A new study by Hong Kong’s equality watchdog has found that one in four kindergartens are unfriendly towards children who do not speak Chinese, rejecting their attempts to apply to the school or giving discouraging or ambiguous responses when they inquired about admissions.

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the Equal Opportunities Commission released the results of its latest survey on kindergarten admission policies and attitudes towards applicants who are not Chinese speakers.

alfred chan
EOC chair Alfred Chan. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Currently, non-Chinese speaking students are enrolled at 59.6 per cent of the kindergartens that responded to the watchdog’s questions. But 26.3 per cent demonstrated negative attitudes towards ethnic-minority applicants by not allowing them to apply or by giving discouraging or ambiguous remarks.

The equality watchdog warned that such behaviour may be considered indirect discrimination if there is “no justifiable reason.”

According to Senior Equal Opportunities Officer Raymond Ho, schools would say as justification that they have no experience in admitting non-Chinese speaking students, or that they are not inclined to take ethnic minority students because the language of instruction is Cantonese. Schools may even suggest that the parent look for another school without giving any specific reason, he added.

“Kindergartens which have never admitted [ethnic minority] students need more encouragement, direction, and education,” Ho said.

raymond ho
Raymond Ho. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Ho said that, since 2015, there have been 10 related complaints made to the watchdog, including cases of discrimination or harassment. He did not reveal further details as the cases were still ongoing.

The survey also found that 20.5 per cent of kindergartens use Chinese language proficiency as a selection criterion, which the watchdog said was “unrealistic” as it would require a ethnic minority children under the age of three to be as fluent as Chinese kids. Over 70 per cent of the kindergartens’ webpages are also mostly or completely in Chinese.

‘Equal right to education’

Ms Abeer, who is originally from India and has resided with her family in Hong Kong for over a decade, told reporters that when she visited one reputable Chinese-speaking local kindergarten, she was told to send her daughter to an English school. “[S]he didn’t even let me enter the venue to have a look at the kindergarten.”

At another kindergarten, even though she was given a bilingual form to fill in, she was later told that there were “other criteria” for the school to consider and her child was not given a chance to attend an interview. Her daughter is now attending an English-language school in Mei Foo, but receives extra support in learning Cantonese from Hong Kong Christian Service.

“I believe that… they must have equal right to education,” she said. She added that she hopes her children will receive the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education and does not want them to be separated from local Chinese students, even though there are schools that are very welcoming to ethnic minorities in every neighbourhood.

eoc ethnic minorities kindergartens
Photo: HKFP/Karen Cheung.

“If they do not get this environment right at kindergarten, [and you] suddenly put them in a local [primary] school, they will be shocked… because now they’re communicating completely in English,” she said.

Abeer also said that her husband, who has two business degrees from Pakistan, is unable to work in the commercial field in Hong Kong due to the language barrier. She said she believes this contributes to their poverty and wishes to “move forward” into professional sectors. “I’m one of the parent[s] who are thinking, maybe, if my child can be equal in Cantonese, she will be successful.”

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Karen cheung hong kong

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.