Hong Kong’s first minority social worker runs for local council


Jeffrey Andrews, Hong Kong social worker and local council candidate. Photo: Shazma Gaffoor

From breaking the law to changing the law – a member of a Hong Kong ethnic minority is running for council elections

I am seated in the waiting area at the office of the ‘Christian Action’ NGO for refugees at Chung King Mansion, a building notorious in Hong Kong for illegal activities over the years but also offering the most aromatic curries, and home to many from the special administrative region’s minority and refugee population.

They make a modest living by selling an array of diverse food, electronics, bric-a-brac or mobile phone accessories in shops which line the buzzing bottom floor walls, giving the impression of a souk.

Having lived in Hong Kong during my younger years, I remember tagging along with my mother and visiting the “Mansion” whenever she had to stock up on spices.

The top floors are generally occupied by backpackers staying at affordable guest houses, or tenants who work downstairs at small offices for other religious organisations and shelters for refugees.

I’m hoping to interview Jeffrey Andrews – the man known as Hong Kong’s first ethnic minority social worker.

He bursts into the empty hallway where I’m seated, giving me a quick apology for running late as he is dealing with a Child Protective Services issue.

His grave voice tells me it’s a serious matter and I watch in admiration at the pace with which he resolved the dire issue, ensuring the primary concern was the safety of the young children involved.

International volunteers at Christian Action. Photo: Shazma Gaffoor

Mr Andrews then walks back to me with relief written all over his face: the young children have been provided a safe space for the night.

He then he sits down to tell me how he got to where he is today.

“My roots are Indian, my parents hail from Chennai, South India…My grandpa came here in the 60’s, so I’m a third generation Hong Konger of Indian decent, and I’ve never left Hong Kong for more than two months or so,” he said.

“Many of my friends, just like me, their fathers and grandfathers came, so we all kind of share that.”

Back in the 60’s, Hong Kong was the hub for jobs that seemed to be best suited for ethnic minorities under British colonial rule and the Andrews family took the plunge.

Recalling some of the challenges I faced as a non-Chinese kid growing up in Hong Kong, I asked Andrews about his childhood.

“I had a huge identity crisis since I was young – as you can see, I’m dark skinned, even amongst my own ethnic minority community I was darker than others…even then I didn’t fit in,” he said.

“I didn’t feel Tamil enough because I was South Indian, I didn’t feel Chinese for sure, I spoke English most of the time but then of course the expat white community did not think I was part of them.”

The cyclical rejection he faced especially from classmates and community members made him despise his darker skin colour.

“I’d ask my Mum, ‘Why’d you make me?’ and buy all kinds of soaps to try to make myself white because it was so tough going to school…They’d say, ‘you’re so black!’ or ‘you’re so dark!’ and you’d really feel that being dark was such a negative thing.”

Unlike the International school I attended, Andrews went to a local school where the discrimination of minorities was prevalent; only local Chinese students attended school in the morning and students of ethnic minority backgrounds would attend the school at night.

“We weren’t taught Cantonese in school, we were taught French, all the jobs that you were going to go into eventually if we left school … or went into university, these were jobs you would not be able to do [because they required Cantonese speakers],” he said.

The underlying sentiment was that minorities shouldn’t look to advance beyond the first few years of high school simply because Hong Kong’s minorities had not progressed beyond that.

“After form three (grade 9), many of the boys went into construction work, security jobs, labour intensive jobs. You were so lucky if you started getting [sic] a job at the gym,” he said.

Mr Andrews explained that leading up to 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China, ethnic minorities had jobs in the police force and correctional services.

This was cut short post-handover, where an added clause suggested that you had to read and write Cantonese to be a police officer.

“People who wanted to be police officers couldn’t and ended up being gangsters…You look at the irony of this policy, many of my friends should’ve been policemen,” he said.

This indifference led to lingering drug problems and gangs being formed within young people, and Mr Andrews didn’t escape it either.

“At that time there was huge drug usage amongst the young Nepalese youth, there was a high proportion of Pakistani/Indian boys getting into gangs, and a lot of Filipinos were into [sic] early teenage pregnancies,” he said.

There was no support provided for these marginalised youth who eventually ended up on the wrong side of the track.

“For ethnic minorities, there was hardly any concern shown – outside my school on my result day, who was waiting for us? 15 gangsters all waiting to recruit you without any requirements,” he recalled,

Jeffrey Andrews with Fermi Wong during an event. The picture is pinned beside Mr Andrews’ desk. Photo: Shazma Gaffoor

This was when Andrews’ life approached a hiatus, when he stopped going to church, turned into a rebel and ran away from home for two years.

His only saviour was social worker, Fermi Wong, whom to this day he reveres for not giving up on him.

“She was a rebel in her own institution that she worked for, which wanted to help ethnic minorities but they just wanted to do surface level [work]…This woman went further ahead, she came to the streets every day…Honestly, I ignored her for two years,” Mr Andrews said.

Ms Wong was so adamant in wanting to protect these youths that she quit her job and started her own NGO called Hong Kong Unison.

Mr Andrews was arrested for assault and theft at 18.

With the realisation that his buddies weren’t capable of bailing him out, he made a phone call to Ms Wong at 3am saying, “Fermi, you’re right, I messed up.”

An hour later, Ms Wong bails him out for a thousand dollars and takes him home to his distraught but grateful parents.

“My lawyer already told me, for an ethnic minority, once you’re arrested, it’s a criminal record…I was just 18,” he said.

“Ethnic minorities don’t get off (in Hong Kong), they want that for this community in a way which is really bad.”

Ms Wong was also instrumental in finding a lawyer for Mr Andrews as well as having reference letters written for him.

Two months later, Mr Andrews attended his hearing and was granted a one year ‘bind-over’ by the judge, with a stern warning that he would go to jail if he breached the order.

“I went completely cold turkey, but this woman didn’t let go of me, so we went and fought Hong Kong’s discriminatory system,” Mr Andrews said.

“She got me into a school which at that time did not recruit ethnic minorities – it was called [Hong Kong] Institute of Vocational Education, but at that time again, they had a policy: if you can’t read and write Cantonese, you can’t go in, black and white.”

Out of sheer frustration and after several attempts at trying other universities without success, Ms Wong asked the Institute to name the price to administer a classroom of ethnic minorities.

“She fundraised 2 million dollars and we were the first batch to study hotel management in the [Hong Kong] Institute of Vocational Education…Today, it is no longer privatised, it’s actually a government subsidised program,” Mr Andrews said brimming with pride.

What Ms Wong kickstarted inspired Andrews so much that he followed in her footsteps and joined Christian Action in 2009, becoming the first ethnic minority social worker after graduating with an associate degree in social work in 2015.

With its walk-in office, Christian Action occupies three floors in the building and offers three square meals daily for refugees.

“We’re the only drop-in centre for refugees. We have a nice community here. We have classes going on for them. We find them housing, we do our best to fill in the gaps where the government does not, which is a lot of gaps,” Andrews said.

He said Hong Kong is an ideal hot spot for refugees because it is safe and easier to get into compared to western countries.

Some make a detour from China while others are stuck in Hong Kong after being duped by their agents who then disappear.

Refugees are processed in Hong Kong but aren’t allowed to remain for prolonged periods, nor can babies of refugees born in Hong Kong be naturalised.

They can’t work nor volunteer but children up to the age of 18 are allowed to study and most of them attend ethnic minority schools, according to Mr Andrews.

“Recently our organisation had a guy who fought the government and lost the case, but he got special permission to work,” he said.

“So two of them work for us and I’m proud to introduce Alan*, who actually started off as my client.”

He stands up and looks over the partition, pointing to a smiling man seated at his desk.

Christian Action has started an employability program, and is the only NGO that offers this program to ‘recognised refugees’ – those who have been genuinely assessed by the Hong Kong government as refugees.

The program found 30 of their clients jobs.

“One of my guys worked in the Renaissance Hotel and within a year he got a huge trophy for [being] ‘employee of the year’…with 400 or 500 people, you’ve got to be kidding me! And at the same hotel, a fire broke out and there was an explosion – everyone ran away except for this guy who went off and put the fire out,” he said.

“Firemen came in asking, ‘where’s the fire?’ and he told the firemen that he sorted it out saying, ‘in my county, this is nothing’.”

The Renaissance Hotel in turn issued a letter to this refugee employee of Sri Lankan origin, which stated ‘your actions saved the lives of many’.

“He was so proud, but these stories don’t go out because the media don’t show enough of the good stuff…If there was something happening right here that was wrong with the ethnic minority, it would be out in five or 10 minutes, in one of the most notorious newspapers called the Oriental Daily,” Mr Andrews said.

Football trophies won by the refugee football team coached by Mr Andrews. Photo: Shazma Gaffoor

Being an ardent football fan, Andrews faced another roadblock whenever he wanted to play the game due to language restrictions.

He was required to fill a form which was only available in Cantonese at the Football Association in Hong Kong, so his eager 9-year-old self would ask the security guard in the building that he lived to fill it out for him.

“I love football very much, that was the only thing I was good at – I couldn’t be a professional football player because there was so much discrimination in Hong Kong, so I slowly realised football wasn’t going to happen for me,” he said.

Not wanting to let go of his dreams, while working as a social worker, he also coached and managed a refugee football team.

In wanting to upskill beyond just yelling instructions at the team, he wanted to be recognised as a professional coach.

When he approached the Football Association, he was told the exam was in Cantonese and to consider bringing a friend to help translate for him.

“I told them, ‘Why doesn’t he then just do the exam for me?’…Isn’t that ridiculous?” he said.

He then approached Ms Wong for advise who not only told him to approach the media, but to join hands with famous Hong Kong football legend, Leslie Santos.

“He heard about our story and these kids who just wanted to get into football,” Andrews said.

Mr Santos offered to help and along with Mr Andrews, went to the media.

The very next day, the Football Association confirmed that they were changing the exam to be in English, so Mr Andrews and his Pakistani childhood best friend passed the exam and graduated as football coaches.

Despite his fluency in Cantonese and the name he has made for himself, Andrews still feels discriminated in Hong Kong although in a more indirect sense.

“In America you still feel as a black person or Muslim person, you could be insulted in public, you could be called out, but in Hong Kong it’s still not that sense of racism, it’s a kind of passive aggressiveness.”

Miguel Capistrano moved to Hong Kong in 1994 with his parents and sibling and has lived in the SAR for more than 21 years.

He works as a NET or Native-speaking English Teacher, and relishes teaching in Hong Kong finding it the ideal place for a teacher, bar the racism he has copped throughout his life.

“I’ve grown up with some micro-aggressive racism from the locals around here…It’s not in your face like in other countries, but I feel it,” he said.

At job interviews for teaching English he has been asked often why he doesn’t speak Cantonese because he is “very Asian” or why he isn’t “brown enough” for a Filipino.

“I correct them on the spot, but usually if it’s something passing, I just let it slide because you’ve got to pick your battles,” he said.

“They really try to put you in a box-I’ve been dealing with that for a long time…I’m happy doing my own thing so I try not to focus on that.”

Mr Andrews points to lingering socioeconomic divisions, within minority groups in Hong Kong.

“We still have the class system – we have rich Indians and Pakistani communities who don’t want anything to do with us in the grassroots level,” he said.

“So it’s not about Indian or Pakistanis, it’s the class [system].”

Mr Andrews believes his clients face dire circumstances for merely being dark-skinned and for being non-Cantonese speakers.

He spoke of two distinct incidents which left him speechless – one was when a French client of his of African heritage was beaten up by the police who then made him sign a statement saying he assaulted the police instead.

The other relates to his own Mum who was Christian but was refused a burial in the Christian cemetery because she wasn’t Chinese.

The turning point for him was the political movement of 2014 when protesters took to the streets to march in solidarity for universal suffrage for Hong Kong, regardless of religion, race or creed.

“It all changed with the 2014 Umbrella Movement – that was for me like, ‘this is my home, this is what we’re all about’,” he said.

“I really truly believe now, it’s time to pave the way for the younger ones to start taking up the mantle, it can’t be Jeff all the time, it’s boring, it’s the same sound byte,” he said.

“We want to be more involved politically and I think you’ll be hearing more from us because we’ve got to keep pushing.”

On 17 June, Jeffrey Andrews made an announcement on Facebook that he will be running for the Legislative Council representing the West Kowloon district.

*not his real name