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Change and continuity


As Hong Kong completes 10 years under China, a look at the contribution of the Indian disapora to the island’s prosperity.

On July 1, Hong Kong completed a decade of its reversion to China. The historic occasion is a good context to look at India’s historic link with the erstwhile British colony. Although not a very sizeable population, the Indian diaspora in Hong Kong, consisting about 30,000 people of Indian origin, some possessing Indian passports, have integrated and assimilated well with the multicultural and multi-ethnic society of Hong Kong while also maintaining the tradition, culture and milieu of their Indian heritage not withstanding the transfer of the territory to Chinese rule. In fact, the transfer of sovereignty has been welcomed by the Indian community.

Profound links

Through its spectacular transformation from a “fever stricken rock” to the El Dorado of the East, Hong Kong has had deep and profound links with India. It was in India that the erstwhile colony raised its first military force, the Hong Kong Regiment, recruited in 1890, made of Pathans, Punjabis and Bengalis. The colonial government recruited personnel in the police and the administration to man services such as health, education, and communication.

Among the earliest Indian settlers in Hong Kong, the name of Ebrahim Noordin merits mention. He started the first cross border ferry, linking Hong Kong with Kowloon in 1842. His great grandson Hatim D. Ebrahim is a noted businessman in Hong Kong. His trading farm imports pulses from mainland China and Myanmar and exports them abroad, besides dealing with exports of kitchenware from Guangdong and Shanghai to Europe and cotton yarn from India and Pakistan to China. The founders of Hong Kong’s oldest trading firm, Jardine & Matheson, had worked in Calcutta with the East India Company before moving to Hong Kong.

Among the Indian business community, the Parsis were perhaps the earliest to settle down and start businesses. They came along with the British from Canton in the mid 1800s. In 1880, Dorabjee Naorojee began the Star Ferry Services between Hong Kong and Kowloon that was the precursor to today’s Star Ferry. Sir H.N. Mody, a successful Parsi merchant and stock broker, donated HK$ 1,80,000 to help set up the University of Hong Kong in 1911. Mody, along with Paul Chater, also established the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

During the incipient years of Hong Kong’s rise, quite a few Indians made their mark in the corporate sector of Hong Kong’s economy. Indians were members of the Board of Directors of leading corporations such as Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharfs and Godown Company, Hong Kong Land Investment Company, Hong Land Reclamation company etc. The first bank to be opened in Hong Kong in 1845 was the branch of an Indian Bank, the Oriental Bank of Calcutta. In the provisional committee set up in 1864 to establish the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, three of its members were Indians. Mr. E.R. Belilios, of Jewish origin, who had some Indian connection, was one of the earliest Chairmen of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

The Sindhis, who constitute a majority of the Indian population, arrived in Hong Kong during the post-war years. The 1950s, however, witnessed an exodus of Indians to Hong Kong in the wake of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. The Indian community contributed their might for the prosperity of the colony. When the Chinese got into manufacturing, it was the Indians who found the export outlet for the manufactured goods.

Rags to riches story

Among the persons of Indian origin who have carved out a niche for themselves in the social, economic and political life of Hong Kong, the name of Hari N. Harilela stands foremost. A self-made man who had a very humble origin, the rise of Harilela reads like the proverbial rags to riches story, heading a multi-million dollar business empire. In fact, Harilela is the personification of the spirit of Hong Kong, the spirit of drive, dynamism, resilience and adaptability. The Government of India had honoured him by conferring on him the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2003. While Harilela and his extended family continue to play a very important role in Hong Kong under the Chinese rule, the family also epitomises Hong Kong-India and India-China amity and fraternity.

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