Tradition with a twist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


In a large ballroom in the basement of the Holiday Inn Golden Mile hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, a 'who's who' of the local Indian community is gathered. In one corner, Simran Bhojwani, one of the leading sourcers and exporters of Indian silverware, is posing for photos and sipping champagne. At the other end of the room is tycoon Hari Harilela, whose family owns the hotel, shaking a throng of hands. In the middle of the room is Mira Mahtani, president of The India Association Hong Kong, making sure the night's festivities - including a dinner and dance show by Bollywood artists flown in from Mumbai - go according to plan.

It's the annual ball to celebrate Diwali, or the Indian New Year: the most important festival in the Indian calendar. This ball, organised by the India Association and the India Club, is one of many in a month-long celebration for the local community. There are luncheons, street festivals, barbecues and parties, culminating in a visit to the temple.

This is not how every Indian celebrates, however. Over at the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple in Wan Chai, the mood is solemn as dozens of men, women and children kneel in prayer. There will be no singing, dancing and drinking for them over Diwali.

Different religions celebrate the New Year in their own way. While Diwali, meaning the festival of lights, is a lively five-day celebration of new beginnings for Hindus (the predominant and indigenous religion in India, which worships multiple gods, or 'gurus'), it is a sober celebration of freedom for the Sikhs (a monotheistic religion from the Punjab region of India).

Diwali's mythology (the Hindus celebrate the homecoming of Lord Rama while the Sikhs celebrate the release from imprisonment of Guru Hargobind), and even spelling, differs between religion and race (it's also celebrated in Nepal, Malaysia and other South Asian nations), but most agree Hong Kong provides ample opportunities to stick to tradition, while adding a distinct twist.

'I think, for anyone, the biggest difference between life in Hong Kong and life elsewhere is that we go out, and eat out, a lot more here,' Bhojwani, 37, says. 'And that's the biggest difference between celebrations of Diwali in India and Hong Kong - instead of going to each other's homes, we go out to restaurants or ballrooms.'

Venues aside, Bhojwani says everything else about celebrating Diwali in Hong Kong is the same as it was in Mumbai when she was a child.

'It's about spending time with family, celebrating a new start,' she says. 'Diwali is to us what Lunar New Year is to most of Hong Kong.'

Diwali officially spans five days in late October or early November, depending on the Hindu calendar (it falls on October 24 to 28 this year). Each day is marked by a different type of worship and rituals for different religions, but the constants, among all variations, are: conducting prayers (pooja) at home, lighting candles to represent light's triumph over darkness, and a visit to the temple on the third day - known as the main Diwali day.

'For most of us on the main day, we will do a prayer during the day at work, and at night go to the temple,' Mahtani says. The temple of choice for Hindus, she says, includes the Kowloon Hindu Mandir Temple in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Happy Valley Hindu Temple. After visiting the temple, it is tradition to return home for a silverware ritual that worships both Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Lord Ganesha, the god of success.

There are multiple requirements for the ritual, Bhojwani says. A clean house, new clothes, fruit, silverware (or gold, for the more affluent), silver coins and lots of candles.

'The silverware and coins and jewellery represent good vibes,' she explains. 'We worship [Ganesha and Lakshmi], and then we pray for the nine planets [represented by nine nuts], then we pray for each other.'

When the ritual is finished, elders will give out money, and then it's time to eat.

'So, yes, there are lots of similarities between what we do and Lunar New Year,' she says.

For the most part, members of the Indian community have passed on their heritage and traditions to the younger generation, even those born and raised in Hong Kong or educated overseas.

Payal Uttam, a 28-year-old freelance journalist who was raised in Hong Kong and spent a significant portion of her teenage years in the US, says that although she doesn't practise the full Hindu rituals regularly, Diwali is still a very important event for her.

'Diwali is very spiritual, with a common theme of good triumphing over evil,' she says. 'It should resonate with everyone.'

Uttam will be celebrating with her parents. Her mother, Bharti, a housewife, cites Diwali celebrations as some of her fondest memories of growing up in India.

Juhi Melwani is a 15-year-old, second-generation Hong Kong-born Indian. She attends a local school and has mostly Chinese friends, but remains entrenched in her native heritage. 'I think the tight-knit Indian community in Hong Kong helps us maintain our culture,' she says.

Some credit the recent boom in popularity of Indian culture, such as yoga and the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, for Diwali's continued relevance among youngsters.

'I think for a time during the 1980s and 90s, we were losing our heritage and tradition in Hong Kong,' says Mahtani, a grandmother. 'But the recent boom in Bollywood popularity has led to post-80s and 90s children picking it up again. So in a way, my grandchildren and their peers are more keen to keep traditions than my children's generation.'

Allowing a bit of leeway helps in keeping things relevant with the youth, Bhojwani says.

'My husband and I want our son to stick to his roots, but he's allowed to incorporate other cultures and influences,' she says of Pranav, 11, who performs Indian dancing with hip hop and rap elements.

'The Indian community makes a point to keep it interesting and fun for the young generations; it can't be just all worshipping gurus and rituals lasting hours,' Bhojwani says. 'There has to be dancing, shows and drinking.'

Although the celebrations won't be as lavish, the local Nepalese community is celebrating, too. The Hong Kong Nepalese Federation is holding a small street festival outside the Nepalese community centre in Yau Ma Tei today.

A myriad reasons, ranging from different social status in Hong Kong and smaller population, has muffled the Nepalese celebrations, says the federation's Netra Paharai.

'Many in the Indian community are well off, so they can organise balls and grand events,' Paharai, 35, says. 'For us, it's more of a small, neighbourhood affair.'

Maya Pun, a 28-year-old Nepali working in Hong Kong as a financial adviser, says Diwali celebrations have always been relatively low-key in Nepal compared to India.

'Most of us hold family gatherings,' she says. 'I loved it as a child because we would get new clothes from our parents.'

This year, her first in Hong Kong, Pun is going to stay at home, pray, and hold video chats with siblings back home.

'Technology has allowed me to continue the tradition of seeing family,' she says.

Another Nepali, Nanealal Thokar, a 33-year-old teacher at Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College, will help lead a group prayer at the school.

'All this partying and dancing should be secondary,' he says. 'We should worship the gurus for this period.'

Despite the differences in tone and mood in the various Diwali celebrations, one thing remains the same, according to Gurmel Singh, manager of the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple in Wan Chai.

'It is a new year, a new beginning, a time to look ahead and plan for a bright year,' he says. 'Although we are a Sikh temple, everyone is welcome to come and celebrate.'