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30 Mar 2022 (Wed)     

Integrating into Hong Kong - Starting with South Asian Food and Music

As a multi-cultural society, Hong Kong has attracted many ethnic minorities to settle in. According to information from the government, the ethnic minority population in Hong Kong has increased by 70% in the past decade. Excluding foreign domestic helpers, there are about 263,000 people living in Hong Kong, of which 30% of them are of South Asian origin, including Nepalese, Pakistani and Indian. In addition to retaining their own unique culture, they are also trying hard via various means to integrate into mainstream society, thus becoming part of the Hong Kong community.

Food and music as an intercultural bridge

Living in a foreign country and adapting to a new environment inevitably brings back memories of familiar things, such as places, food and customs. Integration is a two-way process and it needs action from both sides. With various policies and measures to promote racial integration, ethnic minorities are actively integrating into Hong Kong's mainstream society through different channels. Traditional South Asian food and music are among the key channels. In a recent study, Dr Terence Shum Chun-tat, an Assistant Professor of the School of Arts and Social Sciences who is interested in studying migration and development, found that food and music are key components of South Asian culture that help ethnic minorities to express, retain and construct their own culture in the new social environment.

Dr Shum has been working as a volunteer English and Cantonese language instructor for asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong since 2008. During this time, he has visited their homes and restaurants, tasted their traditional foods, and participated in their religious and cultural activities. These personal experiences inspired his research project, which he completed last year, on how both food and music influence the community composition, identity construction, and integration of ethnic minorities into Hong Kong society. The two-year research project was funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council.

Dr Sham conducted in-depth interviews with 60 South Asians and 15 Hong Kongers, visited their restaurants and grocery stores for on-site observation, and participated in various socio-cultural and religious events organized by ethnic minorities. His findings indicate that for both the South Asians and Hongkongers, while language is a barrier for communication between them, food and music can effectively break down these boundaries.

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According to Dr Shum, the taste of food can evoke memories and feelings, and the process of preparation and consumption can help the ethnic minorities connect with their homeland, thus creating a sense of satisfaction. Music presented in dialect is a way to relieve stress. When traditional instruments such as organ and tabla are played at festivals and religious events, it can easily bring back memories and unite the community. Thus, food and music play an instrumental role in cultural exchange, both to retain and construct identity internally and to build bridges externally. Listening to South Asian music and consuming South Asian food can provide a concrete experience for Hong Kong Chinese, which in the process can trigger their curiosity about South Asian culture, thus leading to some meaningful dialogue between the two different groups and connecting them.

Enhancing mutual understanding and promoting racial integration

The commitment and participation of Hong Kong's residents is essential for Hong Kong to fully embrace its ethnic diversity. Since food and music are effective medium in promoting cultural exchange, Dr Shum suggests that the Hong Kong residents should take the initiative to promote local food specialties to ethnic minorities and share with them the history and culture behind the food; try to participate in their religious ceremonies and festivals; and enjoy their music melodies and even dialects. Through more exchanges, both sides can better understand each other's unique cultures, which is conducive to mutual appreciation and respect. This will contribute to the long-term development of multiculturalism in Hong Kong.

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