywalking, for instance” – or offer a window to society, such as the instance where a bus-driver was taunting him with insults in Cantonese and then received the shock of his life when, getting off the bus, Mr. Mahbubani thanked him for the ride fluently.

At a comedy competition in 2007, he dipped his toes in the waters of stand-up. He ended up winning the Cantonese competition (he won the English competition the following year). More gigs followed, as he juggled his job as a web developer with a passion for comedy, which is now his full-time occupation.

Language, he said, has been the key “to breaking down the barrier”. “I joke that in Hong Kong, there are two ways to break the barrier. One, speak the language. Two, help people make money. You help people make money in Hong Kong, and they don’t care what colour your skin is.”

Fifteen years on, Mr. Mahbubani feels there is more reflection on stereotypes that were once deeply ingrained. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic showed, there is far to go. Last year, a senior official in the Centre for Health Protection caused outrage after blaming South Asians for spreading COVID-19, prompting Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to say “there is absolutely no suggestion of the spread of disease relating to race or ethnicity.”

“What I hope to do,” Mr. Mahbubani said, “is that at the end of the evening after my set, a lot of the audience will hopefully leave with a different idea. I think they enjoy that I say out loud stuff they may have been thinking, but then joke about how ridiculous some of it is.”

And all of this is done with a light touch – his aim isn’t to lecture. “For instance,” he said, “I joke about how people don’t sit next to me on the bus. And I say, ‘Do you guys think this is a bad thing? I love it. Please don’t sit next to me. I love the extra space, you know. ”

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