The Nepalese community in Hong Kong looks to preserve Gurkha legacy

In the first in a two-part series, Mark Sharp looks at the legacy of the Gurkhas and how the Nepalese community is preserving it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 4:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 9:13am

When the city marks the Ching Ming festival next week, Chinese families won't be the only ones honouring their dead. The local Nepalese community will observe Purkha Diwas, or Ancestors' Day, by gathering at the Gurkha Cemetery in San Tin Barracks.

Purkha Diwas is a rare gathering of Gurkha clans - Gurung, Limbu, Magar, Rai, Thapa and other lineages - and helps the younger generation learn about their history and culture.

Visits to the cemetery in Yuen Long are uncommon because, since the British handed the barracks over to the PLA in 1997, its gates have been locked. Permission to visit must be sought from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Security Bureau.

"There should be a private road so we can go there freely," says Amod Rai, a school liaison officer and secretary of the Gurkha Cemeteries Trust Hong Kong. Rai says Purkha Diwas is a chance for Nepalis in the city to come together and discuss their ancestors' legacy and values.

"We hold various activities like photo exhibitions, and we publish a memorial book. It contains a lot of information; for example, about the Gurkhas' contribution in the first and second world wars and their families back in Nepal," he says.

Dhiraj Gurung, a part-time schoolteacher and research assistant at Chinese University, says: "One good thing about Purkha Diwas is students write poems expressing gratitude, and some recite them. It's like an integration of literature and our culture."

The Gurkhas, whose motto is "Better to die than be a coward", have served on the front lines of almost every British Army conflict in the past 200 years, and are famed for their bravery and loyalty.

They first arrived in Hong Kong from Malaya in 1948 on rotation during the communist insurgency known as the Malayan Emergency. The city became their home base in 1969-70 when their training depot was relocated from Sungai Petani, in Kedah state, according to local historian Jason Wordie.

The troops patrolled the border checking for illegal immigrants entering the territory, most crucially during the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution. They were deployed to contain crowds during the Star Ferry riots of 1966, during a time of dissatisfaction with colonial rule.

In November 1996, seven months before the British handed Hong Kong back to China, most of the last 707 Royal Gurkha Rifles here left their barracks and the Nepali troops' base moved to Britain. But soldiers and their families here had been granted permanent residency, and many stayed. The city's Nepali population today numbers about 30,000.

Despite being bona fide Hongkongers, however, some feel that their part in the city's history is being lost. Wordie says he knows of no mention of the Gurkhas in the Hong Kong History Museum. One of the few visible traces of the Gurkhas left today is the 100-kilometre MacLehose Trail, which was originally a training exercise for the troops. But their name is not associated with the trail.

Khimding Ratna, who retired from the Gurkhas in 1993 after 12 years of service here, believes the Nepalese soldiers are being forgotten intentionally. "I feel sad because I still remember how we were respected as Gurkhas in Hong Kong," he says.

Most of the younger generation have little knowledge about their ancestry and homeland because they are not taught about it even in schools that cater to ethnic minorities, says Dev Raj Rai, who produces community radio programmes, writes a blog and has published five Nepali-language books on the Gurkhas.

Carlos Soto, who teaches ethnic minority students part time at CMA Choi Cheung Kok Secondary School in Tuen Mun, agrees that the Gurkhas are overlooked. "Even though the secondary school where I work has a large population of Nepali students, the topic of Gurkhas is nowhere to be found on its formal curriculum. But there are some teachers of Nepali descent who organise activities for their students."

Soto is introducing his Form Two students to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. They are discussing the "memory hole", down which the Ministry of Truth discards inconvenient historical documents. "How else can you change history," he asks? "How about just forgetting things; ignoring them as if they never existed? If we do this to the Gurkhas, where have we put them?" "In the memory hole," the students shout out.

Form Three student Chris "Kiru" Rana hopes to see his ancestors recognised for their role in the world wars. Chris, 16, whose grandfathers were Gurkhas - one a medic, the other an engineer - says: "They were paid a third of a normal British soldiers' income, but still served loyally in armed combat. I would like to see equal rights for them … even a small monument for the soldiers who died in the countries they fought in would be a sign of their existence and their hardship during the wars."

Although no Gurkhas died in active service in Hong Kong, the city was their base and the idea of a memorial is gaining traction in the community. Amod Rai says they are asking the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to help have one erected at the Gurkha Cemetery.

On a recent Sunday, he and Gurung joined Soto to run a workshop for Nepali students to design such a memorial. The children's drawings will go on display at Purkha Diwas.

Students were shown images of memorials, learned about Gurkha history and spoke with visiting Gurkhas veterans. "I wanted students to think about words that are important in describing Gurkhas, as well as the importance of their everyday lives, their wives and families and lives after retirement," Soto says.

To preserve the Gurkhas' story in Hong Kong, Ratna says, "We should start to collect views and experiences. All the facts should be preserved and written down in Hong Kong history … to let youngsters know who the Gurkhas were and what they did for Hong Kong people."

Even better, community members say, there should be a Gurkha museum in the city. Dev Raj Rai would like such a museum to tell the story of how and why the Gurkhas came here, as well as "their contribution to Hong Kong, their army life and family life during British Army service. Besides this, I want it to be an international museum, which can include first and second world war Gurkha history, too."

More than 250,000 Gurkhas served in the second world war alone, in places as diverse as Burma, Italy and northern Africa, and about 23,000 died. Some 2,000 awards were earned by Gurkhas for their bravery.

"There were a lot of regiments; there are a lot of broad aspects we can cover," Amod Rai says. "We also want it to show how the Gurkhas contributed to freeing the world from dictators, even if it was not for our nation, but the world."

Artifacts suggested for the museum include uniforms, medals, weapons - such as the dreaded curve-bladed kukri - photos, letters and, perhaps more poignantly, their stories.

Retired captain Namsing Thapa has many tales to tell. He joined the Gurkhas' Boys Company at the age of 13 or 14, and started out at the training centre in Sungai Patani. He earned just 45 Nepalese rupees a month. A few years later, in 1962, he was transferred to Hong Kong and his wage rose to HK$60 a month.

Thapa was among the first Nepalis to represent their country at the Olympics, in Tokyo in 1964. The flyweight boxer's achievements - including his victories in the ring at regional army barracks - were the subject of several stories in the South China Morning Post at the time. He was even invited to become a professional boxer, but declined.

Thapa recalls a difficult life as a boy in the ranks in Malaya. "I still remember we were given three ounces of meat that had to last us for a week; and an orange or an apple - just one in a ration for a week."

From Hong Kong, he says, it could take six months for his wife back in Nepal to receive his letters. On arrival in the capital, Kathmandu, they had to be delivered to the soldiers' remote mountain villages. There, a reader was required if the wives couldn't read or write.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which manages the city's museums, did not respond to questions about the relevance of a Gurkha museum in time for publication.

Historian Wordie disagrees with the idea of a museum. "They were not part of 'the community' and were deliberately kept apart from it, so they could be used in aid to the civil power if necessary. I don't think there is any reason or justification for having it."

However, descendants of the Gurkhas argue that they had no say in where they were brought up. A museum in the city, therefore, would enable them to remember their roots and culture, give the younger generation a sense of their identity in the city, and share their heritage with fellow Hongkongers as a way to better integrate into local society.

"Being the grandson of a Gurkha, I still feel proud that my grandfather was here," Gurung says. "My father was born here, and I feel bad because no one talks about their contribution here. Why should we be thought of just as an 'ethnic minority' and people from the lowest social economic status when we contributed something? We also have our dignity here."

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