The Learning Journey: Ethnic Minorities and Housing Shortages

Author: Tamara Kahn

Day 3 USLS2015

This post represents the third in a series from the ongoing University Scholars Leadership Symposium being covered on the ground by the GLOSS’s team. Please check in regularly to keep up to date with the latest news from the symposium.

The third day of the symposium was dedicated to an experiential learning experience with marginalised communities whilst engaging with humanitarian work. A total of 17 ‘learning journeys’ were lined up to choose from that tackle various issues in Hong Kong. Our Sheffield delegates attended activities relating to the following themes: ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘housing shortage’ and ‘domestic violence’. Kat Wong reported on her challenging experience related domestic violence in particular with migrant workers. In this post I will focus on the housing and ethnic exclusion issues in Hong Kong.

The ‘ethnic minority’ learning journey gathered 50 delegates and was based in the SSP district of Hong Kong, the district with the lowest income per capita. The activities were organised by the local YMCA who aim to address social needs of ethnic minorities and promote intercultural harmony. 94% of Hong Kong’s population is of Chinese ethnicity, the remaining 6% are represented in majority by Filipino and Indonesian, other predominant ethnicities are Indian, white and Pakistani.

The session started off with a couple of games to break the ice and build connopections with the YMCA volunteers of ethnic minorities. The second activity was carried out in smaller mixed groups of USLS-attendees and YMCA volunteers in which they set out on a culture hunt around the district. This entailed finding various shs and venues and other conveniences used and run by ethnic minorities. They were encouraged to ask questions and find out about their customers and the general experience of being an immigrant in Hong Kong. Alongside the verbal exchange the delegates were also offered the opportunity to taste delicacies of local and foreign origin. Talking to both ethnic minorities and locals was very interesting, and informative in understanding the thoughts and reasoning of the different social groups of the district. A recurring theme was that of the language barrier. Whereas most of the ethnic minorities thrived in the English language, most of them had great difficulties in understanding and speaking Cantonese (spoken by 90% of the population). This is a problem for people of all ages. Especially in education, children who might be fluent in 2 or more languages but whose parents are unable to support any private education in their mother tongue are confronted with learning Chinese in order to succeed in school. This causes great difficulties and with a lack of support, children are often put back in school even if they might thrive in other subjects.

For some delegates experiencing English as being the language of the immigrants put their local issues in a different perspective. However, this is a situation that I am also familiar with at home in Luxembourg where children of foreign parents who attend state schools often find it much harder to succeed in school where French and German are compulsory languages and failing one of both forces children to retake the academic year. All in all a general conclusion among the students was agreed on that even though Hong Kong has two official languages, to fully fit into society Cantonese is not an option.

At the ‘housing shortage’ learning journey, the question of cubical flats and lack of accommodation in the city was raised. Housing in Hong Kong is a huge and growing problem, alongside an ageing population that has one of highest life expectancies in the world with an average of 83.8 years.

The day commenced with a walk around Mong Kok, the area in which the later visited housing is located. Mong Kok is a central district that is classed as one of the highest population density in the world with 130’000 people/km2.

After lunch in a local restaurant the 30 delegates were divided into pairs, each to help one household with the cleaning of communal spaces. This enabled delegates to talk to the locals in a more relaxed environment.

The groups were formed as such so a Cantonese speaker was in each group to facilitate the conversations. The main conversations evolved around housing provision, one of the residents said to have waited for 5 years to get the apartment estimated at 45 m2 for 10 000 HK£/month, which equates to £837. Further, the 60-year-old son of one of the owners who worked as a nurse discussed the health system and how public hospitals are constantly crowded and overburdened. Other subjects that were raised, were the lack of industries in Hong Kong, something that greatly worried the resident of a 7.2 million territory.

Through the conversations with the residents and Hong Kong students from the symposium, we knew that the families visited were not part of the 1/5 of the city that lives below the poverty line (Hong Kong Council of Social Services). Although the interactions were interesting, the learning journey only presented the common living situation in the dense city and did not address the extreme cases of housing shortage in Hong Kong and people living in cage homes. In fact, Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-yin pledged in 2012 to provide more affordable housing, but since then accommodation prices as well as the demand for public housing tripled. With an average monthly wage of HK$ 14.100 and a minimum hourly wage of HK$ 32.5 it is a great battle for many residents to find adequate housing. Single-family flats have been subdivided to accommodate for several households leaving more than 100 000 people to be cramped in in humane conditions with living spaces between 1.5 and 9 m2 (Society for Community Organisation). Currently, a total of 300 000 people are said to be on waiting list for social housing. A wait that on average lasts 5 years, but some families are left without a home for up to 10 years. A rage can be felt by several Hong Kong students I interacted with blaming the government on the ease for oversea investors to buy into high end properties. This is an issue that is not exclusive to Hong Kong and can be also seen in other global cities such as London. In a city characterised by a free market, it is the 1.3 million residents living in poverty in Hong Kong that will suffer the most.

Further readings: 


LSE Cities. (2011). Hong Kong’s Housing Shame. Available at:

Lee, Yilou. (2015). Hong Kong’s embattled leader falls short on housing promises. Available at:

Follow #USLS2015 on Twitter for live updates.


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