Once their fathers fought for the British as Gurkhas. Now, members of Hong Kong’s Nepali community are fighting poverty and low expectations
This “Neighbourhood Sounds” feature was published in the South China Morning Post on Dec. 7, 2012.
Tourists and shoppers throng Nathan Road. But life is very different in the densely populated blocks down to the site of the former Jordan Road pier. In the day, elderly Chinese men lean on their canes, sitting in Jordan’s small public parks, while shrieking children play. At night, as the market stalls anddai pai dong start to close down, and the traffic on the overpasses slows to a dull hum, the local Nepalese community, one of the fastest growing minorities in the city, moves into the parks and street corners.
Sameer and his friends are drinking, smoking and joking around while others huddle in the shadows, doing drugs they dole out of small plastic bags.
“We are here every day after work,” said Sameer, a 16-year-old Nepali who has dropped out of school and works at his parents’ roadside snack shop. “It’s all right.”
It is a scene that Martin Radford, director of Inner City Ministries, described as a gangland. “Drug addiction is very high. Young men can quickly become a part of gangs and there is gang rivalry that occasionally spirals into violence,” says Radford, who runs tutorial and vocational programmes for ethnic minorities. “It’s something to do; it gives them a sense of belonging and sense of status as well as protection,” he said .
Most of the Nepalis are the children and grandchildren of Gurkha soldiers, fierce fighters who served the British Army from 1814. In 1948, after Indian independence, the British sent the Gurkhas to the New Territories, where they carried out security duties and border patrols.
Before 1997, soldiers and their families lived in army barracks in areas such as Happy Valley, Stanley and Shek Kong. After the handover, the Gurkhas were eventually offered Hong Kong residency, and many moved to areas such as Jordan for the affordable rents. But the military men could not find well-paying jobs in the city and unemployment ran high.
“I was born in the Shek Kong army camp,” said a young Nepali mother whose family of five now lives in a 150 square foot apartment. The family sleeps side by side on bunk beds in one windowless room. Her husband supports her and their three sons by working long hours as a security guard.
Official figures put Hong Kong’s Nepali population at 13,000, but Professor Maria Tam Siumi of Chinese University said it should be closer to 40,000, many of whom live in Jordan.
Many of the Nepalese work as guards, in kitchens or as waiters and bartenders, said Caroline Simick, a community worker from India who has served the population for the past 12 years.
“In many families, both parents each work two jobs and are rarely home, leaving the children without adult supervision. They stay outside until late at night. They have nowhere to do their homework,” Simick said.
Simick, a devout Christian without children of her own, is a motherly figure for the neighbourhood’s destitute youths. As she walks through the crowded, narrow streets, wrecked young men amble up, telling her they are hungry. She buys them rice from tiny shops selling deep-fried fast food.
“They live downtown,” she whispers. “Downtown” is a triangular patch of grass under a bridge on Austin Road, where heroin addicts sleep in makeshift tents and soiled blankets.
“Drug pushers get the ethnic minority teenagers to sell drugs in local schools, because if they’re caught, they won’t be sent to prison for life. They’ll go to juvenile detention,” said a local manager at an organisation that works with ethnic minorities. “Less than one per cent of ethnic minority students get into tertiary education, so they lose heart and just want to make money.”
Puja Kapai, a Jordan resident who teaches courses on law and multiculturalism at the University of Hong Kong, said minority children could not keep up in mainstream schools without support to help them learn Cantonese. “When they do not have equal access to opportunities in Hong Kong, it’s inevitable that an underclass would emerge,” she said.
Mrs Chan, 64, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 22 years, said more Nepalese had moved to Jordan in the past decade while more Chinese residents have moved out, going to live in public housing or to areas with lower rent.
“The young men sit around, get drunk and get into fights. It is very noisy. But they’re not all bad. Like the family that owns this sari shop. They’re very good to me. They respect their neighbours,” she said.
An entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant among the Nepalese, where friends and family members pool their money to open grocery stores, restaurants, internet cafés and beauty salons.
“We’re open 360 days of the year,” said Gurung Lachiman, 34, a sari shopkeeper whose father was a Gurkha. “Our customers are mostly Nepali and Indian, but some Chinese like to buy sari fabric, too.”
But the neighbourhood is about to be redeveloped. Luxury high rises are already being built near the site of the Kwun Tong line extension, which is scheduled to open in 2015.
“My rent rose from HK$10,000 to HK$13,500 this year,” said Lama Mima Sambu, a beauty shop owner who saved up her wages from working two jobs for 10 years to open her salon on Canton Road.
Parents pressed for cash are increasingly allowing their children to leave school early to work. Even the youth who have managed to avoid drugs and stay in school seem to have accepted their dreary futures.
Sushant, 15, is playing football on a cold, rainy night with friends at King George V Memorial Park. He does not go home until 9pm most nights.
“If I finish high school, I will work in the subways. I will make money. It is practical,” he said.
For previous instalments of Neighbourhood Sounds, go towww.scmp.com/topics/neighbourhood-sounds