Culture | Level playing field long overdue for Hong Kong's ethnic minority kids
Ethnic minority children are required to speak, read and write Cantonese for them to be admitted into the good public Primary schools. Photo: Hong Kong Unison
Ethnic minority children are required to speak, read and write Cantonese for them to be admitted into the good public Primary schools. Photo: Hong Kong Unison
CultureNepalOpinion

Level playing field long overdue for Hong Kong’s ethnic minority kids

Most Nepalese in the city are second and third-generation residents whose opportunities to flourish and contribute to society are limited

February 24, 2017 6:38 PM (UTC+8)

Mention Nepal anywhere and images of snow-capped peaks, temples, indomitable Sherpas, legendary Gurkha soldiers and friendly, hospitable people spring to mind.

But this beautiful country and its remarkable people have far more dimensions than this myopic perception.

How is it that a country whose people have a reputation for loyalty, selfless devotion to duty, human integrity and a stubborn resilience to the assaults of both nature and mankind, lurches from one political crisis to another?

Virtually a “closed kingdom” until 1953, it emerged from this cocoon rubbing the sand from sleepy eyes and embarking on the complex process of trying to catch up with the world around it. The country lacked both the physical and human infrastructure that would have developed naturally.

No study of Nepal can begin without recognizing that its population is divided along diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.

At the outset of its transition to a constitutional democracy, the ethnic group with the greatest experience of the outside world was the Gurkha soldiers who had served in the Indian and British armies since 1815.

Second place in what might be termed international exposure were the Newari merchants, indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley, but with historically established trading links with Tibet and India.

Read: Why Hong Kong should not wash its hands of Gurkha history 

Ironically, very few from these groups have made the transition to politics.

Nepal’s political class is riven with a systemic corruption so profound that it is a given that nothing, but nothing, can be achieved without greasing the appropriate palm, from Prime Minister to peon.

That this is accepted as the norm can only be regarded as fatalistic toleration, accepted with the same equanimity as earthquakes, landslides, floods and harvest failures.

There is a hardy element in the Nepalese psyche, which enables them to smile at their misfortune and then turn and put their shoulder back to the wheel.

This indomitability is to be found in the substantial Nepalese community in Hong Kong.

Before the handover in 1997, the border with China had to be guarded against illegal immigrants fleeing the mainland who were desperate for an opportunity to live and work in a free society.

A significant part of protecting the borders rested on the Gurkha soldiers of the British Army, many of whom were accompanied by their families.

That, in turn, led to large numbers of Nepalese children being born in Hong Kong and acquiring permanent resident status.

Hence, today, it is no exaggeration to say that a substantial percentage of the hospitality industry in Hong Kong, especially the bars and restaurants, are staffed by Nepalese.

Employers know that they are hard working, honest and reliable, and customers warm to their friendly demeanor and smiling faces.

The construction industry, too, depends in no small part on Nepalese workers, with quite a high percentage sustaining industrial workplace injuries, indicative of the risks to which they are exposed.

They are security guards, hairdressers, chefs and a large number of women are street cleaners in Central. A handful of them are journalists, solicitors and para-legals.

Most are now second-generation and some third-generation Hong Kongers; this is their home.

nepalese HK
There are about 17,000 Nepalese in Hong Kong. Photo: minorities.etvonline.hk

Regarding their critical contribution to Hong Kong, one might reasonably expect that the government would value this minority but, regrettably, the opposite is true.

As with all ethnic minority children in Hong Kong, the education system is deliberately designed to consign them to as second-class citizens with almost no opportunities for higher employment.

Unless they speak, read and write Cantonese they will not be admitted into good public primary schools, thereby forcing them into the poorly equipped schools that condemn them economically and culturally.

The Education Department refuses to accommodate them by introducing the subject of Cantonese as a second language in schools, a simple step that would provide them and other minorities the opportunity to fully integrate into the local community that would, thereby, be enriched.

The schools that they can attend will rarely, if ever, afford them the opportunity to acquire sufficient skills in spoken and written Cantonese to pass the entrance examinations for jobs for which, in almost every other respect, they are well qualified.

Police, fire brigade and ambulance and nursing services would all benefit hugely if they were able to recruit from the Nepalese community; these are a people to whom discipline and service come naturally.

By way of comparison, Singapore’s equivalent of Hong Kong’s Police Tactical Unit is exclusively manned by Nepalese and they are not required to speak Putonghua.

Even Nepalese wishing to visit Hong Kong have to go through a series of administrative hoops designed to make it difficult to obtain a tourist visa and when they do arrive, immigration usually give them a hard time.

These are a great and gifted people, net contributors to any community in which they live yet whether under the corrupt regime in their native land or the restrictive system in Hong Kong they endure artificial limitations on their capacity to flourish.

In Nepal, it will take a selfless visionary patriot to effect change, perhaps they can only dream. In Hong Kong, a mere minor change of mindset in the Education Department is all that is needed.

As a non-Cantonese speaking permanent resident of Hong Kong, I am increasingly aware of the government’s xenophobic agenda, but as an English speaker I enjoy the qualified benefit of the Basic Law’s protection of the status of my native tongue.

For a Hong Kong born Nepalese, there is no such comfort, statutory or moral.

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