Community & Education HKFP Voices

‘Please don’t get a tan’: passing as white in Hong Kong is a reward for hard work you didn’t do

By Sarah Denise Moran

Twenty-six years ago, my Filipino mother left behind everything familiar to work abroad as a domestic helper. Around the same time, my British father also left his home country in search of better opportunities.

Then in 1995, I won the lottery of birth by being born in Hong Kong to a British father and a Filipino Mum. That day, I gained a British passport, white skin, and a lifetime of privilege.

Sarah Denise Moran

Photo: Sarah Denise Moran.

I grew up in local schools in Hong Kong. I can speak, read, and write Chinese fluently and half of my friends are Chinese. Which is why despite not being Chinese in Hong Kong, I never felt like I was different or didn’t fit in.

Until this one time, when I was seven years old, my teacher started explaining to the class how the Chinese term gwai mui (literally ghost girl in Cantonese, used to describe western females) came about. Apparently, when Westerners arrived in China for the first time, Chinese people thought they were so white, they could almost be ghosts.

Being the only foreigner in a local Chinese school, I was naturally the “ghost girl” in class. What followed was a week of my classmates shying away from me, and occasional gwai mui remarks. That was the first time I realised skin colour meant something, and my only close-to-negative experience from being white-passing in Hong Kong.

I learnt how society views colour and race when my Mum was mistaken for my helper. She was out shopping with my sisters and me when a lady came up to her and said, “Your employer’s daughters are so cute! How old are they?”

It wasn’t the first nor the last time it’s happened, but that was my first conscious memory of such an incident. Given the prevalence of Filipino helpers in Hong Kong, it may seem like a fair assumption, but the problem is when a Mum of a different colour to her child is mistaken for the nanny or helper, it suggests a subtle social hierarchy assumption linked to race, that a person’s race is tied to her social and economic station in life.

This became even more clear to me when I started teaching. Despite having zero relevant qualifications or experience, I was able to wangle my way into teaching in centres and kindergartens simply by being white-looking.

Sarah Denise Moran

Sarah Denise Moran and mother. Photo: Sarah Denise Moran.

I knew my teaching abilities had nothing to do with me getting the job when I was told repeatedly by my employers that my students and their parents must not know I’m half Filipino. “Just say you’re British,” my boss would tell me. Even when I started to gain more experience, this never changed.

When a student’s Mum found out I was half Filipino, she withdrew her daughter from my class — after one year of teaching her with no complaints. My last boss — who only hires white foreigners, even said, “You know, because you’re mixed, it’s a little difficult to tell where you’re from. Perhaps you should dye your hair a lighter brown, and maybe put on more make-up to emphasise your Western features. Oh, and please don’t get a tan.”

Being white in Hong Kong is like winning an award for hard work you never did. People tell me, ‘You don’t look Filipino’, ‘You look more British than Filipino’ or ‘I would never have thought you were half Filipino! I always thought you were [insert random Western or Hispanic race]’, and expect me to take it as a compliment.

I wish I could say this isn’t the majority attitude in Hong Kong, but it is. Hong Kong is a peculiar place. Even though British rule ended two decades ago, the colonial mentality continues to put white people on a pedestal.

There’s still an unspoken bias that those who are from the West are superior, and those who are from Southeast Asia are inferior. And this bias exists in varying forms all over the world.

hong kong flag football

File Photo: Inmediahk.net.

My understanding of human rights is that there’s a social contract that’s applicable to everyone – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But from a critical distance of observation, there’s a huge discrepancy between what human rights say and what our reality often reflects. All men and races may have been created equal by God, but they’re not always treated equally.

Race is often uncomfortable for us to talk about for fear of saying something wrong, but it’s important to keep that discourse going in order to overcome our biases. Human nature isn’t just a force acting upon us, it’s also something we create together when we decide how we treat each other and the world we share.

Becoming aware of privilege shouldn’t be viewed as a source of guilt, but rather, an opportunity to be responsible in working towards a more just world. Talking about our experiences, be it on the side of privilege or not, is important because to dismantle racial hierarchy we must first see it as it is.

'Please don't get a tan': passing as white in Hong Kong is a reward for hard work you didn't do