Don't forget Gurkhas' contribution to Hong Kong

May 21, 2015 11:37
Gurkhas played a very important role in defending Hong Kong for several decades before 1997. Photo: Tim I Gurung

Gurkhas are a well-known army contingent of Nepali origin who have served the British Crown since 1815.

This 200-year-old tradition started with the British Raj in India and is still going strong today.

After Malaysia became independent, the British garrison, including Gurkhas, was moved into Hong Kong in the early 1960s.

The Gurkhas subsequently played a very important role in defending Hong Kong, until it was finally handed over to China in 1997.

In their heyday, 10 Gurkha battalions were stationed in Hong Kong.

There were almost 10,000 army personnel, plus a few thousand of their family members.

Almost two-thirds of the contingent were made redundant when British rule in Hong Kong ended, and they were forced to return to Nepal.

During their stay in Hong Kong, they supported the police in crowd control and the maintenance of public order, provided security to prominent buildings and VIP officials, assisted in relief efforts in emergencies, helped to repair and maintain public infrastructure and bridges, manned road safety and emergency drills, organized public awareness sessions and patrolled most of the country parks, thick jungle and bushy, uninhabited places of rural Hong Kong.

Most importantly, the Gurkhas helped secure the porous border with communist China on a regular basis, kept unwanted visitors off our busy streets and helped make Hong Kong one of the safest, most prosperous and happiest places in the world.

Amid the political instability and harsh life after the Culture Revolution, mainlanders were desperate for a way out.

Swelling numbers of illegal immigrants at the border were threatening the stability of Hong Kong, and it needed more manpower urgently.

The enlistment of new Gurkhas from Nepal usually took place once a year, but because of the unprecedented problem at the border, it was done three times in 1979-1980.

During my 13 years of service as a Gurkha soldier, I think there are no border areas where I didn’t stand guard at night, and there is no country park or valley in Hong Kong where I didn’t set my foot during my army training.

It started from Castle Peak range in the east, to Lo Wu, Mai Po, Man Kam To, Ta Kwu Ling, Sha Tau Kok and Plover Cove and then to the various tiny islands of Sai Kung.

It was a month-long tour each time. We used to take turns guarding the border, and we were always there on duty, regardless of rain, heat or storm, all year around.

That continued until the Hong Kong police force was ready to take over from us before 1997.

Most of the retirees from the Brigade of Gurkhas and their families decided to settle down in Hong Kong, even after 1997.

The skills they had learned during their stint in the army were almost no use in the civilian world, and so were the resettlement programs provided by the British army before its final withdrawal.

But the hardest part was to adapt to the civilian way of life from their hard-drilled, regimented life.

It was not only language but also the whole culture and way of doing thing that were completely different.

Not to mention the necessary skills, prowess and experience needed to land a decent job in a new civilian life.

As a result, the only jobs most Gurkhas could get were as security/personal guards, construction workers, laborers, cleaners, waiters, housekeepers and other lowly positions that paid little.

The pension they get from the British is nothing more than a pittance, and eking out a decent living with it in an expensive city like Hong Kong was impossible.

Those still staying in Hong Kong now are the new immigrants from Nepal whose fathers or grandfathers had served the British Crown before, and it is mostly these children or grandchildren who make up the bulk of the Nepalese community in Hong Kong.

It is this new breed of youngsters who need more help, guidance and opportunity from Hong Kong so they can integrate into society easily, acquire the essential skills and confidence to get a proper job, and eventually be a part of this vibrant society.

We shouldn’t let them feel alone, unwelcome and lost. They need a helping hand from us to stand up and live a dignified life.

The Gurkhas served Hong Kong for almost four decades.

Their contribution to the making of modern Hong Kong cannot be ignored, and if anyone deserves better from Hong Kong, it is the Gurkhas and their children.

Why not start with a proper education system for the good of all?

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EJ Insight contributor