Nepalese community struggles for acceptance in the city they call home

In the second of a two-part series, Mark Sharp looks at how the Nepalese community struggles for acceptance in a city they call home

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 10:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 2:53pm

The slogan on the T-shirt says it all: "I can't keep calm because I'm an ethnic minority living in Hong Kong." A twist on the "Keep Calm And…" viral meme, it was created by Nepalis to express their sense of disenfranchisement in the city they call home.

Moreover the "minoritee", as the shirt has been dubbed, is a symbol of the community's aspirations to be accepted as an integral part of Hong Kong society.

Nepalis have an association with the city dating back to 1969-70, when Gurkha regiments were first based here. The British granted the troops and their families permanent residency in the early 1990s. Then, amid political uncertainty in the run-up to the handover in 1997, many returned to Nepal. The early 2000s, when fears had receded, saw them returning. But given difficulties in finding school places for non-Chinese-speaking minorities, many left their children behind. The lack of Chinese-language support persists, and minorities are often allocated places in so-called lower-band schools, which risks entrenching intergenerational poverty in the community.

A flawed education system is the reason Nepalis are largely typecast as relatively unskilled, blue-collar workers, says Dhiraj Gurung, a part-time school-teacher and researcher at Chinese University of Hong Kong. He recalls being asked where he was from during his early days as a master's student at the institution. "I said 'Nepal', and the next question was, 'Are you a security guard?'"

In a bid to improve education opportunities for minorities, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his February policy address that HK$200 million would be provided to schools in the next academic year to support teaching of Chinese as a second language. But although the overdue initiative is welcome, it still misses the point about ethnic minorities' education, says school liaison officer Amod Rai, one of a group of Nepalis advocating minorities' rights.

"The government is focusing on assimilation, rather than integration," Rai says. "Ethnic minorities should also be given the opportunity to learn their mother language, and their culture should be included in the school curriculum in some way, like in liberal studies or humanities," Rai says. He adds that the UN advocates mother-tongue education.

"The majority should be able to accept the minority's culture and their values as part of Hong Kong society, otherwise the younger generation will lose their cultural identity. If their culture and language are not respected, they won't respect other cultures."

We want to be equal participants and we can also contribute to society
Amod Rai, minority rights advocate

Responding to the policy address, Form Three students Reshma Gurung and Kirandip Kaur recently articulated their grievances against the local education system in an essay.

"Many teachers rush while teaching and may not care if students understand or not," they wrote. "Teachers think that education is a competition, that it's a race. Exams are important, no doubt, but what's the use if it's not teaching us something about our lives and our communities, and how we should deal with the world?"

Problems faced by ethnic minority students go much further than the issue of Chinese language, they added. They face indirect racism and discrimination on a daily basis, when they are described as "non-Chinese-speaking", "non-Chinese students", or simply not considered a "local", the girls wrote. "Our identities are taken away and we do not feel safe." Among their classmates at CMA Choi Cheung Kok Secondary School, there is also a consensus that Putonghua lessons would be more beneficial for their future careers than Cantonese.

According to Dhiraj Gurung, who holds a master's degree in public health and also works as a translator, health care is another problem area for minorities.

The Health Department assists them by making translators available at a patient's request; multilingual fliers are produced alerting minorities to health issues, such as breast cancer. But the translation is not verified, Gurung says. "For example, the language in those brochures is full of jargon and words that the layman cannot understand.

"The interpreters are not trained in medical terminology and jargon, and there is no assessment to evaluate the interpreters," he says.

"The government is doing all this health promotion, which is good. But there is no evaluation and no long-term policy," Gurung says.

Gobin Rana, a private maths tutor who is also active in social issues, says many elderly Nepalis are daunted by the health care system and often turn their backs on the services available to them. Rana offers suggestions to improve the situation.

First, data should be collected from the elderly, and their health problems should be recorded by hospitals, he says. Health officials should also identify areas where there are bigger populations of Nepalis, and designate an "ethnic minority unit" in nearby hospitals employing minority health professionals.

Overall, the biggest problem is that the government makes policies without consulting the community, Gurung says.

Representatives of some political parties do advocate for ethnic minorities in areas with large communities. For Nepalis, that is Yuen Long and the Yau Tsim Mong districts. "They are close to people in the Legco," Gurung says. "But these people are not on the front line, like us. So they might not get the genuine information that we are seeing every day."

A such, Rai thinks it is time for minorities to raise their voice and seek more direct representation in the society. "Ethnic minorities also deserve to be represented among the Legislative Council's functional constituencies, and have a place among the election committee that will choose candidates for the Chief Executive election in 2017," he says.

Despite the relatively small size of Hong Kong's Nepali population - about 30,000 - they are divided along clan lines, often with considerable cultural differences. About 40 social organisations serve the community, although a good number solely represent interests of the Gurung, Limbu, Magar, Rai or other lineages.

"We have great diversity," Rai says. "For example, Rai and Limbu are from eastern Nepal. But the Limbu's religion, cultural, language, music, costumes and food are entirely different from the Rais'. The Gurung and Magar are very different. Even among the Gurung, there are two groups: one practices Buddhism and one shamanism."

There are also three Nepali-language newspapers in Hong Kong, including Everest Weekly, which focuses on local community events and news.

This rich cultural diversity has a flip side, however. There is no recognisable individual who represents the voice of the community as a whole, making it difficult to effectively air grievances and find solutions to their problems.

To help unify Nepalis in the city, they need their own community centre, says Dor Arie, who teaches minority students at CMA Choi Cheung Kok. This would also give them the freedom to no longer rely on the goodwill of others.

"At the moment, they have to go begging and knocking on doors. There are some places they can use on a one-off basis, but they don't have their own place. Pakistanis have their clubs and mosques. The Nepalese don't have anything except for the Gurkha Cemetery."

Besides providing a meeting place, a community centre could also be a venue for introducing Nepali arts and culture to their youngsters and the broader population.

Music teacher Dinesh Subba would welcome such a venue. "From my point of view, music plays a big role in integrating our community. Our next generation are losing all their customs and traditions. I try my best to teach them through music and literature," he says.

Artist Dipendra Rai holds workshops for students, the most recent on the subject of the Gurkhas, to teach them about their history. Rai says he is impressed by how Nepali students are more energetic and eager to learn than the older generation. Art also forms a connection between people.

"I find that art is the best expression to communicate with others' culture because, unlike verbal language, there is no barrier," he says.

One sign of Nepalis' wish to integrate is Purkha Diwas, or Ancestors' Day. The day of remembrance takes place tomorrow - the same day as Ching Ming - at the Gurkha Cemetery at San Tin Barracks. Purkha Diwas is not observed in Nepal but began in Hong Kong in 2004. It has since been adopted by Nepalis in Britain and elsewhere, Amod Rai says.

"The timing with Ching Ming isn't a coincidence. We are really trying to value Chinese culture through our culture. We want to be equal participants and we can also contribute to society."