- While many have decried the policy as discriminatory, the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission has been largely powerless to stop it
- Analysts believe the city’s roiling political environment since protests kicked off last June has played a role in the mainlander bans
Among the countless Post-it notes bearing anti-government messages outside Kwong Wing Cafe in Hong Kong's bustling Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood, one notice stands out: "Our staff can only speak Cantonese."
The sign quickly caught the attention of postgraduate student Huang, who often walks past the cha chaan teng-style restaurant with char siu, spaghetti and toast on its menu. Asking to be identified by only his surname, the 26-year-old Hongkonger says that, because of the notice, he never dines there.
The venue is one of seven operated by Kwong Wing Catering that has maintained a no-Mandarin policy since January 28, when the spread of the coronavirus first provoked calls for a full closure of the city's border with mainland China. A special exemption is made for "friends from Taiwan."
While the policy is decried by many as discriminatory towards customers from the mainland, where Mandarin is the official language, the chain has ignored a call by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the city's anti-discrimination watchdog, to remove the notice.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Huang speaks perfect Cantonese. But at home he speaks Mandarin with his parents, both in their 50s, who moved to the city about 30 years ago from the mainland.
"So I can't take my parents to the restaurant because they prefer to speak their mother tongue?" he asks.
Huang says no one in his family has visited the mainland recently, and wonders how speaking Mandarin makes them more of a threat than anyone else.
"I understand the impact of the pandemic on the city, but I don't think it's constructive to cultivate discrimination in this difficult time," he says.
Kwong Wing Catering declined to speak with the Post for this story.
The coronavirus has killed more than 23,000 people and infected more than 500,000 worldwide. Hong Kong has recorded more than 500 cases, four of whom have died.
The outbreak " which was first reported in the mainland's Hubei province " has prompted a group of Hong Kong restaurants, and other businesses, to bar mainland customers and those who speak Mandarin since January.
Some have stressed it is a health precaution meant to protect customers and staff from infection. Others have offered no reason for the move.
The EOC says it has received nearly 600 inquiries and complaints about restaurants and other businesses refusing to serve mainlanders or Mandarin speakers since the Covid-19 pandemic first struck the city.
A February 15-28 survey conducted by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO) found 101 restaurants displayed discriminatory content " either posting messages online or putting up notices at their premises " targeting mainlanders, Mandarin speakers, and those who had travelled to the mainland within the previous 14 days.
While lauded by some, human rights groups and lawmakers have slammed the policies as discriminatory and politically driven, particularly as the number of reported cases in mainland China has continued to drop, even as the virus has gained momentum globally.
Italian restaurant Bowls Cafe, on Ap Lei Chau Main Street in the city's Southern district, put a notice up outside its premises on February 11: "Because of the outbreak, we no longer serve visitors from mainland China."
Roger Tan, the restaurant's manager, says the notice was meant specifically for mainland tourists, and that the restaurant had put it there only to protect diners.
"We have been trying to protect ourselves as Hongkongers since the government refused to fully close the city's border with the mainland," he says.
Tan says many of their regular customers live in the neighbourhood, including ones who moved across the border to Hong Kong years ago but still speak Mandarin. The restaurant has continued serving them, he says.
He says diners understand and support the measure, while acknowledging a few visitors have left after seeing the notice.
Given the spread of the virus globally, the restaurant last week replaced the old notice with a new one, barring all tourists. Tan says they may consider suspending operations entirely if the crisis worsens.
Good Times Restaurant and Bar in Fanling, which serves Western-style food such as steak and pasta, took down a notice about two weeks ago, which read: "For the sake of Hong Kong diners, we do not serve tourists from the mainland for the time being."
Restaurant manager Cheung, who asks to be identified only by her surname, says they first put their sign up in late January, when the situation across the border was dire.
"Having experienced the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic of 2003, Hongkongers have had a good awareness of epidemic prevention," she says. "But we do not know about others."
Cheung says her restaurant, located away from the city centre, mainly serves locals, and it is not practical for them to tell who is a tourist or not.
"The notice was more of a reminder to people to stay alert during the pandemic," she says.
The restaurant removed the restriction on mainland visitors as soon as the outbreak was brought under control on the mainland, Cheung says. But she remains pessimistic about business " which has plunged 60 to 70 per cent since the outbreak.
"We can only make this up as we go for now," she says.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a community organiser at SoCO and driving force behind the discrimination survey, says the public health crisis does not justify discriminatory practices, particularly given how many mainlanders and Mandarin speakers live in the city.
According to data from the 2016 by-census, the most recently available numbers, Hong Kong was home to nearly 166,000 people from the mainland " or 2.4 per cent of the total population " who had not lived in the city long enough to acquire permanent residency.
The same census also showed 50.6 per cent of the city's population either spoke Mandarin routinely or as a second language.
Tsoi says the potential consequences of singling out groups such as mainlanders or foreign tourists, go far beyond their dubious effectiveness as a health precaution.
"If you single out a group of people and treat them differently from others, you are likely to be suspected of being discriminatory, even if you are not," he says.
According to the EOC, restaurants that refuse to serve customers from the mainland or Mandarin speakers may be in violation of the Race Discrimination Ordinance and Disability Discrimination Ordinance.
And EOC chairman Ricky Chu Man-kin says it is wrong to believe that Hong Kong restaurants denying mainlanders service cannot constitute racial discrimination.
"If a restaurant treats two people differently on the grounds of race, for example, if a Chinese restaurant does not serve Chinese but serves people of other races, it violates the Race Discrimination Ordinance, whether the discriminator and the discriminated come from the same race or not," he says.
If a Chinese restaurant does not serve Chinese but serves people of other races, it violates the Race Discrimination OrdinanceEOC chairman Ricky Chu
Given the global nature of the pandemic and the fact mainlanders are no more vulnerable to the disease than others, Chu says, arguing that bans are being instituted over health concerns is unreasonable.
But while the EOC is fully aware of the problem, tackling it head-on has been difficult, Chu says.
Because all of the inquiries and complaints so far have been made by third parties rather than the aggrieved persons, the anti-discrimination watchdog cannot launch formal investigations or take relevant actions, he says.
Chu says the EOC has been putting out statements attempting to educate the public about discrimination, and appealing to eateries to change their practices, though few have heeded the advice to this point.
Catering sector lawmaker Tommy Cheung Yu-yan says the discriminatory practices hurt not only the reputation of the industry, but its bottom line, which has already been hammered by the pandemic.
"Restaurants should never choose to serve some people while turning away others. It goes against the principle of our catering sector, that every customer is a guest," he says.
Eateries, he says, should be checking temperatures and requiring masks rather than monitoring customers' languages and birthplaces.
Political experts say politics has played a not insubstantial role in this issue.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, says these restaurants are "declaring their political positions", and playing into the concept of the so-called "yellow economic circle" " businesses that have publicly stood in support of anti-government protests.
They are bringing political conflict into business activities, and targeting people of the same countryLau Siu Kai, Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies
Lau, an emeritus professor of sociology at Chinese University, says they are doing so at a cost not only to their own businesses but the city's global image.
"They are bringing political conflict into business activities, and targeting people of the same country. This will hurt Hong Kong's international reputation," he says.
Chung Kim-wah, honorary director of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, says while owners of the involved restaurants are venting their frustration and anger against the government's handling of the pandemic, the months-long political unrest that erupted last June over the now-withdrawn extradition bill has also played a role.
He points to a growing anti-mainland sentiment among a younger generation he believes is driven by Beijing's tightening grip on the city.
Those underlying issues, Chung believes, will be harder to solve than the symptoms.
"There are complicated sentiments and political elements behind this," he says. "It does not help address the problem if the government simply says it's unlawful."
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