The Parsees: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Community

This article was originally written for the Hong Kong Heritage Project’s Past & Present magazine in 2019, and chronicles the history of the Parsee community in Hong Kong. I’ve also previously written about Hong Kong’s Indian and Portuguese communities on this blog.

Hong Kong has always been home to an eclectic mix of people and cultures; a quick survey of the city’s history will show the valuable contributions of numerous ethnic and national groups from all corners of the globe. One of the first settlers to arrive in Hong Kong after it was occupied by the British were Parsees from India who pioneered trade routes along the China Coast. The Parsee community originally came from Persia but were forced to flee and subsequently built businesses in the booming ports of Bombay and Calcutta. They acted as middlemen to the British and became successful bankers crucial to the early success of HSBC and the Chartered Bank of India. The Parsee contribution to Hong Kong far outweighs the small size of the community. Among their lasting legacies are road names (Mody Road, Kotewall Road and Bisney Road) the Star Ferry (founded by Mithaiwala Dorabjee Naorojee), social clubs and the University of Hong Kong. Parsees have even influenced Hong Kong’s linguistic heritage with the widespread use of the word ‘Shroff’; a Parsee family name. Today, Hong Kong’s Parsee community, a distinct ethnic and religious group, stands at an estimated 200 people. With only 100,000 Parsees worldwide – their numbers rapidly diminishing – this illustrious community is at risk of dying out. In 2009 The Hong Kong Heritage Project spoke to Ruby Master, the community’s first female trustee in Hong Kong, to find out more about her life story and the wider history of Parsees and Zoroastrianism in Hong Kong.

Ruby Master was born in Hong Kong in 1926. Her family history reflects the general pattern of Parsee settlement in Hong Kong, which started as an offshoot of the older Canton settlement. Ruby’s grandfather established a trading company in Canton in 1910 trading silks and spices while her granduncle worked for the law firm Johnston Stokes and Masters. Ruby’s father was brought into the family business in 1917. When the family office relocated to Hong Kong in 1925, he migrated south along with his young wife who became the youngest Parsee woman in the colony. The family lived on Wyndham Street, known as ‘Malacca’ by the Chinese for its ubiquitous Indian presence. Ruby remembers that the houses on Wyndham were much like the shop houses in Singapore today, ‘you would have your office on the ground floor or shop on your ground floor and you lived on the upper floors’. Ruby attended the Italian Convent School, today’s Sacred Heart Canossian College, with other Indian, Portuguese and Chinese girls. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, many of her school friends fled Hong Kong. After the British surrender, the Indian community, along with the Portuguese, Eurasians and other neutral and Axis nationalities, were not interned in civilian camps but were instead free to live ‘at liberty’ as Third Nationals, sometimes in their own homes. This proved to be an illusory freedom as economic collapse, rampant inflation, scant rations and American bombing raids made life hard on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

Ruby, who was fifteen at the time of the invasion, reflects that ‘we had shortages of food, fuel everything.  It was hard … all our bank accounts were frozen and if we managed to live through the four years it was by selling bit by bit whatever valuables we had’. For a time Ruby was able to continue her schooling, though the Italian Convent School was soon closed by the Japanese. Life ‘in town’ was dominated by a strict curfew and Ruby rarely ventured outside the Wyndham Street area, though she spent afternoons at the Ruttonjee and Schroff households, who lived close by. Ruby’s war was mostly experienced from inside the family home, where she would help with housework and bake chapatis and bread, which were not freely available on the outside. Many Parsees were active during the Japanese Occupation. Jehangir Ruttonjee and his son Dhun were arrested for the help they gave to oppressed people in Hong Kong, other Parsees were arrested for the help they gave to the British. Several Parsee homes, most notably that of the Pavris family, were used to house Parsees who had been deprived of their own homes. In 1945 Ruby heard that the war was coming to an end thanks to a cousin who owned a (banned) shortwave radio. When the Japanese surrendered, she was jubilant. The Master family joined the crowds and watched Admiral Harcourt and his fleet land at Blake’s Pier at the end of August: ‘we were all on the waterfront waiting to cheer them, oh that was a wonderful day’.

Hong Kong victory celebrations 9 October 1945
Hong Kong Victory celebrations, October 1945. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

After the war Hong Kong became the largest centre for Parsees in the region when Parsees from Shanghai joined Shanghainese entrepreneurs and others leaving China. In the 1940s and 1950s Ruby worked for her father’s firm exporting cotton yarn to India and Pakistan. Along with other young people in the Indian community she enjoyed an active social life as Indian Regiments were stationed in Hong Kong and the ships of the Indian Navy hosted parties and galas from 1945 onwards. Charitable work has always been an important part of the Zoroastrian religion and Ruby became more deeply involved in the wider community with active roles in the Indian Women’s Club, where she was one of the first members to join in 1957, and the Hong Kong Girl Guides. In the 1980s and 1990s the demographics of the community changed again as Parsees came from overseas to work in large multinational firms. Many longstanding Parsees sought British citizenship and relocated to second homes worldwide as the 1997 Handover approached. Ruby decided to stay put in Hong Kong and was invited to the Handover ceremony on 30 June 1997 when ‘the heavens opened up’. She watched the parade in sodden shoes as the rain pounded the ceremony, her cheeks flecked by tears. ‘We’ve prospered here, we loved Hong Kong and this was our only home’. Today, Ruby’s home is still Hong Kong, where she lives with her extended family. The Parsee community remains close knit, and members meet for Navroze, the Persian New Year, or other festivals at the Zoroastrian Building in Causeway Bay. Ruby believes this sense of community is vitally important, especially as their numbers dwindle. ‘Once a year or so we even have little trips to Shanghai or to Macau or wherever … this way we get the community together’.

Special thanks to Ruby Master for sharing her life history with The Hong Kong Heritage Project.

 

 

 

Hong Kong’s Indian Communities

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).

Sir Mody
Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody

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.

MAIN PHOTO
The Ellis Kadoorie School for Indians group photograph, 1920s

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.