Kowloon West primary candidate Jeffrey Andrews on the rooftop of Chungking Mansions, his office and social work hub

“Liveability before politics” – a campaign concept that has seen Hong Konger Jeffrey Andrews called “not yellow enough” and which, in a city sharply divided by the single issue of Hong Kong’s governance, may well cost him the primary for the Kowloon West seat he’s fighting.

Andrews has teamed up with local district councillor Leslie Chan in his bid

But these are words Andrews lives by. In a departure from 2020 pan-dem policy, the city’s first ethnic minority social worker says issues from rent caps to congestion and public transport are the real things his constituents care about, and if elected through the Primary on 11-12 July and then to LegCo in September this year he has no intention of blocking or vetoing any bill that would help them.

“I wouldn’t sign this manifesto of Benny Tai’s, the ‘We burn, you burn with us’. Will I veto every policy [under the laam caau “burnism” proposals]? No, sorry, if it means survival for the poorest of the poor, as a social worker, that doesn’t work for me, I want to help my clients live their lives.”

34-year-old Andrews is often called the “King of Chungking Mansions”, but that’s inaccurate: he’s more like a mayor than a king, a social worker serving free food to the hungry, and helping residents across Kowloon, not just the enclave of the infamous Chungking towers.

Andrews lives in a ninth-floor walk-up in Sham Shui Po, alongside elderly neighbours who eke out a living collecting cardboard for recycling. “So if you ask me, how do you feel about the national security or the national anthem law, I say are you kidding me? Where I live, the big thing is minimum wage, rental caps, subdivided housing,” says the social worker.

Tsim Sha Tsui faces serious pedestrian and road congestion

Transport is a key issue for minorities, says Andrews, closely related to rent, income and inequity. Low-income workers often face tough choices between living in public housing far from their jobs, and spending hours’ worth of pay on commuting, or staying in brutal subdivided conditions close to the work. “A lot of my community, they ended up staying close in the subdivided units, in Jordan, Yau Ma Tei, they’re working there. If they get public housing in Sha Tin, Tung Chung, they’d have to switch jobs, it’s not viable,” he says, with a commute from New Territories to Central or Kowloon costing many hours’ pay every day.

And the government’s failure on tunnel management has made the whole Tsim Sha Tsui district a mess for public transport, says Andrews, with excruciating bus rides through the peninsula or across the harbour. “I take the 28 bus every day and I am always stuck… so if I need to, I will take a taxi, but that’s HK$40, HK$50 there,” he says.

LegCo has been discussing a way to solve the tunnel imbalances for years – but discussions have repeatedly stalled. “How many years have they been discussing that? The political will of the government is ridiculous,” says Andrews. “The Western tunnel is a ransom, it’s a shame, the Hung Hom tunnel is clogged every day, they can’t even get that right. The [Western tunnel] prices have to come down, the Cross-Harbour tunnel has to come up a bit so we can balance these out,” he says.

The government’s inaction on cross-harbour tunnel imbalance has been ridiculous, says Andrews

Andrews admits recent MTR subsidies have been welcome, but have an inhuman element representative of the whole government’s approach to minorities and poor. “A lot of subsidies miss out on those people who just barely made it and are just above that line, and that’s where this government needs to think about a more individual care plan for every citizen in Hong Kong,” he says.

His proposal is for a Commission on Ethnic Minorities, which would cut across all the siloed government departments, from Transport to Lands to Labour, and help minorities. “The government says, minorities are fine, you have your public housing, you have more upward social mobility than ever before, but I don’t think so, we’re still struggling,” he says.

Language is one issue that impacts minority lives, says Andrews, and has been getting worse lately. “English levels have fallen since 1997, we can’t make do with English any more, try taking a green minibus in Kowloon, you won’t know where to stop as all the signs are in Chinese. I fear for the elder minorities, they’re scared to take the red minibus, they say the wrong thing to stop and get shouted at by the driver. It’s not great.” he says.

“The minority population is growing, it’s not just South Asian, now you have African, Middle Eastern, you have Foreign Domestic Helpers who need to take these transport options and they’re just not friendly or accessible.”

Celebrating minority history

Andrews supports the Underground Kowloon Park concept but says there should be a museum dedicated to the contributions of ethnic minorities to the district

One controversial scheme Andrews supports is the “Underground” Kowloon Park plan, which he says would be a good connector for the district, which already features underground walkways from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Nathan Road.

But he says any such scheme should honour the South Asian minorities that had such a positive impact on the district, proposing a museum or other cultural centre in the underground site.

There’s no shortage of minority history in the district to display: it was the Indian population, including the Mody and Harilela families, who transformed Tsim Sha Tsui from an army barracks into a vibrant and successful shopping district; there’s the Parsi merchant who founded the Star Ferry; or the work of the British army’s Punjab Regiment that acquired the land and built Hong Kong’s first mosque (interestingly, that mosque was irreparably damaged by the construction of the MTR, and was rebuilt by the MTR as today’s Kowloon Mosque).

But while minorities built the district, today they are sidelined. “There’s not even cricket allowed in the district,” he says. “We want to be involved in every aspect of the city’s discussion, because we’re not right now, our interests are usually hijacked by elites who do not filter information down.”

Andrews was angry at the redevelopment of the Avenue of Stars, for example, which happened with little consultation. “The walkway was closed for four or five years. How dare they take that right away! We were already living in little congested streets and roads and walkways. The hiking and coastal sites are the only thing we have,” he says.

“Sometimes I wonder, don’t the government want to get good points? Do they not want to at least show they’re doing something? Are they actually out on the streets, do they use these places? Of course not, they drive! Carrie Lam doesn’t even know how to use an Octopus card, it just shows their total disconnect. I hope maybe my standing in the election can be a wake-up call.”

If elected, Andrews would be the first ethnic minority lawmaker in Legco – but he’s frank about his chances. The Kowloon West primary is fiercely contested, with pan-dem heavyweights Claudia Mo, Jimmy Sham and Helena Wong to beat. “It would be a miracle,” he says. “But at least now the voice for minorities is there. I am pretty sure whoever wins, they can’t neglect the minorities now, because we have already started to come into the election.”

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