Descendants of the Gurkhas face huge social battles in Hong Kong

Lama Yuvraj, a Nepalese Hong Kong resident, looks like a man who has invested hundreds of hours in gym. He uses a crutch to support the right side of his short, stocky body as he walks.

His life as a construction worker takes a turn when he falls from the metal scaffolding at a construction site six months ago. His ankle is fractured, and his doctor cannot tell him when he will be able to go back to work. Now he is taking care of his three-year-old daughter at home between numerous doctor appointments and physiotherapy sessions as his wife takes multiple shifts at restaurants to make ends meet.

“Very dangerous and very hard. That work is only for donkey people,” he self-mockingly describes the metal scaffolding job he used to do at construction sites. But having a dangerous job is better than having no jobs at all. Now he feels he is trapped. The compensation offered by the company and the salary of his wife are not enough to cover monthly expenses of his family. And he must rest until his foot recovers.

Construction industry is the only place he could find jobs. When asked how much Chinese he speaks, Lama says, “Zero”. Not being able to communicate with the majority in Hong Kong means he could not find a job which requires him to communicate.

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Lama (third from the right) holding traditional drums at a Nepalese cultural festival. Photo: Lama Yuvraj

Most of 40,000 Nepalese who live in Hong Kong find themselves in the same situation as Lama. 19.5% of the working Nepalese are in food and beverage and other similar industries while 34.8% work in more dangerous occupations such as security guards or construction workers according to the 2016 census.

Most of the Nepalese living in Hong Kong are descendants of the Gurkhas, British Army’s mercenary soldiers known for their bravery and resilience. Although Nepalese have become a backbone of the Hong Kong’s labor force, they cannot find well-paid jobs. Preference of Chinese language over English in many job requirements after Hong Kong was returned to China have negative impacts on the Nepalese community in Hong Kong. With no knowledge of Chinese, they do not know how to escape from the vicious circle of poverty.

Facing social issues, many Nepalese youths find solace in drugs. According to the Community Drug Advisory Council, the total number of drug users in Hong Kong is gradually declining. But Kazy Basnet from the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers says the number of drug abusers in the Nepalese community is rapidly growing.

As the small social circles of Nepalese makes it easy for words to spread across from a neighborhood to another, drug users face more challenges to integrate into the society.

“While a great number of expectations are often placed on drug users to change their behaviors, the social context that creates and reinforces drug-related stigma is rarely explored or challenged,” says Kazy, who has been working nearly 5 years to fight the drug problems in Hong Kong.

Kazy and his colleagues regularly go to the Nepalese community to hold talks about drug education and awareness. They also do telephone counseling or home visit for the families who are too embarrassed to come to their office.

Invisible battles of the Nepalese workers

Tsen Ka Chun, a program officer at the Diocesan Pastoral Center for Workers, believes the language barriers run through all aspects of the life of Nepalese workers.

“If you are Chinese, you can go to the Labor Department and people can talk to you in Chinese. But for Nepalese, using English to understand labor laws in Hong Kong is very difficult,” says Ka Chun.  He also says they are paid less than Chinese Chinese-speaking workers.

In addition, the Nepalese workers suffer from the racial prejudices.

“Even if you got the license from construction industrial council, it doesn’t mean that you will be recognized by the people in the company. Oh you are Nepalese guy, you cannot be the master,” says Ka Chun.

Ka Chun says his organization is encouraging the government to recruit people who speak languages of the ethnic minorities in order to communicate with them. In 2019, there will be a pilot project initiated by the government and civil societies to employ those who speak languages of ethnic minorities such as Nepalese and Urdu in the labor relations. Ka Chun says the project will benefit ethnic minority workers like Lama.

Despite his injury, Lama picks up his daughter from her kindergarten school every other day. Lama is hopeful that his daughter will not face the same problem like he did.

“I think when she grows up, she will understand (Chinese) more than I do,” he says. “Her future is very good in Hong Kong.”

But he could only count on the school to improve his daughter’s language proficiency and integrate her to the winder society in Hong Kong.