Sikh community steeped in history

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2007, 12:00am

THE IMAGE OF Sikhs for most Hongkongers is one of burly, turban-wearing, bearded bank guards who convey an air of unwavering duty. However, this stereotype belies a rich history.

The 8,000-strong Sikh community has deep roots in Hong Kong. Many Sikh families have a more legitimate claim to being Hong Kong people than Chinese residents, whose descendents arrived long after the Sikhs came from Northern India's Punjab region in 1841.

In April of that year, three months after the British landed on Hong Kong Island, Captain William Caine, the first police magistrate, organised a preliminary police force. More than 20 of his 32 early 'policemen' were Indians, discharged from the 51st Madras Native Infantry, which was then stationed in Hong Kong.

In 1844, when the police force was officially established, several Sikhs were its first constables and they remained prominent in the force until long after the second world war.

Sikhs were also represented in Hong Kong's Correctional Services Department, with some of the department's officers being the sons and nephews of former Hong Kong policemen.

The British army also employed Sikhs as guards in the ammunition bunkers on Stonecutter's Island. Because their religion forbade them to smoke they were the right people to watch over explosives. Sikhs also played a prominent role in Hong Kong's civil service.

So entrenched has the Sikh community become that for generations most Hong Kong Sikhs have been trilingual in their mother tongue, Cantonese and English, and now hold jobs in almost every sector. The heart of this community is Wan Chai's Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple, which was established in 1901.

The temple provides daily religious services, free meals and limited accommodation for overseas visitors of any faith. Every day many individuals on the margins of society go there for sustenance provided by the well-established house of worship on Queen's Road East.

The temple runs a kindergarten to prepare youngsters for English-language primary schools in Hong Kong, and is awaiting permission to establish a primary school.

Hong Kong's Sikh community is as tough, resilient and reliable as the unblinking gaze of the turbaned bank guard suggests.