Heidi Ricohermoso grew up in the shadows of Hong Kong's towering cityscape and, like the rest of her peers, often gazed upwards and dreamed of success. But getting there meant getting into college, and for Ricohermoso, the child of Filipino immigrants, that meant passing a series of state-administered exams.
"I wasn't very happy to see my HKCEE results," said Ricohermoso, referring to the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, a test administered to students in the eleventh grade as a prerequisite for the last two years of secondary school (high school). Students then must pass an exit exam to graduate from high school and apply to colleges and universities.
With Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, the tests have placed renewed emphasis on Chinese language proficiency.
"I thought I had to give up on getting a college education," said Ricohermoso. That frustration eventually forced Ricohermoso and her mother to leave the country for the United States, where the soft-spoken 20-year-old is now enrolled at Portland Community College and studying to become a Certified Nurse Assistant.
"Everyone in our community should be able to share in the fruits of our economic development," said Hong Kong's new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in June, during an inaugural address, marred by protests over the city's growing wealth gap. For Ricohermoso, such words ring hollow.
Hong Kong's Servant Class
Four years ago she was waiting tables in Hong Kong and earning less than $1000 a month for a 60-hour work week. Her dreams went no farther than the next week's wages. After leaving Hong Kong, Ricohermoso finally saw a future for herself. "I felt relieved and excited for a new life and a new beginning," she said. "There are more opportunities [for me] here in the US."
Most of her friends back home, Ricohermoso says, are still working the same service-sector jobs she left behind.
Of Hong Kong's 7 million residents, close to 400,000 are members of an ethnic minority, according to census data from 2006. Most came fleeing joblessness and other economic woes in their home countries, and were attracted by the stellar economic success of the then-British colony.
Filipinos are the city's largest minority, with a population of some 150,000. Ricohermoso's mother was among the thousands of mostly women who in the late 1980s arrived looking for jobs mostly as domestic workers or nannies in the homes of Chinese families, at a time when more Chinese women were joining the labor force. More than two decades later, the children of these early migrants have come of age, reared in a school system that many Filipino residents say is set up for them to fail.
Ricohermoso attended a Canadian kindergarten and, after that, spent two years at a private international school where English was the main language of instruction. At home she spoke Tagalog with her mother and biological father. (He passed away when Ricohermoso was 10, and her mother is now remarried to a U.S. citizen).
Of Hong Kong's 524 secondary schools – the rough equivalent of junior high in the United States – only five are for students from non-Chinese speaking households. The tuition at one of these private schools typically runs around HK$80,000 (US$10,000) per year, beyond what most immigrant families can afford.
By the time Ricohermoso was ready to enter the third grade, her mother moved her to a local Chinese school, hoping it would help prepare her for government-aided secondary school, where Cantonese is the main language of instruction.
"I was struggling with tests and exams because all the subjects were (taught) in Chinese…" recalled Ricohermoso. "As a non-Chinese, being in a Chinese school for the first time was very difficult for me."
Kelley Loper, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University's Faculty of Law and who has written extensively on the struggles of the city's ethnic minorities, says that there is little data on how language barriers have helped or hindered non-Chinese students.
According to Loper, the Hong Kong government is required to ensure equality of education, but officials are not meeting these obligations.
"Language is the key challenge and obstacle facing ethnic minority students when attempting to access education on an equal basis with their Chinese counterparts," said Loper.
Passing both state-administered exams was the ticket to college entry, but non-Chinese students still face barriers beyond that.
Neither test requires Chinese, though roughly 80 percent of universities in Hong Kong require prospective students to submit Chinese language test scores during the admission process. It is one reason why minority attendance among Hong Kong's universities is an abysmal 6.7 percent.
Ticket to Higher Ed.
Early on, many non-Chinese students encounter a school system that tracks them into lower-ranking schools.
Margaret Justine Nicolas, a 22-year-old Filipino student, now attends Hong Kong Polytechnic University, but the road to success was not easy.
After the sixth grade, she, like Ricohermoso, was assigned to a third-tier middle school, called a "Band 3" school -- the lowest performing of Hong Kong's three-tier ranking system, where a majority of students are non-Chinese. Unlike Ricohermoso, she decided to challenge the appointment, applying instead to a top-tier school.
"When the interview [the top-tier school] started, the first few minutes were conducted in English, then they switched to Cantonese," said Nicolas. "They asked five questions – I could answer the first three." As soon as it became apparent that her Cantonese was wanting, Nicolas said, the interview ended.
Nicolas eventually ended up enrolling at a third-tier school with a 90 percent ethnic minority student body.
After high school, Nicholas passed her high school exit and college entrance exam, but did not score high enough to gain access to top universities. She credits a high school teacher for helping to put her on the path to enroll in a college. The teacher encouraged her to apply for a newly-launched community college transfer program tied to Hong Kong Polytechnic.
In 2010, Nicolas transferred to Hong Kong Polytechnic, and is now a few months shy of earning her degree in English for Business Professional Communication.
"I never thought it would be possible," she said, adding she now plans to pursue a Master's in English Language Arts. Still she counts herself one of the lucky ones.
"I don't think that much effort is being placed on keeping non-Chinese students in Hong Kong," said Nicolas. "Schools are just letting them go, seeing as they normally leave Hong Kong or start working."