Readers of this blog will know that ‘A Borrowed Place’ is dedicated to the history of Jewish refugees in Hong Kong. My posts have so far examined Hong Kong’s refugee history and historiography, its historic Jewish community and the lives of refugees. Today’s post casts an eye on another so-called ‘foreign’ community in Hong Kong; Indians and their arrival in the former British colony.
Since Hong Kong’s earliest days, Parsee and Bohra Muslim traders from India were engaged in the region, opening offices and taking advantage of the economic opportunities and political stability afforded in the territory. In the mid-1840s approximately one-quarter of the foreign businesses in Hong Kong were Indian, and many Indian Muslim firms had been active in Canton since the late 1700s. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but after being expelled in the seventh century built up businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They were engaged as middlemen with foreign traders and became successful bankers and financiers. Parsees arrived in Hong Kong in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee was a Parsee entrepreneur and hotelier who arrived in Hong Kong from Bombay in 1852 as a stowaway on a ship bound for China. He began the first regular cross-harbour ferry services between Hong Kong and Kowloon, a business which was sold in 1898 to the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. marking the beginning of the Star Ferry Company (later a Kadoorie business interest during the twentieth century).
The Star Ferry played a significant role in helping Naorojee’s Parsee compatriot, Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, develop Kowloon. Mody came to Hong Kong from Bombay in the early 1860s as an experienced printing press manager. He formed a brokerage firm with close friend Sir Paul Chater (an Armenian Christian born in Calcutta) and together they invested in underdeveloped Kowloon. He was commemorated for his efforts with the street name ‘Mody Road’; one of the major thoroughfares in Kowloon. The Ruttonjees were another important Parsee family who made their mark on Hong Kong’s early history. In 1886 Hormusjee Ruttonjee arrived in Hong Kong from India to start business as a wine merchant, and later established the Hong Kong Brewery with the help of his son. As a noted philanthropist, one of his major donations to the Hong Kong community was the Ruttonjee Tuberculosis Sanitorium. The Ruttonjee family were honoured guests along with the Kadoories at the opening ceremony of the newly renovated Sir Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians in 1955.
By the mid-twentieth century, Hong Kong’s Indian population rose dramatically with the arrival of migrants from the Sindh and Gujarat provinces. Hindus soon became the largest group of Indians in Hong Kong and they specialised in importing and exporting a wide variety of goods. Amongst them were the Sindhis, who traded through their widespread diasporic links. One of the most distinguished Sindhi families in Hong Kong today is the Harilela family. Hari Harilela (1922 – 2014) was born in Hyderabad, Sindh (now part of Pakistan). He came to Hong Kong with his father Naroomal Mirchandani in the early 1930s and helped provide for his family by hawking goods to the British armed forces. Eventually, the Harilelas established their own tailoring firm which became one of the best clothing houses in the city. The family diversified with the establishment of the Harilela Group in 1959 and soon acquired the Imperial Hotel in 1961, which marked their entry into the hospitality industry. Today the Harilelas are leading members of the wider Indian community in Hong Kong, with many of the family members living together under one roof.