Nepalis strangers in their own city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am


Nepalis are struggling to make a living in Hong Kong, prompting some people to ask whether policymakers are serious about promoting multiculturalism and equality.

Some of the Nepalis were born and bred in Hong Kong, and most have permanent residency, yet they find themselves stranded culturally and linguistically. Experts say policy failings will only aggravate the poverty and isolation of the Nepalis and other ethnic minorities.

That is ironic, considering Hong Kong's claim to be an international city with a global outlook, Professor Maria Tam Siumi, of Chinese University, says.

'Hong Kong's so-called multiculturalism caters to the rich,' said Tam, a researcher on ethnic minorities. 'Those without the advantage of money are marginalised.'

Fermi Wong Wai-fun, director of non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Unison, is blunter. 'We don't have a multiculturalism policy. Here, multiculturalism is only for the rich - if you're rich, you can be of any race and be fine.'

That South Asians face an unfavourable social environment is nothing new. Discrimination makes it hard for working-class South Asians to find better jobs, while the language barrier isolates them from mainstream society.

The problems are only intensified by the fact the Nepali community is relatively small and many of its members are recent arrivals.

Official figures put the Nepali population at 13,000, but Tam said it should be closer to 40,000.

The city passed an anti-discrimination law only in 2009, yet is still scratching its head over how to implement it. The public services hire few people from ethnic minorities, while schools lack programmes to teach Chinese as a second language.

Members of minorities face discrimination when they try to use basic services, like opening a bank account or renting a flat. Some cannot get medical help at public hospitals because there are no translators or English signs.

The first Nepalis arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 - Gurkha soldiers serving in the British Army. They lived in army barracks, isolated from the rest of society, until they were thrust into the midst of an overwhelmingly Chinese community with the end of British rule and the handover in 1997. Lacking British citizenship at the time and yet unwilling to return to Nepal because of its bad economic situation, the Gurkhas and their families were stranded in a foreign land.

As children, many Nepalis attended non-Chinese schools. That is why, despite long years in Hong Kong, most cannot read or write Chinese and struggle to speak anything more than basic Cantonese.

'You're put into schools where most children are like you, from non-Chinese families,' Princess Gurung, 21, said. 'There isn't any help in learning Chinese as a second language. Then you're asked to take local-standard language exams.'

Gurung was fortunate in that her parents insisted their children attend mainstream Chinese schools and scraped together enough money to pay for extra Chinese classes.

Wong said the language barrier kept Nepalis out of university, which in turn prevented them getting better jobs. Her group fights for education rights for minority children.

'It's a vicious circle. We've been fighting for a Chinese-as-a-second-language programme for a decade now, and we're still nowhere close.'

Learning to read and write Chinese and finding employment are the two biggest issues South Asians face, recent research by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows.

Tam said the aim of education was to bring children, regardless of their ethnicity or financial background, to a level playing field.

'If you consider education as a right of citizenship, then the government has the responsibility to fulfil the needs of citizens whose mother tongue is not Cantonese or Chinese.'