HKBU is the first tertiary institution in Hong Kong that advocates and implements Whole Person Education. As early as 2006, with the support from Fung Hon Chu Foundation, the University established the Fung Hon Chu Endowed Chair of Humanics*, the holder of which will shoulder the responsibility of developing HKBU's Whole Person Education Programme and broadening students' horizons. This year, the University bestowed the title of Fung Hon Chu Endowed Chair of Humanics on Professor John Nguyet Erni, Chair Professor and Head of Department of Humanities & Creative Writing, HKBU. Professor Erni is expected to uphold the University's ethos of Whole Person Education and provide critical and diversified learning experience for students.
Professor Erni is an eminent figure in the local, Asia-Pacific and Western academia. Other than fulfilling his duties at HKBU, he is also President of The Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities as an active voice to promote the growth and sustainability of humanistic education and research. He is often invited by the media to comment on issues ranging from ethnic minorities to visual media and youth cultures. Professor Erni was a recipient of the Gustafson, Rockefeller and Annenberg Fellowships in 1997, 1999 and 2008 respectively. He has a range of diverse research interests including international and Asia-based media and cultural studies, human rights philosophy and politics, gender studies, youth popular culture studies, and critical public health studies. In 2006, his paper “War, Incendiary Media, and International Human Rights Law,” earned him the Top Paper Award at the Annual Convention of the International Communication Association.
Professor Erni gives a strong impression to people who have ever met him in person – a graceful gentleman who speaks gently and dresses stylishly. As a mixed Filipino-Spanish-Chinese-Vietnamese with multicultural upbringing, Professor Erni brings to his research a unique fusion of Western theories in cultural studies, ethnic minority sensibility, and cross-cultural experience in the local context. Our interview started with the significance of studying Humanics, or Humanities in the modern language, in this contemporary world.
“The study of Humanities means to observe, analyse, appreciate and criticise human behaviour. If people or governments think that it is not useful at all, they are indeed very short-sighted. In fact, Humanities is the most practical gift that a university can give to its students,” said Professor Erni. Professor Erni has been conducting research in the area of Humanities for over twenty-five years. He indicated that the study of Humanities had already emerged hundreds of years ago. No matter it was Europe in the West or China in the East, human behaviour and imaginations were the focus of people’s quest for knowledge and a good life at that time, and has been closely studied from literary, philosophical, religious and artistic perspectives.
Professor Erni explained that Humanities are essential in the modern world. “Previously, the academia stressed the compartmentalisation of knowledge and training specialised professionals. Yet, as our society is changing faster and faster, some specialised knowledge becomes obsolete in every few years. Moreover, many issues we face in this increasingly complicated world such as environment problems, digitalisation and human migration are cross-disciplinary and multicultural. Leaders of the next generations must not only master several languages but also possess a wide range of knowledge. By doing so leaders can figure out the underlying causes of various global problems.” Last year, a book titled In Defense of a Liberal Education was on the list of The New York Times Best Seller. In the preface, the author of the book spelt out the quality of future world leaders, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
In Hong Kong, the study of humanities has always been labelled as “impractical”. Research in this field gets far less funding than that in the fields of engineering, medicine and science. Therefore, Professor Erni highly appreciated the vision of Dr. Victor Fung and Dr. William Fung, Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Fung Group, and expressed his sincere gratitude to them for establishing this Endowed Chair of Humanics through the Fung Hon Chu Foundation. This Endowed Chair will benefit HKBU as well as the society. As pointed out by Professor Erni, HKBU’s vision is to nurture students to become responsible global citizens, which is in line with the idea of Humanities – helping students think out of the box, analyse problems critically, respect differences. These qualities are crucial for addressing needs in our time of increased inequality and intolerance.
When talking about his research on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, it can be seen that Professor Erni is not an observer. He walks with them and takes real actions. Despite his tight teaching and research schedules, Professor Erni went to the law school of The University of Hong Kong to study international human rights law, earning a Master of Laws degree, with the aim of mastering the language of law so as to conduct research on social justice issues arising from intersecting legal, social, cultural, and political contexts. He was deeply moved by the unfairness that ethnic minorities encounter in their daily life. “You can't stop thinking about what you can do to help the ethnic minority youths once you realise how desperate they are,” said Professor Erni. He wished that his research could provide useful and in-depth information for these Hong Kong residents who receive little protection under the current system. “What situations are defined as discrimination from a legal perspective? Say I was treated differently today. Was I just out of luck? Or was it due to the fact that I am an ethnic minority? That's why I studied law for I wanted to have these questions answered.” As a result, Professor Erni wrote the book Understanding South Asian Minorities in Hong Kong together with another scholar. The book has become a guide for people who want to know more about the issues concerning ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. More importantly, it has given insights to policy makers when they formulate policies on equal opportunities.
Professor Erni has such a good grasp of the situations ethnic minorities in Hong Kong are facing that he can easily reel off a list of examples immediately without much thinking. “Although these ethnic minorities were born and raised in Hong Kong, they are often excluded when they look for a job or a place to live. Because of differences in cultures and their different outlook, more often than not there is prejudice against ethnic minorities. They are seldom considered by flat owners or employers as the right candidates even if they possess qualities comparable to other applicants.” Professor Erni has been teaching a course about races, ethnic minorities and media culture. He spotted that many local students did not realise there are so many people of different races living in Hong Kong. Some even said that taking the course allowed them to come across people with different skin colours for the first time. This showed that our young generation knows little about these minorities. It is therefore Professor Erni’s hope that he could teach young people to think from various angles and have a better understanding about their community and the people around them.
Professor Erni is very active in the areas of media and cultural studies. In recent years, he has secured a number of research grants to study issues related to human rights and cultural politics. He said that social injustice is not a unique phenomenon in Hong Kong . It is very common across Asia. For example, a lot of women from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesian have married to Taiwan. There are Mongolian or Vietnamese immigrants in South Korea and Japan. Through the endowment from the Endowed Chair, together with his extensive networks in academia, the NGO world, and the cultural sector, Professor Erni would like to establish international platforms for experts to work on international migrants' rights issues. He would also like to present stories of different races and cultures to the general public through various media such as documentary films.
Outside the academic circle, Professor Erni frequently participates in non-governmental organisations and has become a member of a number of civil society groups. He has advocated policies or measures that can help ethnic minority students to further their studies. For example, he suggested that local universities evaluate ethnic minority students’ proficiency in Chinese with a separate test. Professor Erni acts in his belief and helps minorities to fight for equal opportunities. He said humbly that he was just playing a relatively minor role. With the effort of Professor Erni and other parties at HKBU, starting from the academic year 2016-17, the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Social Sciences have jointly offered the University’s first inter-faculty concentration for undergraduate study – the Gender Studies Concentration. It allows students to analyse in a systematic manner on how gender issues intersect with the hierarchies of class, ethnicity, sexuality, and with national and global formations. Moreover, the University recently received a donation from the Tsim Sha Tsui District Kai Fong Welfare Association for the establishment of the “Admission Scholarship Scheme for Outstanding South and South East Asian Ethnic Minority Students”. The Scheme encourages and supports outstanding ethnic minority students in Hong Kong in pursuing their undergraduate studies at HKBU. Measures that promote diversity and harmony like these will be welcomed by the public.
When our discussion turned to “One Belt, One Road”, Professor Erni pointed out that other than viewing it in terms of economic growth and development opportunities, it also raises opportunities to study large-scale human migration, cultural exchange and technology transfer. A study on such issues from a humanities perspective would be really interesting and meaningful. It could give forward-looking views or suggestions to the future development of the “One Belt, One Road”. When this interview is published, Professor Erni is staying at The University of Sydney, Australia, as a Visiting Scholar. When he returns, he would definitely bring about more inspiring and insightful research, enabling us to observe our world from a novel perspective.
*This interview was published in 2017. The endowed professorship bestowed upon Professor John Nguyet Erni was renamed as Fung Hon Chu Endowed Professorship in Humanics in 2020.