Parsis Remembered in Hong Kong On Independance Day

As the tricolour is hoisted to mark the 60th anniversary of India’s independence, it is well worth acknowledging the contributions of the Indian diaspora across the world in keeping the tiranga aflutter in far-off lands.

Take Hong Kong, for instance. Strikingly, Indians and persons of Indian origin do not account for a large critical mass of Hong Kong’s population today.

At an estimated 50,000 or so, Indians and PIOs make up less than 1% of the population of this erstwhile British colony.

Nevertheless, Indians make up with their industry and business acumen for what they lack in absolute numbers, and it can be said, without risk of exaggeration, that even as far back as in the 19th century, persons of Indian origin had begun to make a distinctive mark in the emerging landscape of the “Pearl of the Orient”.

Among the earliest Indians to establish themselves in Hong Kong were those who were characterised as “turbans and traders”.

In the late 19th century, the British colonial government of Hong Kong drew on Pathans, Sikhs and Bengalis from the Indian subcontinent for the Hong Kong Regiment, and for civil administration functions.

Burly, fiercely-mustachioed Sikhs were also sought out for security and constabulary duties.

Equally significant was the large number of traders who set up a robust commerce network that took in southern China and Hong Kong.

In fact, stone Tamil inscriptions that were discovered in Guangzhou in southern China in the mid-1950s point to a flourishing trade relationship involving merchants from south India and southern China that can be traced as far back as the 13th century!

Indians and PIOs are also associated with the founding of some of Hong Kong’s distinguished institutions — such as the iconic Star Ferry (which operates across the Victoria Harbour to this day) and the University of Hong Kong, one of the top centres of learning in the world today.

In 1880, it was Dorabjee Naorojee, a Parsi businessman from India, who began operating the ferry service between the main Hong Kong island and Kowloon; that service later metamorphosed into the Star Ferry of today, which Likewise, it was a HK$180,000 (Rs 9 lakh at today’s exchange rate) donation from Sir Hormusjee Naoroji Mody, a Mumbai-born Parsi merchant, that helped start up the University of Hong Kong in 1911.

To this day, a bronze bust of Mody at the university commemorates the “distinguished Parsi businessman, renowned philanthropist and benefactor of Hong Kong for over fifty years.”