An Outsider Living in Hong Kong

Nami was having her exam period at the Polytechnic University when I first interviewed her. We had 3 days before her final exam to review her 2 years’ experiences as an union organizer. She was 18 years old then, probably the youngest organizer in all HKCTU afflilated. She was one of the few organizers who love to show a smiling face and is optimistic. Having to deal with people as the job nature, she finds joy.

Nami’s grandfather came to Hong Kong as a “Gurkha”, a soldier with a Nepalese background and her mom was born in Hong Kong, therefore, her whole family rooted in Hong Kong. Born in Hong Kong, she shares similar experiences with other grass-root ethnic minorities – to have lived in her uncle’s family in Nepal while she was young out of poverty. Her parents only took her back to Hong Kong when she was in primary three. In the family, her father worked as a construction worker, her mother was a shampoo assistant in a salon, her little brother is 8 years younger than she is, therefore she was the one who shouldered the burden of all the chores like a housewife since she was young.

Her parents came from different castes and their marriage was not seen as “proper marriage” or rather neglected in their family for breaking the norms of generations. Childhood in Nepal wasn’t a great memory for Nami. No matter what kind of festivals, she would be deemed as an outsider. “So I never felt like I belonged to either of the castes.” Having to be separated from parents at a young age, even though it was the family of her parent, she never felt like being home. Although she had the closest relationship with grandma, mother of her mother, the family where she lived would not prefer her visiting grandma.

Since her parents needed to “break” the conservative family rules in order to marry each other, in her mind, “Hong Kong Chinese’ families” were very modern – girls enjoyed her freedom after age 18.

In Nepal, she was an outsider, what about in her birthplace Hong Kong? Both her primary and secondary schools were EMI schools with most students of ethnic minorities background, so ethnic Chinese were the minorities in both schools and her neighbourhood. This made to her “cultural impact” come late when she went to Hong Kong University Community College. She found out that Hongkongers go to Tamjai noodle restaurants, drink Taiwanese Gong Cha and eat Dim Sum. All these seemed to be in a parallel dimension until she turned 18.

No idea what union was when applied for the job

Discovering a new world planted a seed in Nami’s heart. After graduating from school, she went to HKU Space, an institution for further professional training, majoring in aviation. Meanwhile, she thought it was time to start earning money. Coincidently she heard of a part-time job that she would only need to work on Sunday. She immediately applied to be an organiser for Nepalese Domestic Workers Union without asking for further details.

“I never thought I would be selected, I had no work experience than”, though she was so nervous and unsure, she was chosen to the position in the end. A union organiser certainly doesn’t work on Sundays only. “I had no idea what unions, AGMs and election campaigns were about”, she added, “but that is me, if you go ahead, you’ll learn everything”. Being marginalised in both her family and society, she learnt to be independent while she was young. She quickly integrated into the board of the union. She was treated as their daughter. 

“I used to have many dreams, just like many other children, such a pilot, dancer, guitarist, etc. You know I learn many things. Whenever I become pretty good at something, I thought that was me calling”. She continues, “But whenever I help somebody, I feel much contended. When I hear their story, I cry and I laugh with them. The work in the union makes me understand what I should do in the future.”

At a mediation meeting at the Labour Tribunal, the worker that Nami assisted was compensated in full after a single round of discussion. When departing, the worker held Nami’s hand and told her about her husband, who had a stroke and urgently needed that money as lifesaver. Only until then that she realized how lonely these domestic workers were. In the process of helping workers, a simple hello via Whatsapp can mean a lot to them, it makes them feel the care.

Bring the voices of the union to the international arena

On October 2017, Nami attended the 10th ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labour. She was to deliver a speech on the organisation of workers’ union in Hong Kong and the advocacy results to the representatives of the ASEAN Members, international labour organisations and civil societies.

“I was so nervous! But after I finished, I knew I had done a good job!” Indeed, her speech earned a thunder of applause. On stage, she urged representatives from different countries to listen to the voices of domestic workers, let them organize unions, let them have the same rights as normal workers, such as holidays. In Asia, 61% of domestic workers are not protected by labour laws, and only 3% of them enjoy the same rights as other workers. To many of the government officials, the suggestions by this Nepalese girl sounded like boiling the ocean. 

A union is a place where one changes for the better

Two years passed by, to Nami, the union changed as much as she did. The sisters at the union surprised her by how much energy they had for work. “Almost all of these active members of the union could be a leader”. Every union has its own merits and flaws, not all unions have the same standard. “But the union is a place where you change for the better, move towards your goals. I think the union is very progressive in terms of achieving goals. The solidarity and determination can make a big change in people’s lives.”

Current work

1 year after, Nami still actively participates in the organizing workers. She now produces documentary films for the Union of Nepalese Domestic Workers in Hong Kong. The themes of the documentaries are basically about Nepalese domestic workers who used to receive salaries lower than the official minimum wage, and how the union helped them get salaries that they deserved. The interviews also recorded how they got engaged in the work of unions through these incidents, how they took up important roles and became leaders. Besides the overall management, Nami was also responsible for conducting interviews, video shooting, and post-production, etc. The documentary is the baby of Nami and is evidence of her personal growth after two years of organising.

The outlook for the future

Speaking of future, Nami gave me a surprising answer, “I want to make more money.” In further discussion, I found out that it’s only the first step to her future plan. “I want to establish a women organisation in Nepal, to provide women in poverty with education, and also train them to be leaders. But it’s a very big plan. To achieve it, I need to save money and only when I have enough money could this dream come true”.

Nami’s “trait” of being an outsider since young was to key to be able to work among people of different ethnicities, with different identities. Having lived in different places gives her stronger empathy for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Though Hong Kong isn’t exactly just a “temporary shelter” to her, she could still feel the pain of foreign domestic workers having to leave home, the ethnic minorities who face discrimination, and women who have low status in a family. She shares empathy with the workers. This is how she grows up with the union.