If the millennial of Hong Kong in general couldn’t remember much about the Gurkhas, they cannot be blamed for ignorance as it is not the fault of their own making. But if you ask those older generations before them, they would certainly remember them well and it won’t be wrong if I say they would only have good things to say about the world famous soldiers from Nepal. It is almost two decades since the last serving Gurkha had left Hong Kong for UK. When the British returned home after the handover in 1997, the Gurkhas also left with them, and not much have been heard or written about them since then. But it shouldn’t diminish the important parts Gurkhas had played in the security, stability and wellbeing of Hong Kong for almost four decades. Its contributions as the main defense force of Hong Kong during that period was by no mean less significant and it should never be forgotten by HK people.
Gurkhas are the well known army contingent of Nepali origin serving the British crown since 1815, this 200 years old tradition started since the British Raj in India and still going on very well even today. When India was still a thriving British colony, they wanted to colonize Nepal as well and went to war. But they were kept at the bay indefinitely by the resilient tough warriors from the hill and as they got very tired and frustrated at the end, the British side decided to extend the hand of friendship instead of enmity and the Nepali warriors were offered the chance of joining the mighty British Empire as of their own army. And as the saying goes, the rest was the history. A new tradition of more than 200 years old was thus born; it is still going on well and strong even now and hundreds of thousands of young men from the Himalayan nation have served the British crown since then.
They were mostly came from a hilly village called Gorkha in mid-western Nepal, the place from where the main architecture of modern Nepal was hailed and made the place more famous. But the beginning of the famous word Gurkha was rather humble or even uneventful, someone from the old army school spelled the word wrong and wrote Gurkha instead of Gorkha, and it has been written this way since then. Initially, they joined the Indian army as a part of the British Raj, and when the British rule in India was ended then some of the battalions were moved to Malaysia. When it was the Malaysian Federation to finally get independence of their own, the British garrison including Gurkhas was moved into Hong Kong in the early 1960s, and since then, the Gurkhas had played a very important role of defending Hong Kong until Hong Kong was finally handed over to China in 1997. At present, there are estimated to be almost one hundred thousands soldiers in the Indian Army, a contingent of two thousands personnel in Singapore police force, and approximately three thousands and five hundreds servicemen in British army in UK, who are still in services today.
In its heydays, there were ten Gurkha battalions stationed in HK, consisted of almost ten thousands army personnel plus a few thousands more of their families and children, and almost two third of the whole contingent were made redundant when the British rule in HK was finally over and all were forced to return back to Nepal. During their stay in HK, they supported HK Police in crowd controlling and maintenances of public order, provided security to prominent buildings and VIP officials, provided relief measures in emergency, helped repairing and maintenance of public infrastructures and brides, manned road safety and precaution drills, organized public awareness sessions, and patrolled most of the country parks, thick jungles and bushy uninhibited places of rural HK. Most importantly of them all, it helped secure the porous borderlines of HK with north communist China in a regular basis, kept all of the unwanted outside visitors out of our busy streets and helped make HK one of the safest, prosperous and happiest place in the world. Due to political instability and harsh life after the culture revolution in China, people were desperate for a way out and swelling numbers of illegal immigrants at the frontline was threatening the very stability of our HK and it needed more manpower urgently to deal with the pressing border issue. The enlistment of new Gurkhas from Nepal usually took place once in a year, but due to that unprecedented problem at the frontline, it was made thrice in the year of 1979 and 1980. And as a result, three new intakes of new recruits were enlisted in that particular two year and as soon as they had completed the recruit training, new soldiers were instantly deployed to the border. Your humble writer was one of them, a direct result of that drastic measure taken by the authority of that needy time, and writing it here through the retrospective view of my own old and real experiences. I was the first batch of 1980, the day we finished our basic training and went to our respective regiments, we were deployed to the Man Kam To border nearby Shenzhen on that very evening, and the number of the illegal immigrants we used to catch that time in each night was always in double digits.
During my 13 years service as a Gurkha soldier, I think there are no such border areas at where I didn’t stand guard at night and there is no such one country park and valley around Hong Kong at where I didn’t set my foot during my army training. It started from Castle Peak range at the east, to Lo Wu, Mai Po, and Man Kam To, Ta Kwu Ling, Sha Tau Kok, and then Plover Cove to the various tiny islands of Sai Kung. It was a month long tour each time, we used to take turn on guarding the borderline of HK and we were always there on duty at the borderline regardless of rain, heat or storm all year around. It continued until the HK Police force was ready to takeover from us before 1997. As China started to prosper after its new opening policy, the number of illegal immigrants coming from China to HK gradually dwindled down with time and the task at the frontline was not as hectic and challenging as it used to be before. Inevitably, HK people were not that much aware of what the Gurkhas did during their stay here, we were told to remain discrete and trouble free when we were outside the barracks and repeatedly discouraged from venturing out unless it was absolutely necessary by our commanders. It was a sort of our own small world where we were happy together with our own people inside of the various barricaded camps that happened to be situated in many parts of New Territories.
Most of the retirees from the Brigade of Gurkhas and their respective families decided to settle down in HK even after 1997. The skills they had learned during the army were almost no use in the outside civilian world, so were those resettlement programs provided by the British Army before the final retirement. But the hardest part of them all was to integrate into 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 were completely different here. Not to mention about the necessary skill, prowess and experience needed to land a decent job in a new civilian life. As a result, the only jobs they could get were security/personal guards, construction works, labors, cleaners, waiters, housekeepers, and other lowly jobs that paid less. The pension they get from the British was nothing more than a pittance, still is and eking out a decent living out of it in an expensive city like HK was impossible. The British has always been mean, unfair and treated the Gurkhas very badly, their century long exploitation of poor Gurkhas was eventually ended when they finally fought and won the right of abode in UK, and almost all of the Ex Gurkhas have already immigrated to UK by now. Those ones still staying in HK now are the new immigrants from Nepal whose fathers or grandfathers had served the British crown before and it is mostly their children or grandchildren who are making the big chunks of the Nepalese community here in HK. It is those new breed of youngsters who need more help, guidance and opportunity from HK so they can integrate into the society easily, acquire essential skill and confidence to get a proper job, and eventually be a part of the vibrant society of HK. We shouldn’t let them feel as they were alone, unwelcomed and lost here. They need our helping hand to stand up and live a dignified life.
Gurkhas are well known around the world for their unparalleled bravery, loyalty and professionalism. Sadly some also call them with such derogatory name as mercenary. It is totally understandable that different people can see it from different perspective and free to express their views. They are nothing more than a conceited view of an ignorant man and I cannot deny about the universal truth of poverty that has played a very important role in this long and ongoing saga but if you know something about the history of Gurkhas I can guarantee you that you won’t be saying that again. If a man served you with his pure heart, sheer dedication and life if necessary, no one can point a finger on his integrity and if you can not respect him, at least don’t try to malign him. Joining the British army is a tradition for us, a way of life and makes us feel proud of doing it. It doesn’t matter how the other look at us, we have always done our job in the best possible way of our ability and integrity and if something that lasted for more than two century, it cannot be purely by chance and we are here to continue it. The Gurkhas had served HK for almost four decades, their contribution to the making of modern HK cannot be ignored, and if anyone deserves better from HK, it is the Gurkhas and their children for sure. Why not start with a proper education system for the good of all?
TIM I GURUNG – AUTHOR AT ISSLCARE
Note: A shorter version of the same article also appeared on here – http://www.ejinsight.com/20150521-don-t-forget-gurkhas-contribution-hong-kong/