Soldiering on

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2005, 12:00am

IN A BARE training hall in Yuen Long, some youngsters practise taekwondo while their instructor prepares a lesson. There's little about his slight build and unassuming manner to suggest it, but Khadka Raju is a black-belt exponent of the Korean martial art.

Raju is also a member of Hong Kong's small Nepalese community, a vestige of the Gurkha troops garrisoned in the city when it was still under British rule.

But the former soldier, who came to the city with his Hong Kong-born wife, sees his job as more than just teaching self defence. Part of his responsibilities, he says, includes ensuring his students - mostly young Nepalese - stay out of trouble. That's why he's creating a safe environment at the club where they feel at home and meet positive role models.

'We're not only working for money. It's like social work,' says Raju, who has seen some of his students win gold medals at tournaments in South Korea. 'Other instructors, my friends, are trying to teach students about Hong Kong and the law. We're trying to stop them from getting into drugs and bad habits.'

Although the last operationally active Gurkha soldiers left in 1996, about 13,000 Nepalese live in Hong Kong. A significant number have settled in Yuen Long and Kam Tin - close to the former British military base in Sek Kong. The air in the sleepy neighbourhoods near Kam Tin is tinged with the aromatic waft of curry, while the strains of popular Bollywood dance tunes punctuate the rhythms of daily life, courtesy of a Nepali-run DVD shop.

The Nepalese began settling in Hong Kong in earnest in the mid-1990s, when Gurkha children born in the city before 1983 were belatedly granted permanent residency. According to the 2001 census, 45 per cent of the Nepalese community was born in Hong Kong. More than half of all Nepalese working men are employed in construction-related jobs.

Rai Saru is part of the locally born brigade. Like many, she accompanied her father back to Nepal after his tour of duty and was raised there. But she returned after getting married. Her Nepalese husband is a foreman on construction sites.

Saru still struggles with Cantonese, but considers both Hong Kong and Nepal home. (Her mother, younger brother and sister still live in Nepal and she goes back twice a year to help with the family business). The 28-year-old now runs a small convenience store in Yuen Long catering to Nepalese. The shelves are stocked with the Nepali weekly newspaper Jana Aastha, Indian and Nepali films and Nepalese cosmetics, clothes and food.

Hong Kong offers better opportunities compared with Nepal, where 42 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Unemployment ran at a staggering 47 per cent in 2001 and only 45 per cent of the population over the age of 15 can read and write. The city also provides sanctuary from a country torn by a Maoist insurgency that has left more than 11,000 people dead and displaced more than 100,000 since it began in 1996.

Tamag Hem Bahadur is one of about 3,000 Gurkha ex-servicemen living here. He turned his hand to farming after leaving the army in 1985 and even served five years as mayor of a Nepali town before returning to Hong Kong five years ago to join his daughter and her husband. He now works as a security supervisor.

'I served in Hong Kong for a long time,' says Bahadur, who spent 15 of his 18 years in Hong Kong with the British army. 'Usually it's OK [here], because in my country it's a disaster.'

Immigration restrictions prevent Bahadur's wife from joining him in Hong Kong, and he worries about the security in Nepal as he toils to put two children through university abroad and a third through high school in Nepal.

The Nepalese are a proud and close-knit group. People are quick to recognise and greet each other in the streets around Yuen Long, and community events are well attended.

In recent years, however, the community's image has been tarnished by reports of some youngsters falling into a cycle of drugs and delinquency. Compounding the problem is the language barrier that results in some children falling behind at school, and those with poor academic results often end up in relatively low-paid jobs such as construction or cleaning.

But, like Raju, some community members are using their skills to improve the job prospects of youngsters who may have little formal schooling.

For entrepreneur Thal Bahadur Shris, one way has been providing affordable courses in basic computer skills.

A business studies graduate with a computing background, he was disappointed with the lack of training available to Nepalese when he arrived in 1997 to join his Hong Kong-born wife. 'I couldn't find any institutes suitable for Nepalese people. The main problem is language,' he says. This spurred him on to set up a school teaching basic software such as word processing and e-mail - essential today for even entry-level office jobs. Starting with a tiny space and three computers, Shris now runs four modest centres with 125 computers offering courses and cheap internet access to the Nepalese community. He charges $1,000 for a basic one-month course, compared with $400 an hour at some private schools.

'I didn't make a lot of money from this business, but I earned a lot of goodwill,' Shris says.

Ekraj Rai has taken this self-help philosophy in another direction with steps to ensure youngsters don't lose touch with their roots. Six years ago he set up a Nepali-language kindergarten in Yuen Long to ensure toddlers are exposed to their mother tongue at an early age. The Sagarmatha Multicultural School has since established links with local primary and secondary schools.

'Being new in Hong Kong, we're still in the process of integrating,' says Rai.

Many Nepalese doubt Hong Kong offers them long-term opportunities, a reason why parents at Rai's school are keen for their children to learn Nepali - it's insurance in case they have to return to the mother country. He has also lobbied the government for more resources to meet the specialist educational needs of the city's ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, the Nepalese persist with their own solutions. It's just as well they have a rich tradition of self-sufficiency.