Sacred or Sham: Interfaith marriage in the Sikh community

My husband and I had a Sikh marriage ceremony (Anand Karaj) in a Gurdwara in Hong Kong earlier this year.

Clinging tightly to the ends of the red cloth draped between us, we walked around the Guru Granth Sahib four times.


Photo: Davinder Chohan / Chohan Photography

With each round, a verse detailing the soul’s journey towards God was read aloud.

But according to guidelines recently released by the Sikh Council UK, some might consider our wedding to be a sham, as I’m not a Sikh.

Based on the Sikh code of conduct, the Sikh Rehat Maryada of 1932, the guidelines advise: “Persons professing faiths other than the Sikh faith cannot be joined in wedlock by the Anand Karaj ceremony.

Yet many Sikhs feel that this form of Sikhism is a hard line version of the faith they hold dear.

Sikh scholar Davinder Singh Panesar says, “Sikh teachings don’t see faith as a differentiator, but as something that enables people to come to common ground, common humanity.”

Guru Nanak, who founded the faith, emphasised heavily on the ‘oneness of humanity’.

“If the Gurus don’t accept division in faith, caste or gender, why is it being enforced on the Sikh community? It doesn’t make sense and contradicts Sikh teachings,” Davinder echoes.

Many of Sikhism’s practices are aimed at bringing equality to all types of people.


“Recognise all of mankind as a single caste” – Guru Gobind Singh Ji

In every Gurdwara’s langar hall, where visitors are served food, everyone must sit on the floor as equals, regardless of their background, wealth or status.

Every Sikh is given the surname Singh, for men, and Kaur, for women, in an attempt to reduce the long-standing practice of caste discrimination.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Guru, was executed for opposing the Mughal’s forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

Non-religious option

Retired civil servant Gurmukh Singh, who was invited by the Sikh Council to comment on the guidelines, believes that people of different faiths are on different religious ‘ladders’.

“Though a non-Sikh can understand the universal teachings of Gurbani (compositions of the Gurus) and also those of other religions; they are on their own chosen religious ladder.”

According to Gurmukh, the Sikh Council’s guidelines don’t oppose interfaith marriages, only against them happening in Gurdwaras.


Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the largest Gurdwara in London. Photo: bethmoon527/Flickr

“The alternative of a civil marriage is there. If they are so compelled by their residual faith in religion, both sides can visit each other’s places of worship,” he explains.

Rachel and Iqbal Channa from London decided to do exactly this for their wedding.

“Neither of us sees ourselves as religious so we knew we didn’t want a religious ceremony,” Rachel explains.

The couple had a civil marriage ceremony in 2012 at Pinewood Studios in Slough.

A few months before, close family gathered with them in a Gurdwara, as prayers were read for the couple’s wellbeing.

Love bridges the cultural divide for Rachel and Iqbal, “It’s not really a big issue for us. Perhaps it makes things a bit more complex, but I’ve learnt so much.


Minority faith

The Sikh Council guidelines propose that if a non-Sikh adopts Sikhism, the Gurdwara should assess their genuine intention to follow the faith.

But journalist and author Sunny Hundal, who grew up in a Sikh family, feels that this is hypocritical and discriminatory.

“Many Sikhs wear a turban and grow their hair for the ceremony and then cut it off the day after. But the Gurdwaras turn a blind eye to that.”

Some non-Sikhs are in the process of learning about the Sikh faith, like myself.

“The definition of a Sikh is a student, someone who is learning, who is on the way to enlightenment, through self-discovery, ethical work and selflessness,” Davinder explains.

Confident that the guidelines will provide clarification, helping to protect Sikh values, Gurmukh says:

“There are certain core socio-religious values of communities which should be defended. The married life of a householder, and bringing up of children in a harmonious one faith environment.”

But Davinder feels that the guidelines have had a negative affect, “It has divided the Sikh community, misrepresented Sikh teachings and will inevitably risk disenfranchising many in the coming generations.”

Davinder and his wife Shanta had an Anand Karaj in a Gurdwara, although Shanta was born to a Christian Mother and a Hindu Father. She has gone on to be ‘baptised’ into the Sikh faith and bring her children up as Sikhs.

Sunny is certain that the guidelines are pushing people away from the faith.

“If no Gurdwara is willing to host the religious ceremony, the couple will undoubtedly feel that the Sikh community has ex-communicated them. What are the chances they will now bring up their children as Sikhs? If you have a minority faith, you should be integrating, not turning people away.”


Though my husband and I aren’t devoutly religious, we do plan to keep the Sikh faith at the core of our children’s upbringing.

My acceptance into the community has been reflected in the warmth of my family-in-law, showing the exact love and kindness that made me fall in love with Sikhism to begin with.

Belly of the Tantra (Review)

This revelatory documentary by Indian filmmaker Pankaj Purohit will keep you on edge as it unveils some of the most rarely seen moments of Hindu cult rituals.

Pankaj Purohit and producer Babita Modgil travel to the different parts of rural India and Nepal that are inhabited by a secretive, ancient cult, seeking the reasoning behind their egocentric mentality and “primal” ways.

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 14.05.06

The film explores the life of a mysterious and eccentric group of people, the Aghori, whose ancient traditions challenge the modern perception of morality.

The Aghori are part of a Hindu sect who worship Shiva, known to dwell in cremation grounds and believed to have a spiritual connection to the dead. The majority of the Aghori population are sadhus (holy men), who have many devout followers and believe that they are all-powerful – even able to raise the dead.

“They have no boundaries,” says Pankaj, “they try to live outside modern society’s boundaries, they are limitless.”

Cannibalism, vagina worship, animal and even human sacrifice are common practice for this group of mysterious Sadhus. And not a frame of vivid imagery short, it’s no surprise this film is censored in India.

Their practices are illegal by Indian law, but deep into the Indian wilderness, far from any governmental control, these people can continue their ways.

An unbound approach

The director’s intentions for the film were of a curious nature, searching for understanding, rather than to expose controversial rituals that continue in modern India.

“I tried to go into the filming with an open mind, without all my preconceptions of what’s right and wrong,” explains Purohit.

Belly of the Tantra was made Gonzo-style, reeling the film crew and director into many of the rituals. “We had to drink with them, smoke what they were smoking and do what they were doing, otherwise they would have suspected us,” Purohit says.

As an artist more than a documentarian, Purohit wasn’t bound by journalistic principles, giving the film complete freedom to delve deep into this sensitive topic. This artistic license is reflected in the piece’s editing style, as well as narration style.

The film’s UK Premiere was this month’s Cine Rebis Underground Film Festival at the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, London, where its full, uncensored version received much support.

The director’s next piece will expose the use of cheap, hormone-inducing drugs on child prostitutes in India.

Pakistani Film Addresses LGBT Rights

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights are almost non-existent in Pakistan. Certain sexual activities are still punishable by life imprisonment, and same-sex relationships are harshly shunned. But one film has made an attempt to address the society’s attitude towards this.

Bol (2011), directed by Shaoib Mansoor, is a courageous film about a girl on death row. She tells her sorrowful story to the crowd before she dies, and unravels every piece of Pakistan’s social tapestry and it’s problems.

The film addresses many of the social issues in Pakistan, including capital punishment, domestic abuse, misogyny and honour-killing. The heart-wrenching plot includes the struggle of Saifi, a young eunuch coming to terms with his identity in a country where it is still taboo to be homosexual.

The actor who played Saifi talks about his role as a eunuch:

Documenting Lives

Another brave director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, co-director of the award-winning documentary Saving Face, has addressed LGBT rights in her Channel 4 documentary Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret. Disowned by their families, begging on the street and heckled by society, the film shows the lives of this alienated group in Pakistan.

Diversity on the Rise

multicultural britainmixed race uk

The world is becoming an unavoidably interconnected place.

People from opposite ends of the social spectrum now often come into contact.

Social boundaries are ever-changing, and though cultural barriers are still enforced in some instances, they are being broken down in others.

Many of us have become something we label as ‘global citizens,’ our identities made up of a complex combination of ethnicities, nationalities, religious beliefs and cultural practices.

No longer is a Brit necessarily Caucasian by ethnicity. And though rarely heard of, a Chinese citizen may not necessarily be of Chinese ethnicity in today’s world.

A result of all these things is an increase in people of mixed ethnicities – mixed race people.

Now the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the UK, were we all to be bunched together.

Even if those who deem themselves as purely of one ethnic group look deep into their origins, it’s nearly impossible that they wouldn’t have mixed ethnic lineages somewhere down the line.

Hong Kong: Party Town

A perfect mix of traditional and modern, Hong Kong is a city that celebrates ancient Chinese festivals in its own style. This article that I wrote for Asian Geographic Passport magazine includes some of the things that go on around this time of year in the metropolis.

Living in Limbo

It’s a strange existence to be mixed race. Fitting in, neither here not there. We spend half the time pretending to be somebody, as if playing a game in which we’re trying to merge in. Will they notice that I’m not from here?

The first time I ever went to Hong Kong and stood on the MTR (underground) surrounded by Chinese faces, a strange feeling ran over me. Have I finally been accepted?…I thought as nobody batted an eyelid at my presence. But whether I had been accepted for how I look or not, I still didn’t belong there. It was a false kind of belonging.

Face value

The simple fact is that we are judged by our appearances. Though mine can vary from day to day from looking mixed, to East Asian, to Nepalese…there is no way that I look much like my dear white (Irish-Roma) Father. I happened to take the looks from my Malaysian-Chinese Mother, something my Father said he was glad about.

My parents and I, when I was a baby

In my hometown in Kent, I can walk into a pub filled with burly bigots, and they’ll look around the place shouting “Chinese take-away anybody?” As if the only thing a Chinese face would be doing there, is delivering Chinese food.

Upon the opening of my mouth, out comes a stark British accent. That’s enough to convince most people that I’m a local. But an odd few still don’t get it, even when I’m repeating “I was BORN here” over and over again.

Some people even used to ask my Dad whether he had bought my Mum and I off the internet! And we’d get funny looks at times when I became older, as I walked down the street with my Dad, people mistook me for his disturbingly young wife – as if they had stereotyped him as a perverted white man with a thing for Asian women.

Chatting with Puja Kapai, a Law Professor at Hong Kong University, she explained how her Indian appearance sometimes dilutes the strength of her message. When she teaches human rights law regarding ethnic minorities in Hong Kong (the place she grew up), students see her as an ethnic minority advocating  for her own rights. If it were a white teacher, they would find it more legitimate.

It’s the same story for my fiancé, who was born and lives in Hong Kong, but is ethnically Indian. Chinese locals find it very hard to accept that HK-born Indians are Hongkongers too. The waiter, no matter how confused I look at him, will speak to me in Cantonese and completely ignore the true local. And ironically, it is my fiance who speaks it fluently.

Staying true

Thankfully, the UK is one of those places where our ancestors could be from anywhere in the world, and we still have the right to call ourselves British. But that doesn’t mean everybody in the UK accepts that.

Growing up, I always strove to be more Asian. I used to think to myself as soon as I get to an Asian country, I will fit in. When people asked me where I was from, my answer would be “Malaysia”. But going to Asia made my sense of British identity stronger. Now I proud and comfortable to answer “England”, accepting who I am.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I am denying my other identities. Just being honest with myself and the world about the many dimensions there are to a person’s identity. We have ethnic, national, religious identities, which all intermingle. And to label yourself as one, doesn’t neglect the others. That’s just of the fun things about being so mixed up – being able to be many things at once.


Last week my post “My Mixed-race Family” was Freshly Pressed. Thanks WordPress! And I just want to thank everybody who took the time to read or comment on it. Especially, thanks to the people who shared their own experiences and lives with me. It was a pleasure reading about them. I can’t tell you how much it means to know that people care about what I write.

My mixed-race family

Embarking on a journey to discover my own ethnically diverse background.

Mixed-race people, like me, are now the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK. My own immediate family is a perfect example of the growing trend. My Mother is Chinese, born in Malaysia, and my Father was a mix between Irish and Roma travellers.

My parents and I

My Mother and Father on their wedding day

My parents didn’t go through the same challenges in marrying into a different ethnicity as many others did, including the BBC’s George Alagiah for example. In fact, for my Mother growing up as the only Chinese girl in her class, shortly after coming over from Malaysia, she luckily didn’t experience any racial discrimination. “I never thought why is he [my step-Father] white and why am I Chinese? We didn’t even think about race then,” she said.

This is quite a world apart from the England I grew up in – Folkestone, Kent in the 1990s. I had never thought of myself differently until I became of a conscious age, when people started pulling the corner of their eyes back in an attempt to imitate Chinese eyes. I got called ‘chinky’ and my Mother, Grandmother and I have all been told to ‘go back to your own country.’ Have times gotten worse?

After some time trying to reason that it is easier to live just saying I’m British, I was reminded by a lovely lady from a clinic in Folkestone today, that I should be proud of who I am. Because if I ignore it, the heritage of my parents and their parents will be lost forever.

Starting the search…

For me, the journey starts when my parents met in Pullman wine bar in Folkestone, Kent in 1987. My Mum must have been one of the few ethnic minorities that were in Folkestone at that time. Nowadays, it is far more diverse.

My parents and I in the 1990s

Admittedly, I don’t know as much about either of my ethnic backgrounds as I would like to know. All I have to remind me of it are the stories my Father told me of his Roma mother and Irish traveler Father, a few photos of my Mother’s childhood days in Malaysia, and my own face when I look in the mirror every morning, reminding me that I am different.

A huge, decrepit old Bible from the 1800s has my Mother’s step-Father’s family history written neatly in the front page. But there is nothing of this sort for my Mother or Father’s families. So it’s up to me to put the puzzle together.

My Grandmother and John’s families come together

The Malaysian-Chinese side

Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from her southern British accent, my Mother was born in Melaka in Malaysia. My Grandmother didn’t want my Mother or Aunt to know their Father after they divorced. His identity, along with my Mother’s long-lost brother, remain a mystery to us all. The remnants of an old photo of my Mother’s real Father, with his head cut off, lay in the cupboard.

My Grandmother later married an English man called John Hunter. He was an electrician and brought my Grandmother, mother and Aunt to England in the 1960s. Since a young age my Mother and Aunt then began to only speak English. This explains why none of us can speak Chinese very well. From what she and my Mother say, they were very happy with him. He was a real English gentleman – tall, well-dressed, and with pipe in hand.

My Grandmother and her English husband John.

Following clues

After my Grandmother passed away, we found a pile of photographs of our Malaysian and Singaporean family members. Most of them have also passed by now too. But one photo baffled me most. A family is posing for a typical family portrait shot. Their ethnic background is hard to work out. The Father, maybe Malay, is adorned fully in Islamic dress, even topped with a fez-like hat. His wife seems Chinese, and their children seem of mixed ethnicity. But who they are is a mystery to me. Maybe my family has been practicing mixed ethnic relations for longer than I had thought.

A photo found in my Grandmother’s cupboard

We also found an old-fashioned, yellowing photo of my Mother’s anonymous brother, smiling at the camera with a sweet innocence. Hand-written on the back reads “Your son, Ah Hong…Birthday: 9th September 1959.” But everything else about this man is a blur to her. The stamp from the printing company tells us it was printed in Malaysia.

Mum’s brother, Ah Hong

In another photo, the Chinese calendar on the wall says ‘1980’. A red and gold ancestral worship shrine is in the background. The people in the photo seem to be my Uncle (my Mother’s second cousin), his Mother and some nameless family members crowding around my Great-Grandfather for his birthday. He is a spit and image of my Grandmother. Every year, the Chinese side of my family, who now live in Singapore, still visit his shrine in Malaysia.

The more I look at that photo, the more a young man wearing Ray-ban sunglasses begins to look like a man I met in Singapore 3 years ago. He said we were related in some distant way, but I didn’t think to ask anything further.

The Irish and Traveller side

My Grandfather from my Father’s side, who I never knew, was originally from Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland. He was an Irish traveller, not that many people in the family know that. That is, the family who still speak to us. My Father’s Mother was also Irish, but was half Irish and half Roma traveller. This explains the wanderlust I must have inherited.

My Father and I

Although he was born in Essex, my Father was still never content with being called English. He had a typical Irish pride. How we came to have the name ‘Castle’ as Irish descendents still puzzles me though. Years back, I stared for hours at a map of Ireland that marked every area by the name of the descendents of each village or town. But ‘Castle’ was nowhere to be seen.

Unfortunately, when my Father sadly passed away, all the memories of his childhood and background went along with him. Of course I remember many of the things he told me about. But sadly, memory fades. And the generations of my Father’s family who came after him seem to know nothing about their real heritage. It’s not exactly viewed as something to shout about these days.

Just the beginning

The gaps in my knowledge are troubling me. After all, if I don’t make an effort to search for the answers to my questions, who will teach my future children how interesting their ancestry is.

I owe this to my parents and my Aunt and Uncle alike, who set a beautiful example through their love, that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you look like.

This is just the beginning of my search.

My Auntie Maggie and Uncle Kevin

The wisdom of Eliot Rausch

Thanks to today’s technology, lecturer David Dunkley Gyimah, my class and I, were able to Skype with award winning editor, director and storyteller Eliot Rausch about what goes behind his intimate and humanistic style of documentary-making.

Eliot Rausch’s documentaries, including ‘Last minutes with Oden’ and ‘Pass the bucket’, are able to touch hearts, inspire and empower. His style of film-making has been described as raw, and tends to focus on people who would otherwise be ignored. He is addicted to trying to capture the human spirit, which comes alive in times of suffering.

Though he began his career in Graphic Design, and later taught himself to use Final Cut Pro and After Effects. He then entered the world of advertising and also began making music videos. The atmosphere of success that surrounded him led him into drug addiction. Throughout his struggle to get clean, Eliot was accompanied by Jason Wood, or Woody, who featured in Elior’s first masterpiece outside the commercial world – ‘Last minutes with Oden.’

Touching documentaries

‘Last minutes with Oden’ is a short documentary portraying the end of a beautiful relationship between Eliot’s friend Woody and his loyal dog Oden. The loss of such a loving creature was even too much for the crew, as their tears welled up while filming. After tens of thousands of views and likes, the piece ended up winning the 2010 Vimeo Awards for Best Video and Best Documentary, some of the greatest accomplishments in the online film community. But he explained how he was filled with an odd emotion afterwards, as if he had exploited a dear friend’s weak moment.

In terms of the creativity in his documentaries, he found many of the choices of shot, frame and subject instinctual. When initially brainstorming how to shoot Amy Purdy, a double-leg amputee, in an episode of ‘Pass the Bucket‘, someone had suggested showing her snowboarding. But Eliot found more beauty in the simplicity of showing Amy in her home environment, adjusting her prosthetic leg as a part of her daily routine. “Simplicity is more profound,” he says. The entire series of ‘Pass the Bucket’ focuses on the human aspects of top sport personalities’ and artists’ lives.

The key to a human story

When asked about the challenges he has faced, he told us how important it is to keep your initial aims and intentions alive. He had started off in the industry with a pure heart and the intention to create change in the world. And admitted that the spotlight of winning awards and earning a fair amount of money had caused him to temporarily sway away from that purity. “I don’t want to die with trophies in my hand, I want to go out knowing that really tried to make change,” he said in this video about his life.

He went on to emphasize how the key to documentaries like his own, is to be close to the people you are filming. Building a rapport or a relationship with them, will allow you to “get so close to their reality that it’s uncomfortable.” As a good listener, and trusting in his own footage and pre-visualisation enough to take a step back, Eliot is able to let his subjects breath. This is something needed in the kind of touching, human stories that he tells. “I am immersed in culture and relationships,” he says, “and when I’m connected with a story, the camera is secondary.”

Eliot used the money won in the Vimeo Awards to facilitate a project about the lives of three illegal immigrants in the US. He gave them each a camera, and asked them to document their own lives. Eliot’s edit of their footage can be seen in the film ‘Limbo, launching this June.

Thanks to Eliot Rausch for giving us a glimpse into the mind of such an honest and talented storyteller.

Langar: Faith in Food

We started, as all visitors do, by taking off our shoes and covering our heads. For those who don’t usually wear turbans or a scarf, there are spare ones provided. As we followed the grandiose staircase upwards, the Sikh’s holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, housed under a golden canopy, came into view. After bowing in respect and sitting for a while to take in the sweet sounds of the holy book being sung aloud.

Gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, practice their service to Humanity by providing this free, round-the-clock kitchen. People of any race or religion are welcomed to eat Langar, which consists of solely vegetarian food, while sitting on the floor with everybody else. This dining style was introduced by the Sikh founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji as a symbol of everyone’s equality, a theme that is resonant throughout the Sikh Faith.

The whole system, from food preparation to cleaning up, is run by volunteers who offer their help and service selflessly. This is what in Sikhism is called Sewa. And those who give Sewa are Sewadars. The most warming part of this is that they don’t expect anything in return. As Gurdeep Singh took us on a tour around the kitchen, we watched as women tossed and beat dough into round, flat shapes to make chapatis. At the next table, men were leaning over a burning hot-plate, flipping the flattened dough until it was slightly browned.

Sewadars like Gurdeep Singh devote time to serving Langar almost every day. Preparing the dishes, which range from daal (lentils) to kheer (semolina), starts at 2 in the morning in order to feed hungry mouths by 5 a.m. In a continuous cycle throughout the day, trays are taken, filled and emptied by visiting worshippers, and given to another group of Sewadars who are in charge of washing up. By 9 or 10 at night, the kitchen is sparkling clean again, ready for another day of hard work to begin again in a few hours time.

The day that the Gurdwara is pulsing with energy and life is on a Sunday. The Sewadars, along with the the Chefs, feed from 5,000 to 10,000 people on this one day. We stood in the fridge among gallons upon gallons of milk that would all be used in one day to make kheer. 

After a long day, we took a metal tray from the pile. A ladel-full of daal, vegetable curry and kheer was added to our tray as we moved along. We were also offered chapatis, masala tea and jalebi, a sweet battered pretzel doused in syrup. As we sat and ate this delicious meal, the Gurbani, or devotional songs, played continuously, echoing throughout the spacious rooms, soothing the soul.

Southall is home to the grand, awe-inspiring Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara. But this isn’t the only place in London you can join this community experience. Upton Park and Southfields are also home to major Gurdwaras, as well as the oldest Gurdwara in Europe in Shepherd’s Bush.

Multimedia by Jody-Lan Castle and Bibek Rajbhandari, article by Jody-Lan Castle.

A stab in the back for the Gurkhas

The Ministry of Defence’s new wave of cuts will make more than one in ten Gurkha soldiers redundant, most likely from the older generation.

Photo (Jody-Lan Castle) : Here the Mayor of Folkestone, Susan Wallace, says Namaste to members of the Nepalese Community.Over 45,000 Gurkhas have died in battle to date in the name of Great Britain. They fought bravely alongside British troops in conflicts such as Kosovo, the Falklands, Afghanistan and the World Wars. But now, only 3 years after winning the Gurkha Justice Campaign, the Gurkhas are set to bear the brunt of the Ministry of Defence’s second round of cuts. The announcement came on Tuesday that the British Armed Forces will shed an extra 2,900 soldiers, including 400 Gurkhas, in its attempt to save £4.7billion.

Former Councillor of Folkestone in Kent, Dhan Gurung, has accused the Ministry of Defence of discrimination due to the disproportionate number of Gurkhas to be axed compared to their British counterparts. But according to Defence Minister Philip Hammond, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is necessary to clean up after the preceding Labour government’s overzealous defence spending.

The Defence Minister also commented that the review is likely to affect mostly Gurkhas who have already served for 6 years or more. The move also seems to intentionally target the older Gurkhas. The changes in the maximum years of service for Gurkhas, from 15 years to 22, mean that Gurkhas will remain in service until much older ages. So ironically, it is those who have served this country the longest that will be made redundant.

Though many Gurkhas currently fear for the future of their careers, there are attempts at keeping UK-Nepal relations strong on a local and national level. Nepalese Artist Ajaya Deshar is holding his exhibition In Search of Peace in Folkestone, Kent, home to over 350 Nepalese families and the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The exhibition’s opening ceremony brought the local and Nepalese communities together to share in the Nepalese culture.

Racial relations in Folkestone, Kent

Amid all this discussion about racism in the UK, here is a look at how Folkestone in Kent is doing in terms of its racial relations.

Folkestone is a multicultural town, including large groups of Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Eastern European people.

These graphs show that the number of White British people has gradually declined over the past 10 years, and the number of ethnic minorities has risen.

The Nepalese Community is probably the most prominent ethnic group in Folkestone. In 1997, when the Gurkhas’ base was moved from Hong Kong to the UK, Folkestone became home to the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Now, over 350 Nepalese families live there. Here’s Susan Wallace, the Mayor of Folkestone, telling us about the Gurkhas.
In January 2011, an Afghan teenager was stabbed and killed by another Afghan boy. The cause was said to be a tribal feud. This incident polarised the public in Folkestone, and racial relations became tense. The newspapers at the time said that some parts of Folkestone were becoming ghettos.This is Barbara Witham, Events Organiser for Folkestone Town Centre Management and one of those responsible for Folkestone Multicultural Festival, commenting on the stabbing of an Afghan teenager in Folkestone last year.As the Economy worsens and unemployment stays high, the relations between ethnic groups in Folkestone will be strained. Hopefully, Folkestone will remain a peaceful seaside town.For a more detailed report, including public opinion and an interview with Bijay Hitan from the Nepalese Community of Folkestone, listen to this.

‘One Tiger Eight Breasts’ and yet another investigation


Looks like the Chinese government is intent on making Chinese activist Ai Wei Wei famous.

Every time he does something, they investigate him for it, and he jumps back into the headlines.

This time he has been taking his clothes off, joining four naked ladies, perching on little wooden stools and giggling, all the while being photographed.

All in the name of Art of course.

But the Chinese government doesn’t see it that way. And now he has found himself under investigation yet again.

The piece is titled ‘one Tiger eight breasts’. And is not the first piece in China in which an artist has posed nude in their own work.

He has only recently disappeared from the spotlight of paying a 15 million yuan tax bill along with the help of the Chinese people.

Of course, the Chinese government couldn’t give a damn about pornography, but are probably using it as a way to try to keep Ai quiet.

Though it doesn’t seem to be working.

Now that Ai has reached the eyes of the international community, thanks to the internet, they won’t be able to do much to stop him.

They may respond however, by cracking down harder and harder on internet users, and increasing internet policing.

They know the power of the web, and the potential threat it poses to the stability of China.

A new way to protest?

Following on from yesterday’s post, it seems that the trend of self-immolation as a means of protesting has caught on in other ethnicities other than Tibetans.

This month an 81-year old Chinese woman, Wang, also set herself alight in response to the demolition of her home in Henan.

The elderly woman’s house was due to be demolished to accommodate for a tunnel project.

This case is allegedly one of many of this kind, all in protest of house demolitions.

Wang’s relatives, who were later detained, had also doused themselves in petrol, threatening the demolition workers with setting themselves alight. But before they could, Wang had already gone ahead.

China is ranked 66th for the highest number of suicides by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is reasonably low considering the pressure to succeed and culture of saving face that Chinese people have.

In a country where opposition and protest are often suppressed, the Chinese people seem to be trying to find alternative ways to speak their mind. A way which will not end with being arrested.

The first I had heard of self-immolation was in Iran and Afghanistan. Women who could not bear to live any longer with their wicked husbands, would self-immolate.

Now it has become a trend in China too.

Self-immolation is Un-Buddhist

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns who self-immolate are going against Buddhist values.

Coming from a Buddhist family, the issue of suicidal Tibetan monks is troubling me deeply.

Buddhism teaches that the body is a temple, and we should treat it as such.

This teaching leads onto some of the rules Buddhists should follow, including not drinking, not smoking and not taking in anything harmful to the body.

Strict Buddhists and monks even train themselves to sleep less, eat only vegetarian food, and to be able to bare pain.

I’m sure many of you have seen videos of Buddhist monks smashing bricks over their heads, punching through planks of wood with their fists or laying down on broken glass.

But self-immolating is a step too far, and has become a trend among Tibetan monks and now nuns in China, to protest against Chinese rule.

11 monks and nuns have set themselves alight in the past year, most of whom died.


Suppression in Tibet

China claims that it has helped Tibet modernise and move away from feudalism since its occupation began in 1950, however Tibetans are not able to practice their culture and religion freely.

Protests such as these, however small, are a threat to the stability of China’s communist regime. China has traditionally not responded well to opposition and criticism.

They blame the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, for the actions of the self-immolating monks. The Dalai Lama remains in exile and those who show their support to him are imprisoned.

There has been an increased military presence in Lhasa and other cities where the protests have taken place, according to the Free Tibet campaign.

The Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamsala, India, says that Buddhism does not permit the harm of others or oneself, but the trend of setting oneself alight shows how much unhappiness is being caused by China’s occupation of Tibet.


Against Buddhist values

Depending on the sect, Buddhism teaches that we are reincarnated after death, either as a human being or as an animal.

Those who have done a lot of good in their life are rewarded by becoming humans again. And those who have done more bad than good are likely to end up as an animal.

Therefore we should be honoured to be human. But for Buddhists, who take ‘non-harm’ to such a level that they will not kill even the smallest insect, how can they end their own lives?

Buddhism also teaches that we should expect and comes to peace with suffering in life, as it is a part of life that everyone must experience.

Suffering is part of a cycle of life, which we can only escape from once we realise ‘the truth.’

That is why we saw astonishingly calm and collected people in Thailand following the Tsunami, even after some lost their entire families. Their Buddhist values had prepared them for the worst.

Finally, Buddhism teaches that everything in this world is impermanent. That would mean that a Tibetan state is impermanent, China is impermanent.

And the border between them is impermanent, as well as the suppressed conditions under which Tibetans live.

Tibetans do not deserve to live like they do, but it is not worth their precious lives.

I am not doubting how brave those Tibetans were, to give their lives for the sake of their freedom.

But as the Dalai Lama has said, “Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilise your wisdom.”


First ‘turban-wearing’ peer in House of Lords

As the House of Lords is joined by Indarjit Singh, their first ‘turban-wearing’ peer, we are reminded of the importance of the turban.

Baron Singh of Wimbledonbecame a member of the House of Lords in September this year. He has presented in various shows for BBC Radio stations. Among many other publications he has written for the Guardian and the Independent, and is the editor of the Sikh Messenger.Darsem King, a Sikh peer appointed back in 1999, had decided against wearing a turban in the chamber, along with all the Sikh MPs in the House of Commons.

His peership shows the changing nature of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, as it attempts to appoint more non-party affiliated peers. Reforms this year also look to rid the chamber of all hereditary peers.

As the director of the Network of Sikh Organisations UK, Mr.Singh is also a representative of the UK’s 340,000-strong Sikh community. He also sets an example for religious cooperation in a Multicultural Britain as an executive committee member of the Interfaith Network UK.

Indarjit Singh says, “”It gives me a new opportunity to do what I have always tried to do: to work with people of all beliefs to increase tolerance and understanding, and work for greater social and political justice in our society,” according to an article in The National.

Symbol of Sikh identity

It’s much more than the comical ‘man-pag, pag-man’ sketch from Goodness Gracious Me, in which a Father explains to his troubled son that “You got pag. You got man. You put pag on man…Sikh!”

The turban, known as pag or dastar in Punjabi, is symbolic of being a Sikh. One of the five objects which Sikhs should be adorned with is kesh, uncut hair. This goes hand in hand with the turban, which is meant to

cover, honour and protect the hair.

One of the 12 Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, had taught that Sikhs should stand out from the crowd by wearing a turban because they were following the unique path of the Gurus. This means that a turbaned Sikh is usually considered to be more devout than a non-turbaned Sikh.

It is also a symbol of respectability, and of one who upholds and practices Sikh morals.

Anoop Singh, a student at the University of Kent, says that wearing a pag has practical, spiritual and personal significance. He goes on, ” personally, its a solid reminder of the path i follow, it is like a flag for all those around to know i follow this path.”

Baron Singh of Wimbledon is someone for young Sikhs to look up to, at a time when many are disregarding their turbans in the name of

Photo: Paul Gooddy

Tribute to my Father on his would-be birthday

Remembering the years that the world was honored by the presence of John Leslie Castle, who passed away in January.

My Father’s death came quite suddenly. We’d known he was in ill-health for a while, as a consequence of his infamous love of alcohol and cigarettes. But even the strongest, greatest man in my life’s body could not bare bronchitis on top of kidney failure, emphysema and angina. His passing demonstrated the Buddhist teaching he often spoke of; the impermanence of everything on earth.

His stick-thin build had led him to be nicknamed Joss, after a joss stick. Renowned for his quick wit, sometimes dark humour, and his ability to make a joke in even the gloomiest of situations. He also had a more spiritual side. Although he didn’t believe in God, he did believe in an afterlife.

He was deeply proud of being Irish, and always reminded us of what the English black and tans did to the Irish. But still, with his entirely Essex-boy accent, resembling that of Del-boy from ‘Only fools and horses’, he admitted to being a ‘plastic Paddy.’

I couldn’t write a tribute without mentioning the epic way in which my Father won my Mother over. As a customer in the wine-bar my Mother was working in, he asked out only to be turned down. Apparently his wild bushy hair and cross-shaped earring didn’t appeal to her. Determined, he cut all his hair off and threw the earring in the ashtray. On his return, she couldn’t say no.

As his daughter, I knew him better than anyone. Maybe even better than my Mother. We had a kind of telepathic bond which we would often use at times when my dear Mother was being a bit daft. Then we’d giggle together afterwards.

My Father also knew and understood me more than anyone. He always trusted in my intelligence, my decisions and my judgement. And even when I had been out late, or in dangerous places around the world, he believed in me (even if he did moan to my Mother when I wasn’t there).

Growing up, he taught me things that I wouldn’t realise the importance of until now. Though he always left me to make all my life decisions, he had guided me all the way through. He made me who I am today.

I learnt to be politically aware, and to help others, from my Father. Aljazeera English and Euronews were permanently on in our house, unless Mum wanted to temporarily switch over to watch Neighbours. But then it would return to Aljazeera as soon as it finished. He supported the Palestinian cause with all his heart, and would get worked up every time more Israeli settlements were announced. I never failed to be surprised by what my Father knew, and I never got to learn every single thing from him.

There aren’t enough words to show the gratitude and love I have for my Father, and no blog post can come close to summarising his legacy.

The last words my Father had said to me, before he lost the ability to talk, were “I love you.” Cliche as that is, that is all I needed to know.

‘Incredible India’: The side less seen

Regardless of the global economic crisis, India’s Tourism industry is growing at a phenomenal rate. However, tourists, TV shows and backpackers tend to swarm to certain places in India. Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh for its world-famous Taj Mahal… but what about some of India’s less-visited jewels?

According to India’s Tourism Ministry, Andhra Pradesh is the most-visited state in India, recei

ving 155.8 million domestic tourists in 2010. Maharashtra was the most popular for foreign tourists in 2010, hosting 5.1 million. Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, with 114.4 million and 146.5 million domestic and foreign tourists in 2010, are the second and third most popular destinations for tourists in India.

Himachal, with its towering mountains, swooping valleys and cool climate, is not as popular a destination, although it remains a spot for honeymooners.

The Punjab, boasting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, vibrant culture and home to Bhangra beats, and the backdrop for many of India’s historical turning points, is another state which shouldn’t be missed.

Anti-racism festival struggles without funding

The streets of Dalston were filled with the sounds of jazz and funk from midday until dusk yesterday, as artists from diverse backgrounds came together for this year’s UpRise Anti-Racism festival. However, fewer people turned up to enjoy it than in previous years.

The event, which was born from a similar but more popular, well-funded festival called ‘Rise’, brings together singers, bands, artists and poets, as they unite against racism. UpRise’s sponsors include the Co-operative, the National Union of Teachers, and the Musicians’ Union, as well as organisers and producers Brazenbunch, an Arts collective. Still, the festival strives to run on this funding alone.

The turnout this year was dwindling in comparison to that of the festival’s predecessor. After Johnson dropped the anti-racist message in 2009, the event’s sponsors pulled out their funds and the festival was consequently cancelled.

Organiser and project director of Brazenbunch, Paul Richards, then decided to make the festival a people’s festival. “The younger, smaller cousin of Rise,” as Daniel Alexander, a London-based graphic designer, describes, was renamed ‘UpRise’ and run “for the people, by the people.” Daniel speculates that the funds for the event were dropped, as cultural activities were not at the top of Boris Johnson’s priorities. “He doesn’t understand racism, and what tools are necessary to tackle it,” says Paul.

“There are pockets of society in which racism is prevalent”, Daniel says, and goes on to say how acceptance of those who are different from ourselves begins in school. Melissa, co-founder of ‘2 fingers to violence’, a charity dedicated to spreading the message of non-violence, also expresses the importance of workshops in schools as a tool for spreading awareness.

However, without the support of Boris Johnson, projects such as these will continue to struggle.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Politician

Its ludicrous to imply that Bollywood and the Chinese film industry could have any impact on relations between India and China, let alone reflect any warming between the two states.

I was taken aback by a recent article in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading newspaper, entitled “Bollywood calling” by Charukesi Ramadurai, which surmised “after years of friction, relations between two of the world’s oldest cultures appear to be on the mend – so what if pop culture is the catalyst?”

She describes an increasing interest of Bollywood in China, and a growing inclusion of ‘Chinese’ themes in Indian cinema. Charukesi was right to spot a trend, as there have been many movies over the years either set in China or China-themed, for example Awara Hoon (1951), China Town (1962), Naam (1986), and more recently, Chandni Chowk to China (2009).

And as for Chinese movies in India, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee have long been popular. Now Cindy Shyu has decided to make a brave move to merge the two, in Goldstruck, which will be produced jointly by the China Film Group, Lighthouse Productions (HK), and Eros International. It will play on racial stereotypes as two characters, one Indian and one Chinese, join forces to experiment how to turn bronze into gold.

It is granted that the two countries’ interests in each others’ film industries marks a gradual change in attitude, and that pop culture has often been something that softens tensions between peoples. The same has happened between China and Japan, China and South Korea; the Chinese being big fans of Japanese and Korean culture and dramas. However, if we look a little deeper, we can still find the underlying bitterness between Chinese and Japanese/Korean politicians, especially when territorial disputes and war memory rear their ugly heads again.

The same will go for Indo-Chinese relations, even if Bollywood does strike gold in China, or vice versa. It will be interesting to see what happens with the filming of Goldstruck as it will require the Chinese government to give a lot of leeway to the film crews and regarding its censorship.

On a local level in both India and China, it will still take time for attitudes towards each other to go beyond an “ooh, aah” wonderment at the colours of Indian dance or the skill of martial arts. We must remember that underneath the glitz and glam of the crouching tigers, there are always hidden politicians.

Inspired by a Bihari Babu, Tabish Khair

Indian writer, Tabish Khair, made a visit to Hong Kong, as a guest speaker for the Hong Kong Book Fair on the 24th July 2011. Playing on the use of the ‘B’ alliteration, and taking the term ‘Babu’ (Westernized, English-speaking Indian) from the context of the colonial backdrop in which Tabish often writes, I jokingly refer to Tabish Khair as Bihari Babu. One of his most famous studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels, critically analyses works by writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie, in light of the growing popularity of Indian English-language authors. Its underlying tone highlights the class-specificity of Indian English novels, a consequence of the class divisions generated by British rule. Regardless of the dozen or so successful books that he has under his belt, including works such as Filming, The Bus Stopped, and Muslim Modernities, novelist and poet Tabish Khair is incredibly down to earth.

At times he has been known for upsetting various groups of people. His new book How to find Islamist Terrorism from the missionary position is bound to create tension in Denmark at least. But that’s what is admirable about Tabish Khair, is his unwillingness to say what he ‘should’. He will tackle the elephant in the room head on as he finally addresses some of the controversial issues associated with Islam and Denmark, where he resides. In his article The colour of our passports in The Hindu, he writes about the moral issues behind changing one’s nationality faced by foreign residents of the UK/US, and other predominantly white, developed countries. The benefits of “convenience and cash” aside, as he puts it, one should keep one’s nationality not merely for sentimental value, but also to retain one’s ‘common difference’ as non-white people. He goes on to explain that the fear of foreigners in the UK/US has existed long before terrorism came into the headlines, and is based on the fear of “those who have little cash and cannot be conveniently ignored.” In relation to his book The Thing About Thugs, drawing a parallel between the cultural differences of the British and Indians during Victorian and contemporary times, he commented, “I engage with the past, but don’t cater to stereotypes.”

The issue of racism came up a few times throughout the session, though not enough in relation to Hong Kong local people’s prejudices towards foreigners, and especially South Asians. Chip Tsao, who was mediating the session, did mention that local people in Hong Kong don’t know enough about their Indian neighbours, and remarked that “they think that Sikhs are the only type of Indian.” But even that is wishful thinking, as most locals I have spoken to don’t even know what Sikhism is, apart from giving Sikh children ignorant nicknames because of the topknot on their heads. Chip went on to say that few locals know that “the Sikh temple (Gurdwara) in Wanchai serves free food (langar) every Friday (actually every day of the week).” However it is exactly this “I try your food, you try mine” approach, that is an ineffective form of superficial multiculturalism, according to Tabish. He explains how we need to acknowledge the history of how other cultures influence our own, in order to be truly multicultural.

“I’m glad you asked that,” he remarked in response to my asking how growing up in Bihar, or being a Bihari, had influenced his work. He went on to explain how he feels it is important for him to be identified as a Bihari, as well as an Indian, and he has incorporated aspects of Bihari culture and life into his novels. Many people label him as being a member of the Indian diaspora, but he considers himself as a Bihari, and an Indian, who lives in Denmark. “We are going through an age in which we’re losing memory,” he said as he told that consciously or subconsciously, people in India are becoming very business-minded, resulting in a decline in literature.

Whether I agree with them or not, the words and views of Tabish Khair have been refreshing to hear and read. Please leave direct comments here, leaving name and email is optional but not required, and let me know what you think.