Of Hong Kong’s many introduced plant and animal species, among the least seen in urban areas is the domestic goat.
Widely found across India and Africa, but largely unknown in China in the 1840s, goats were introduced to Hong Kong to provide meat and milk for the Indian community.
In the colony’s earliest years, when dairy cows were virtually non-existent, Europeans who wanted milk, whether for tea, coffee or cooking, had to make do with goat’s milk.
Hillside grazing, however, in early Hong Kong proved difficult.
By the late 1850s, trees were being planted on barren slopes to encourage soil conservation and increase moisture retention. But almost as soon as anything had been planted, the young saplings were gobbled down by goats. Consequently, professional watchmen were employed by the government to prevent illegal grazing.
By the end of the century, more modern dairy facilities had been established, and Hong Kong’s goat population had declined.
But some goats remained; by the early 1950s, two herds were locally famous. One was found on Lantau, at Ngong Ping, on a farm owned by barrister and politician Brook Bernacchi. The other roamed the Sha Tin country residence of Anglican bishop Ronald Owen Hall. Mostly Angora crossbreeds, they were raised for their milk.
A third herd – eventually the largest – also developed during this period, when the first British Army Gurkha regiment arrived from Malaya, in 1949.
The annual Dashera festival – much celebrated by the Gurkhas – required numerous goats for slaughter. At midnight, on Kala Ratri – the eve of Dashera – a young male black goat was beheaded as an offering to the fearsome Hindu goddess Durga, whose favourite tipple is said to be fresh blood.
The next morning, dozens of goats were beheaded, after being blessed by the regimental Hindu priest. For good luck (and to minimise the mess), each animal was dispatched with one stroke from a ceremonial kukri; as soon as the head was off, a rifle salute was fired. More than one chop was considered inauspicious – and deeply shameful – for the young soldier selected to perform the task.
While the spectators were recovering from the gruesome sight, the still-twitching goat carcasses (and their heads) were hurried off to the camp cookhouse to be skinned, eviscerated, cooked and curried for the celebration feast.
Those fortunate enough to experience Kala Ratri, and the marvellous Gurkha Dashera parties – as I did – can never forget them. Descendents of the military goat herd still roam Yuen Long, Fanling and Sha Tau Kok.
The second-to-last British resident battalion to serve in Hong Kong before the 1997 handover was the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Its regimental mascot, which accompanied the battalion from Britain and returned with it two years later, was a large male Welsh mountain goat named Taffy.
This beast had his own orderly, who kept him immaculately groomed at all times. As well as ceremonial parades, Taffy appeared for fundraising purposes at charitable functions.
Children, in particular, were both fearful and intrigued; for many, it was the first live goat they had seen – and might well have been the last.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong