Monday, August 29, 2016

[Multiculturalism in Action Project 2016-17] Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop

On 6 August, 2016, the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop invited Mr. Dewan Saiful Alam, former President of the Bangladesh Association of Hong Kong, to give a talk on Bangladeshi Culture and the Bangladeshi Community in Hong Kong.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Over 90% of the population are Muslims, other are Hindus, Christians, and Buddhist. Geographically speaking, Bangladesh is a plain country and flooding is common during the monsoon season. In rush hours and festival times, Mr. Dewan said using waterways is more convenient and reliable than road transportation. 

Mr. Dewan presenting an overview on Bangladesh

One of the most important days in Bangladesh is the International Mother Language Day. It has been observed annually since 21 February 1952. At that time, Pakistan was planning to impose Urdu as state language in East Pakistan (later became Bangladesh after the independence in 1979). University students and politicians demonstrated for the recognition of Bengali and oppose the imposition of Urdu, and in the process some students were shot dead. Nowadays, it is still an important and emotional day for many Bangladeshis. 

Martyr Monument at the University of Dhaka, commemorates those who were killed in 1952.
Photo source: Essay and Paragraph

Since 2005, the economy in Bangladesh has been rapidly developing. The garment industry in Bangladesh ranks second in the world. Mr. Dewan told us that more than 70% of the businesses owned by Bangladeshis in Hong Kong are related to this field. Tea production is another essential industry in Bangladesh. It owns three of the world’s largest tea gardens, which are all located in the Sylhet Division in the eastern Bangladesh.

According to Mr. Dewan, there are around 2,000 Bangladeshis living in Hong Kong. Most of them have started their businesses in Hong Kong since 1985 as middle people between the textile factories in Bangladesh and the raw material suppliers in China. Nowadays, Bangladeshis are working in various occupations as well, such as bankers, editors, and mobile phone traders. 

The Bangladesh Association of Hong Kong was established in 2003 to support the Bangladeshis living in Hong Kong. Mr. Dewan felt that as the first generation in Hong Kong, it is his duty to help pass down Bengali traditions to the future generation. Every year, the Association organizes various activities, such as celebrations for the Bengali New Year and National Day, to keep their traditions alive in Hong Kong. Besides, there is a weekend school for children to learn Bengali.

Carnival for Bengali New Year
Photo credit: AFM Tariq

Dance performance on National Day
Photo credit: AFM Tariq

Mr. Dewan said language barriers and getting a job are the biggest challenges for Bangladeshis living in Hong Kong. It is not easy to get a job in Hong Kong due to the Chinese language requirement. Many Bangladeshis who have graduated from the universities in Hong Kong have chosen to work in other countries such as Singapore and the US. To Mr. Dewan, it is a loss of human capital for Hong Kong. He said the Association have been negotiating with the government to resolve these issues, and it is hoped that Bangladeshis can truly integrate in Hong Kong, which is home for them. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

[Multiculturalism in Action Project 2016-17] Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop

On 30 July, 2016, the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop organized its weekly seminar at Pearl Lanka, a Sri Lankan grocery store in To Kwa Wan. The first session of the seminar was about food culture in Sri Lanka, presented by Mr. P.B. Thilakarathne, then followed by the second session on gender and family issues in Sri Lanka, presented by Ms. Girtie Jirasihna and Mr. Kanishka Samarasinghe.

The first speaker Mr. Thilakarathne explained that the food culture in Sri Lanka has been influenced by different cultures, especially the Islamic, Indian, and Western cultures. Rice and coconuts were the basics in ancient Sri Lankan cuisine. Later, spices and tea were added to Sri Lankan cuisines as these products were encouraged to be planted by the colonial governments. Nowadays, most foods in Sri Lanka include a touch of rice, coconut, and curry.

Mr. Thilakarathne explaining Sri Lankan food culture

Coconut is an essential ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine. Unlike the Chinese who put coconut mostly in soup, Sri Lankans have different ways of using coconuts. For example, coconut milk is added to almost all types of curry. Grated coconuts are mixed with spices for coconut sambol, serving as an accompaniment for rice and string hoppers (rice-noodles). Virgin coconut oil can be used in cooking as well as massage.

Mr. Thilakarathne showed us some cooking utensils, such as string hopper mat and presser, clay plot, and puttu (steamed rice cake with coconut) cooker.

String hopper presser (left) and mats (right)

Before the establishment of the first Sri Lankan grocery store in Hong Kong in 2012, Sri Lankan products were brought to Hong Kong occasionally through friends and relatives. Yet, bulky and fresh products such as rice and coconuts could not be brought to Hong Kong. Although the Sri Lankans tried to use substitutes (such as Indian rice and Chinese vegetables), Mr. Thilakarathne said they could not find substitutes for coconuts and fish, the two essential components in Sri Lankan cuisine. Hence, he decided to open a grocery store to serve the needs of Sri Lankans in Hong Kong.

Serving a limited population in Hong Kong, Mr. Thilakarathne admitted that it was tough to run the business, especially due to the high rent in Hong Kong. Besides, not all Sri Lankans would go for Sri Lankan products. For example, some domestic workers have gotten used to the food culture of their employers, and they seldom have time to cook Sri Lankan dishes. Despite these challenges, Mr. Thilakarathne persisted in his import business on high quality and healthy products.  

During the break, participants had a chance to enjoy some great-tasting Sri Lankan dishes including kiribath, string hoppers, koththu, and Sri Lankan doughnuts.

Sri Lankan dishes we had during the break

In the second part of the seminar, Ms. Girtie Jirasihna and Mr. Kanishka Samarasinghe shared with us their views on gender and family issues of the Sri Lankan community.

Mr. Samarasinghe said in ancient Sri Lanka, a family used to have eight to ten children because of the demand for labour in agricultural work.  Nowadays, a family usually has a maximum of four children.

In Sri Lanka, males are usually the breadwinners while females control the house keeping. It is a usual practice to wait for father to start dinner, and the mother will eat only after serving her husband and children. Mr. Samarasinghe said the situation has changed nowadays, as females also receive higher education and work as administrators in companies. Housework is shared by both husband and wife. Ms. Jirasihna told us that the Sri Lankan family expects the first child to be a daughter, as it is believed that the daughter can help to take care of the younger siblings, and to assist mother in housework.

According to Mr. Samarasinghe, arranged marriage is still practiced today but young adults will not be forced to marry someone he/she doesn’t like. It is a common practice for parents to match the horoscopes of the potential bride and groom to judge whether it will be a good or bad marriage. Moreover, parents identify a potential spouse for their children through advertisements in the newspaper. Mr. Thilakarathne said he also got to know his wife this way. Caste system was once a tradition in Sri Lanka, in which people believed that people cannot get married with those from a different caste. However, the speakers said the caste system is no longer a main concern in marriage nowadays, especially for families living in cities.

Mr. Samarasinghe (left) and Ms. Jirasinha (right)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

[“Multicultural Hong Kong in Celebration” Series] Songkran: A Sprinkle of Thai Fiesta in Hong Kong

"Although the district [Kowloon City] is known as “Mini Bangkok”, most of the Thais here are working and leading their lives unnoticed; while on the day of Songkran, they engage in a flagrant jollification, having fun with locals attracted to the event and refreshing their national pride."
 —Rick Leung
Extract from the article:

"Sa-nuk is a common Thai word that means “joy” and “playfulness”. Thais really love fun, and they know how to make fun in their insipid life. To these larky people who often wear big smiles on their faces, the Songkran Festival - commonly known as the Water Festival - is recognized as their happiest time of the year. Songkran is the New Year’s Day to communities on the Southeast Asian peninsula (including Cambodians, Laos, Burmese and the Dai people of Yunnan). The festival was meant to be lasting from New Year’s Eve to the 2nd day of New Year for blessings of a start over. One of the customs is to splash water at one another to “cleanse bad luck” and bring good wishes. The modern Water Festival has become a street party to cool off the summer heat. As a major ethnic minority in Hong Kong, there are more than 10,000 Thais who live and work here. Every year they gather at Kowloon City to celebrate Songkran. You may get to know more about Thai cultures and the Thailand-Hong Kong relationship through this water fiesta in Hong Kong." (Leung 2015:52)

Want to know more about Songkran and how the Thai in Hong Kong celebrate it? Click here to read the full text article (first published in Hong Kong Discovery Vol. 89 in July 2015).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

[In the Press] Humanity and Nature

Prof. Bosco shared his insights on consumer culture, moral economy, and environmentally sustainable development in the latest issue of Chinese University Bulletin (No.1, 2016).

Those who are interested can now read the article online: Chinese version / English version

Chinese University Bulletin No.1, 2016, p.20-21

Monday, August 15, 2016

[Multiculturalism in Action Project 2016-17] Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop

On 23 July 2016, the Multiculturalism in Action (MIA) Project invited Venerable Seegiriye Sumiththa Thero to give a talk on Buddhism and the Sri Lankan Community in Hong Kong.

According to Sumiththa Thero, Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by Mahinda Thero, a prince of the Maurya Dunasy in India, in 247BC, in the month of Poson (June). Later, the Sri Lankan King sent a request to India for a Bhikkhuni (nun) to preach to the women folk. Theri Sanghamittai, sister of Mahinda Thero, went to Sri Lanka bringing with her a Bodhi tree and planted it in the Mahamewna Gardens. The Poson Festival is now celebrated annually to commemorate the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.

Until 29 BC, Buddhist teaching in Sri Lanka was passed down orally. Sumiththa Thero said Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka were unique. Each of them should include the following components: sangharama (for residence), uposathagharaya (chapter house for discussions/activities), ponds, Bodhi tree, stupa, image house (for ritual performances), and pirivane (school for monks). Buddhist monasteries can be categorized into four types: 1) Cave temples; 2) Forest hermitages; 3) Buddhist institutions; and 4) Gramavasi temples. But all temples follow the same architectural pattern at entrance, for example, there should be a half-moon stone, guard-stones, and korawakgala on the sides of the steps.

There are differently shaped stupas.

A bell shape stupa in Columbo
Photo source: Michael Coghlan (Flickr)

In everyday life, rituals and festivals are highly influenced by Buddhism. For instance, through alms-giving people accumulate and transfer merits to dead relatives. Bodhi-Puja is another widespread ritual for people to get rid of evil influences.

People offering food to monks
Photo source: Embassy of Sri Lanka, Washing DC

The Sri Lankans in Hong Kong are enthusiastic in maintaining important Buddhist rituals. For example, Bodhi Puja and Poson Day are observed annually. A Dhamma school is established to teach children about Buddhist traditions and knowledge. Cultural Days have been organized to showcase Sri Lankan traditions such as the Ves Dance and Devil Dance.

Dhamma school in Hong Kong
Photo Source: Internet
Ves dance performance
Photo Source: Eranga Chandrasena

Sumiththa Thero said it has been a challenge for Sri Lankans to practice Buddhism in Hong Kong because there is no Sri Lankan temple. They sometimes organized their activities in a Thai temple in Tai Po, but in general it was not easy to book a venue. The Dhamma school, for instance, was organized once a month, instead of once a week as the usual practice in Sri Lanka. Sumiththa Thero concluded that the Sri Lankan community has initiated discussion with government officials to plan the establishment of a Sri Lankan temple. It is very much looking forward to be materialized in the near future.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

[“Multicultural Hong Kong in Celebration” Series] Matinee on Sundays: Cultural Festivals and Beauty pageants of Overseas Filipino Workers in Hong Kong

"The domestic helpers who actively participated in these events are certainly not just passively waiting to refresh their energy for another week’s domestic work. They are migrants aspiring to, first, find changes to build more promising careers and change their lives; and, secondly, foster a respectable identity and trustable community for themselves in Hong Kong."
—Ju-chen Chen 

Extract of the article:

"In these years of studying pageants of OFWs in Hong Kong, I constantly encountered doubts from non-foreign-domestic-helper friends: “Who? Helpers as beauty queens?” It is safe to argue that, by large, these vibrant fiestas and pageants are not known to the majority of Hong Kong society, even though they are held frequently and in public. The invisibility is resulted from the “segregation” of the foreign helper community from the mainstream society. Each of the 300,000 foreign domestic helpers is an intimate co-resident of a Hong Kong family. She nourishes kid(s), takes care of elders, cooks, washes and irons clothes, cleans up flats and runs errands. While some families are close to their gongren Jiejie (worker-big sister, a term widely used to refer to helpers in Hong Kong) and others don’t, outside each individual household, these women became strangers to the society. The most stereotypical image of Hong Kong maids on Sundays - sea of women sitting on “cardboard cubic” on footbridges or public areas - marginalized, anonymized and homogenized these migrant women. The spirited Filipino community and their vibrant activities are hidden from the public awareness by nothing other than the naive, if not biased, assumption that every single foreign domestic helper simply idles all day long on Sundays; chatting, lying and playing cards on road sides." (Chen 2015:64)

Want to know more about the lives of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong? Click here and read the full text article (published in Hong Kong Discovery Vol. 88 on 19 May 2015).

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

[Multiculturalism in Action Project 2016-17] Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop

On 16 July, 2016, the Multiculturalism in Action (MIA) Project presented a seminar on Sri Lankan Culture and the Sri Lankan Community in Hong Kong. This is the first seminar of the fourth South Asian culture workshop in the MIA series, the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop. Dr. Thilina Weerasinghe, an engineering consultant working in Hong Kong, was invited to host the seminar.

Social Development

Dr. Weerasinghe started with “Ayubowan!”, a greeting in Sri Lanka, which means “May you live long”.

“Ayubowan” in English, Sinhalese (middle), and Tamil (right)
Photo credit: Venuka Glagoda (Google+)

Introducing Sri Lanka, he said that though it is a small country in terms of size (65610 km2) and population (21 million), it ranked 8th in the World Giving Index in 2015. It was also one of two countries (another one was the Maldives) which had the highest Human Development Index (HDI) among South Asian countries in 2015. After the civil war (1983-2009), Sri Lanka has been rapidly developed. It is most well-known for its natural scenic spots and beaches. Tourism has become an important industry.

In terms of gender, Dr. Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka is a male-dominated country, yet the family is based on mothers who usually make decisions at home. There have been many outstanding women in Sri Lankan history. For instance, Queen Anula (reigned 47BC – 42BC) was the first female head of state in Asia, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for three times (1960-65, 1970-77, 1994-2000) and was the first female Prime Minister in the world. At the moment, there are 13 women members of Parliament, making up 5.7% of members of the House and Senate.

Sri Lanka is a multicultural society. The Sinhalese form the largest portion of the population (more than 70%), followed by the Tamils, Muslims, Malays, and Burghers. The Burghers are descendants of marriages between the natives and Europeans (mainly Portuguese, Dutch, and British).

Religion and Culture

Religions practiced in Sri Lanka include Buddhism (70.1% of population), Hinduism (12.6%), Islam (9.7%), and Christianity (7.6%).  Most cultural practices, social values, and traditions in Sri Lanka have found their roots in Buddhism, which was introduced to Sri Lanka by Arahat Mihindu Thero in 300 BC. For instance, the Presidents and Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka were usually Buddhists; Ministry of Buddhasasana is established to enhance Buddhist beliefs in Sri Lanka. Besides, Buddhist festivals and rituals are practiced nationwide, such as the Katina ceremonies and the Bodhi-Puja.

The Sinhala Hindu new year, Aluth Avurudda, is celebrated on 13th or 14th of April. Dr. Weerasinghe explained that the whole nation will carry out the most important rituals at the same time according to the astrologist’s calculations. For instance, the whole nation eat the first meal of the new year at the same time. Interesting games such as kabaddi are played during the holidays.

Family gathering during Aluth Avurudda
Photo credit: The British Council

Another interesting feature in Sri Lanka is the use of astrology in daily life. It is believed that people’s time of birth defines their destiny and a Full Life Reading is made by an astrologist at birth. This Reading is commonly used in identifying a potential spouse. Parents believe that it is necessary that their children’s horoscopes be matched to guarantee a good marriage.

Dr. Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka had the spiciest of food and sweetest of tea. His favourite food was koththu, a mixture of godhamba roti (a flat bread made from wheat flour), vegetables, eggs, and spices. It was a common street food 20-30 years ago, but now it has become a delicacy in restaurants. He also shared with us how the Sri Lankans loved sweets. His family, for instance, used to add four spoons of sugar into a cup of tea.

Photo credit: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

Sri Lankans in Hong Kong

According to Dr. Weerasinghe, there are about 2,000 Sri Lankans living in Hong Kong. They work in many different occupations, some are professors in universities, some are business people in trading and transport, and there are others who work as domestic workers and solicitors. Many of them feel that Sri Lanka’s traditions and festivals are important and they organize communal celebrations such as the new year Aluth Avurudda, and the Poson Festival celebrating the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.