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Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Tamil community in Hong Kong more than 50 years in the making

There are an estimated 3,000 Tamils in the city, some arriving from Myanmar during troubled times; youngsters now look at entering information technology sector

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 7:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2017, 11:16pm

In 1975, Mujeebur Rahman ­arrived in Hong Kong to join his uncle’s company that was ­involved in the diamond trade.

During those early years, trade was booming with most of his customers coming from Japan and the United States.

That has changed in the past 10 years, with more than 90 per cent coming from the mainland, making the city an important business hub for traders like him.

“Nowadays you can hardly find Japanese or American customers coming here to buy stones,” Rahman, now 67, said.

“Celebrating 50 years is ­something rare in Hong Kong,” he said, referring to the Tamil ­Cultural Association set up in 1967 and of which he is chairman.

Rahman is one of the many Tamil Indians to have made Hong Kong home over the decades, and today 3,000 are said to contribute to city life, many in professional and entrepreneurial fields.

Tamils may trace their ancestry back to the Indian state of Tamil ­Nadu and various provinces in Sri Lanka.

Tamil is spoken by around 78 million people worldwide, and is one of the world’s oldest surviving ­languages.

Many Tamils arrived in the city from Burma, now Myanmar, in the 1950s and 60s.

They left the country due to political and social instability, and were allowed to settle here at a time when immigration ­controls were not so strict, especially for those from Commonwealth countries.

Early Tamils came to the city as bankers or to set up their own businesses in various trades, especially gems.

Today, many Tamil professionals are involved in the ­information technology field, having acquired the necessary skills from India’s burgeoning IT sector.

The cultural association is ­important both for those who have lived here for many years and for new arrivals, because it provides a chance for the community to connect with its culture.

“Some people, thanks to the association, learned the Tamil language,” Rahman said.

“Otherwise there would be no opportunity to learn how to read and write the language in Hong Kong.”

Shankar Ayush Venkatraman, 10, is one of those to have learned Tamil in such a way,

The Form One student was born in India, but moved here with his parents before he was one year old.

While Venkatraman admits he cannot speak Cantonese well, he is learning Putonghua, hoping to take advantage of China’s economic rise, but always “considers Hong Kong home”.

He has a keen interest in ­technology and hopes to become a software engineer when he is old enough – a profession many ­Tamils are ­now involved in.

Some in the Tamil community are actively involved in spreading awareness of their culture throughout the city.

Thirupathi Nachiappan, 48, arrived in Hong Kong in 1981 to join his parents who moved here in 1977.

After completing his MBA in India, Nachiappan joined the family business, trading silk ­between India and China. He is keen on introducing Tamil ­culture and heritage to others.

“We wear our dresses, we give people clothes to wear so they can take pictures, give them bindis [red dots worn for decorative ­purposes on foreheads] and we ­explain why we wear these things, then they understand,” he said.

“They will ask ‘why do you pray over a cow in the street’, ‘why would a lady wear a bindi’, or ‘why do we have arranged marriages’. They are very happy to listen and understand.”

Nachiappan said social inclusion was higher now than before the 1997 handover.

He believes government awareness of the need to ­attract international talent, and work by the Equal Opportunities Commission has helped achieve the positive results.