During their almost four decades in Hong Kong, the Gurkhas performed many duties in service of the city.
Guarding Hong Kong’s borders against an influx of illegal immigrants from mainland China was their main contribution.
Hong Kong is a city of immigrants. Almost all its residents have some direct or indirect connection with migrants from elsewhere.
The problem of illegal immigrants (IIs) had become really serious by the early 1970s and ’80s.
Had it not been handled properly, it would have caused great harm to Hong Kong.
As a result of the Cultural Revolution, the atrocities of the Gang of Four and the political instability after Mao Zedong’s death, life in communist China had become harsh, and people were desperate for a way out.
Hong Kong was seen as a safe haven. Everybody wanted to come here, and the city’s northern border was inundated with unprecedented numbers of IIs.
To cope with the influx of IIs, the Gurkha garrison that was already deployed at the border was not enough, and two intakes of recruits were enlisted from Nepal in 1979-80.
As soon as their basic training was over, they were immediately deployed to the border before they could even familiarize themselves with their new battalion.
I was one of them.
The evening of the day we were transferred to our new regiment, we were sent to the border at Man Kam To.
The number of IIs we used to catch every night ranged from 70 to more than 100.
The IIs’ numbers gradually diminished each year, but they remained in the double digits throughout the late ’80s.
By the early ’90s they were close to zero.
During our heyday at the border in the early ’80s, we covered a huge area — from Castle Peak, Yuen Long, Man Kam To, Ta Ku Ling and Sha Tau Kok on land, and Plover Cove and Sai Kung on the waterfront — in many small groups.
Four infantry battalions stationed in Hong Kong would take turns at border duty.
It was a one-month tour, so each battalion would spend a total of three months at the border each year.
The Gurkhas were deployed nightly to the border areas from nearby barracks in the New Territories, transported to their posts after dark in groups, then picked up before dawn.
Daytime was used for resting, cleaning and preparing for the coming night’s duty.
We would have four members in a group — the leader and three soldiers — for the entire tour.
On top of our border uniform and kit, we would have a wooden stick, plastic handcuffs, an infrared night vision device, binoculars, a radio, a green poncho, a flashlight and a few sets of spare batteries.
We would take with us a Thermos full of hot tea, an apple or orange, a boiled egg or a chicken leg and two slices of sandwich bread for the night.
The border with China was marked with a metal fence almost 3 meters tall, with barbed wire on top.
Whenever we heard any sound or activity within our area of responsibility, the nearest group had to react and take necessary action.
Some of the remote hills in the Sai Kung area were inaccessible by road.
Those assigned there were dropped off by helicopter and had to remain there for the entire tour.
Regardless of heat, rain or cold, there was no excuse for leaving our post during the tour of duty.
We never left our posts at the border even during typhoons, floods or Christmas holidays.
You may say it was our duty and we were paid to do the job, and I agree.
But everybody knows the Gurkhas were paid less than the average minimum wage in Hong Kong.
They had no overtime pay or allowances while working at the border, and they were never compensated for missed weekends or public holidays.
It was the Gurkhas who protected the border come rain, come shine, so the people of Hong Kong could sleep in peace.
They prevented the city from being overwhelmed by an influx of IIs from mainland China.
I genuinely thought at the time that we were just doing our normal duty as soldiers, but I strongly believe now that it was not a small job the Gurkhas did for Hong Kong, one that its people should learn to appreciate.
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