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Service is community's cup of tea

Entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of contributing to society help to brew deeper ties

THE INDIAN COMMUNITY is an important part of Hong Kong and it all started over a nice cup of tea.

When three great tea-drinking nations (China, India and Britain) come together in business, the result is a heady brew indeed.

So, as the early Indian traders brought their tea and other commodities to Hong Kong nearly 150 years ago, they were welcomed by the British tea merchants, who saw them as their local counterparts.

Soon, Hong Kong was the main trading post for tea.

Many of these merchants came in search of better prospects.

Driven by a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, Indians became renowned as much for their business acumen as their philanthropic nature.

'The Indians are still active in trade and are known to be exemplary traders. They are hard working and can endure difficult environments. They also contribute greatly to the community in which they settle,' said Anthony Nightingale, chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Nightingale said Indians were integral to the Hong Kong business scene and an important part of the chamber.

When the chamber was formed in 1861, 15 of the 62 founding members were Indian.

Its first general committee had one Indian member from Persia, Pestonjee Dhunjeebhoy (a Parsee), out of nine members. Now, about 200 Hong Kong-based Indian companies are represented in the chamber.

As India is rapidly developing economically, the Indian business community can increasingly help Hong Kong and China develop business connections with India.

'Singapore has been active in this regard, but Hong Kong should be able to do that too, with the long history of Indian presence in our society and business community,' Mr Nightingale said.

Indians also had a significant presence in the military and police forces recruited by the British government to keep law and order in the early days of Hong Kong. By 1845, about 25 per cent of Hong Kong's police force was Indian.

The legacy of Indian involvement remains not only in the economic prosperity and social justice of Hong Kong but also in many of its icons - including the Star Ferry, the University of Hong Kong and the Ruttonjee Hospital.

Indian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong chairman Kong Raj Sital said: 'Globally, Indians excel in sectors such as finance, medicine, software and trading. Indians assimilate into the culture and the social mileu of the country they adopt.

'Their loyalties lie with the country where they live. This is the strongest reason for the ubiquitous presence of Indians and their success.'

The entrepreneurial spirit that was a trait of the early businessmen was evident in success stories such as that of the Harilelas, who arrived penniless to seek their fortune and rose to become one of Hong Kong's most prominent - and prosperous - families, Mr Sital said.

'The entrepreneurial spirit is thriving among Indians and acquiring a different dimension,' he said.

'The trend is that professionals are becoming entrepreneurs, whether in international business, finance, software or medicine. For example, Azim Premji of Wipro ventured into a totally unrelated field, information technology, and has become a global success.

'N.R. Narayanamurthy of Infosys created a globally successful software enterprise. Dr Anji Reddy created a global pharmaceutical company.

'In addition to the Harilelas, names such as Barma, Ruttonjee, Chellaram, Chainrai, Chotirmal, Melwani, Ebrahim and Sital are other prominent Indian families. In the fields of economy - promoting Hong Kong as a business hub and trading China-made goods - real estate, education, civil service and health care, their contribution is quite significant.'

The Indian community now presents a well-diversified picture of enterprise.

Although the core strength in international trading continues to build, Indian professionals in the fields of banking, finance, insurance and shipping are a significant part of the community.

Indian businesses contribute up to 10 per cent to Hong Kong's exports.

They are also involved in various community programmes and provide a number of educational scholarships.