Country, Community and Language Classes

Speech by Mu. Ramanathan, in the 5th annual day function of the Tamil Teaching Programme conducted by the Young Indian Friends Club of Hong Kong  The meeting took place at Henry G. Leong Yaumatei Community Centre, Hong Kong, on 28 May 2009. Distinguished guests from Chinese and Indian communities attended.

Invocation to Tamil Language

Hon Jasper Tsang Yok –sing, President,  Legislative Council, Hong Kong SAR; Mr. M. Arunachalam, President, Overseas Indian Organisation, Hong Kong; Mr. Derek Hung, Member, Yau Tsim Mong District Council; Ms. KWAN Sau-ling, Member, Yau Tsim Mong District Council; Mr. Siu Sze Chuen, John, Principal, Newman Catholic College; Ms. Y M Cheung, Principal, Yaumati Kaifong Association School; Mr. Sohan Goenka, President, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of Hong Kong; Mr. Thaika Haroon Meeran,  President, Indian Muslim Association; Mrs. Suganthi Panneershelvam, President, Tamil Cultural Association; Mr. Thaika Ubaidullah, President, YIFC; Dear friends; and Students!

I am extremely delighted to stand in front of you today. This is a momentous occasion – a small ethnic minority group in Hong Kong, without any big financial supporters or considerable manpower, is in a position to teach their native language to the younger generation, and has successfully completed five years and is still going strong. This has been possible mainly due to two reasons: one is the determination and dedication of the organizers, teachers and the young students of these classes; and the second is the warm support this minority community is receiving from the Hong Kong society.

This support and bond has historical background. Chinese and Indians have many things in common. One in three people worldwide live either in China or India. There are more Chinese and Indians than anyone else on earth. We have many things in common. Both Indian and Chinese cultures stretch back a few thousand years. Economic, social and environmental problems persist both in India and China. Poverty exists, though levels are different. Air and water quality is a concern in both countries. But unabated, both countries are growing and living standards are improving.

China’s emergence as a world economic power follows years of expansion, with an economic growth of 9% or more. India has also seen dramatic growth of more than 7% a year .The global financial crisis has definitely affected India and China’s growth. The growth rate of the two giants in 2009 is expected to be only in the order of 6%. However, the International Monetary Fund has recently stated that in this difficult period of economic crisis, China and India will bear the weight of the world this year, because they are the only sizable economies projected to record over 5% growth rates in 2009; IMF adds that this will help to offset global weakness and hopefully buoy up the world economy.

Apart from economic growth and being the most populous countries of the world, the cultural ties between China and India are also a binding factor. The arrival of Buddhism in China crossing over the Himalayas indeed added flavour to the Chinese civilization. The link between Chinese and Indians could be seen through the history, one that immediately comes to my mind is the story of Dr Kotnis.

In 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, a team of Indian physicians was sent to China by Indian National Congress to provide medical assistance. Dr Dwarakanath Kotnis was a member of the team. Dr Kotnis was 28 when he arrived China; he was a frontline doctor treating wounded soldiers for hours together. In 1942, at the age of 32, while still in China, Dr Kotnis died, and he was buried with great honour in the Heroes Courtyard, Nanquan Village. A year before his death, in the middle of the war, he married Guo Qinglan, a frontline nurse. The couple lived together only for over a year, but they symbolized Sino-Indian ties.

60 years later, in 2003, then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Beijing. The visit is considered politically important as several joint declarations were signed; China recognized Sikkim as a part of India, and India acknowledged Tibet as part of China’s territory. Special representatives were appointed to resolve border disputes. Trade relations improved. But that visit goes into history books for one more rather important and humane reason. Vajpayee during his visit met Mrs Guo Kotnis. The 90 year old Mrs. Kotnis gifted the Indian prime minister with a Bengali translation of a book about her husband’s life. The inscription in the book read, ‘I love my India as much as I love my motherland China’. Needless to say, Vajpayee was moved and touched.

That is the relation and bond we would like to maintain. Let me tell our distinguished Chinese guests in this room that we, Indian disopara living here, love China and Hong Kong as much as we love our motherland India.

The relation between India and Hong Kong dates back to 150 years. Indian soldiers participated in the ceremony when the Union Jack was raised in at Possession Point, Hong Kong in 1841. The earliest policemen in Hong Kong were Indians. Members of Indian community have involved themselves in prominent institutions. H N Mody, an Indian businessman was one of the founders of the University of Hong Kong. The 100-year-old Star Ferry was founded by Dorabji Naorojee. Another prominent Indian, Dhun Ruttonjee, set up the reputed Ruttonjee Hospital as an anti-tuberculosis sanatorium.

The Indian community in Hong Kong has never been very big. The Consulate General of India in Hong Kong has estimated that some 35,000 Indians live and work in Hong Kong. Nearly 95% of 7 million people living in Hong Kong are Chinese, of the 5% foreigners, Filpinos, Indonesians, and Caucasians constitute nearly 70%. Indian diaspora is estimated to be around 8% of Hong Kong foreigners or 0.4% of Hong Kong population. That is to say that among every one thousand people living in Hong Kong, there would be four Hong Kong Indians. Despite being small in numbers, the Indian community is active. I mentioned about some Indian luminaries before who have contributed to the society they are living.

All ethnic minorities in Hong Kong feel protected. Hong Kong has specific legislation prohibiting against racial discrimination. Hong Kong does not suffer from instances of racial violence or hatred, there might have been still some underlying practices of racial discrimination in certain fields, but I am sure that will soon fade away. The ethnic minorities in Hong Kong could maintain their tradition, culture and religion, for which they have local community support as well as legal support.

Encouraged by the environment in Hong Kong, the Young Indian Friends Club of Hong Kong started their weekend Tamil language classes in 2004. At this point, I wish to share some information about the Tamil language. India is a country of 22 official languages and over 200 recorded mother tongues. Tamil is spoken in the southern part of India, and at the beginning of this programme you heard an invocation to the goddess of the Tamil language.

According to 2001 Census of India, 62 million people speak Tamil in the southern state of Tamilnadu. Tamil is also spoken in Sri Lanka , Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji Islands as well as by many emigrant communities around the world. According to Vistawide, international experts on language teaching and learning, all over the world 78 million people speak the Tamil language.

In addition to being spoken by large number of people and spread over the world, the Tamil is also one of the six classical languages of the world. The other classical languages are Chinese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. Classical language is one whose literature should be ancient; it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition; and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.

Tamil literature has a rich and long literary tradition. I wish to cite only one example. Tholkappiyam is one of the oldest Tamil works on grammar and poetics which dates back to 300 years before Christ. Tholkappiyam is not merely a textbook on grammar but also includes classification of habitats, animals, plants and human beings. The poetry is divided into two parts- akamand puramakam means ‘interior, heart or household’ and covers love poems,puram means ‘exterior or public’ and covers poems about war, community and values. Tholkappiyam thus demonstrates the organized manner in which the Tamil language has evolved.

The YIFC wanted to pass this language and tradition to the Tamil youngsters of Hong Kong and started their language classes in 2004. At the end of the first year 35 young students graduated, with the help of two volunteer teachers, a handful of other volunteers and more importantly owing to the classroom space provided by one of our patrons, Dr.Jowher Ali. Proper syllabus, classroom activities and examinations were all streamlined. The sincere efforts form the organizers spread within the local Tamil speaking community very quickly. More students wanted to join. But owing to space constraint the student strength was not increased till the end of the third year. However, more volunteer-teachers signed in. In the fourth year, the classes were shifted to the campus of Newman Catholic College at Yau Ma Tei. The spacious classrooms and teaching facilities helped us to increase the intake to 56, and this year’s strength is 67, which is likely to increase in the coming years. Access to formal classrooms is an important milestone in the evolving of the Tamil language classes and this was made possible by the support offered by the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong. The school management of Newman Catholic College has been offering full support for the classes. We will forever be grateful.

The YIFC and its language classes strive for better integration into the Hong Kong society and to be a binding link between Hong Kong, China and India.  While shifting the classrooms was a significant development last year, this year the attention was paid on streamlining the teaching methods and techniques. Brainstorming sessions were conducted among the volunteer-teachers and organizers, and a language teaching workshop was conducted by the professional teachers. The importance of the language skills covering listening, speaking, reading and writing were discussed. A class-based assessment to mark the students on these skills every week has been evolved, and this will come into practice from next year. These marks will cover 50% of the total credits. Hopefully this will shift the weightage from the yearend examinations. These scores will be uploaded in the website every week and students can check his or her score by accessing the site through their dedicated passwords.

True, things are improving. But we are not complacent. This language teaching programme is like a growing child, and we wish to grow. We are looking for accomplishing two items in the immediate future. Currently YIFC do not have any office space. To meet, to discuss, to maintain the school records, to keep the text books and stationary, to administer the website we need a space. The second one is the classes have grown. For the past five years all the secretarial and administrative works are done by the organizers. They are overstressed. The time has come that we need a full time person to carry out the secretarial works, administer the website, organise the classes, coordinate among teachers, parents and students , conduct exams and also double-up as a teacher during the weekend. I am sure with the support of dignified guests over here, the Indian community, and the Hong Kong society these two wishes could be accomplished soon.

Before concluding, I once again wish to salute the orgainsers, teachers, and students of our Tamil Class for their continued hard work, and I also salute the Hong Kong society for their warm support.

Thank you very much.

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