(This article, about the visit to a gurdwara – a Sikh place of worship – in Hong Kong by Chinese students at a Hong Kong university as part of a programme on social inclusion, was published in DNA edition dated March 3, 2008.)
It’s dinnertime at the Khalsa Diwan Sikh temple in Hong Kong and, as always, the community kitchen serves anyone who turns up for langar. Today, however, that open-door spirit of inclusion has been taken to extraordinary lengths, as an uncommon group of visitors have dropped in. Beneath towering portraits of bearded Sikh gurus and warriors on horses, row upon row of Chinese students, their heads covered with scarves, are seated on the floor, eating the roti, dal and sabji that Sikh kar sevaks serve them.
“Eating with my bare hands is an interesting enough learning experience,” says social worker Nancy Law, tucking into a slice of roti. “But I’m learning so much more.” A lesson in cultural diversity, for instance.
Nancy and 28 other students of Hong Kong University are at the gurdwara as part of a field visit connected with an elective programme on ‘Working with Ethnically Different Communities in Hong Kong’, offered by the Social Work Department at the university.
“The course seeks to inculcate in students an understanding of the ethnic minorities who live in their midst, and to get them to appreciate the ethnic minorities’ contribution to Hong Kong society and the diversity they bring,” says Dr James Joseph Keezhangatte at the university’s Social Work Department.
According to the 2006 Population By-Census, non-Chinese ethnic minorities account for about 5% of Hong Kong’s population of about 7 million. “A good many of them came generations ago as merchants, soldiers, low-paid manual workers or professionals, and helped transform Hong Kong from a fishing village into an economic powerhouse, but not all migrants have benefited from this growth,” notes Keezhangatte (in picture at left; more about him here). Worse, some of them have been pushed to the margins and have become “socially invisible.”
Field visits – such as the trip to the gurdwara – are intended as “icebreakers” to help social work students gain exposure to ethnic minorities and to their cultural traditions, and to open their eyes to the instruments of institutionalised racism that doubtless exist.
For instance, during the visit, temple authorities introduced students – in fluent Cantonese! – to the tenets of Sikhism, the symbols associated with the religious practice and other aspects of the valorous faith. Students also listened to some soulful kirtans, with live translation in English flashed on a giant screen!
Lok Poon, a social worker who has enrolled with the Hong Kong University programme, believes that the course will help him in his work: as someone who works with ethnic minorities, including new arrivals in Hong Kong, he’s learning a fair bit from this priceless interaction.
“Sat Sri Akal,” he greets the temple administrators and kitchen staff. They beam back at him in delight.