Gurkhas’ history of service to Hong Kong is being forgotten
The Brigade of Gurkhas had a crucial role in safeguarding the city's borders and way of life during some tumultuous times from 1948-1997
Despite having served as the main defense force of Hong Kong from 1948 to its return to Chinese rule in 1997, the Gurkhas seem to have been largely forgotten by the people of the Asian financial hub.
In an effort to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, I have compiled a potted history of the Gurkhas in Hong Kong. Here it is:
After India’s independence in 1947, four Gurkha regiments were transferred to the British Army and were eventually stationed in the Federation of Malaya – today’s Malaysia.
The 26th Gurkha Brigade was the first batch of these soldiers to arrive in Hong Kong, and were stationed from 1948 at Whitfield barracks (now Kowloon Park, which was handed over to the government in 1967).
They were replaced by the 51st Infantry Brigade replaced them in 1950. This brigade was a curious mix of Scots and Gurkhas that saw action in Brunei and Borneo with the elite SAS. By 1962, it had returned to the UK where it became 51st Gurkha Brigade.
The 48th Gurkha Infantry Brigade came to Hong Kong in 1957. It was renamed Gurkha Field Force in 1976, but returned to its old name in 1987 and stayed that way until 1994 and preparations for the final handover of Hong Kong to China.
Although Gurkha battalions took turns stationed in Hong Kong from 1948, elements remained based in other countries until 1971, when the Brigade of Gurkhas – the term to describe all the different Nepalese units in the British Army – were headquartered in territory. By that point, they numbered about 8,000.
The first time the Gurkhas were called into action in Hong Kong was said to be during the Star Ferry riots from April 4-8, 1966. An increase in the fares was used as a pretext to demonstrate against British colonial rule. Gurkha soldiers armed with rifles and fitted bayonets patrolled areas around the Star Ferry piers and enforcing curfews.
(Gurkhas may well have been involved in the Double Ten riots during October 1956, although I haven’t been able to confirm this.)
The Gurkhas were also called in to end a deadly skirmish during the 1967 riots known as the Sha Tau Kok incident, in which several hundred demonstrators backed by China’s People’s Militia crossed over the border, seizing a police station – killing five officers and wounding 11 others. Five-hundred soldiers from the 10th Gurkha Rifles, led by Major General Ronald McAlister VC, ended the siege after about 10 hours and without having to fire a shot.
The Gurkhas played an essential role in protecting Hong Kong’s border with China during the tumult of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, helping to prevent it spilling over into the territory.
Faced with an unprecedented flood of illegal immigrants from China, as well as Vietnamese boat people from the early 1980s, the government introduced two new battalions. Gurkhas manned all of Hong Kong’s border points – both sea and land – as well as helping to build and guard Vietnamese refugees camps.
By this point, there were six infantry battalions (1/2 GR, 2/2 GR, 6 TH GR, 1/7 GR, 2/7 GR and 10 TH GR), one transport regiment, one signal regiment, one regiment of engineers and one training depot in Shek Kong. Altogether, there were four battalions stationed in Hong Kong at a time when one battalion was in the UK and another in Brunei.
Aside from the barracks in Gun Club Hill in Kowloon and the Tamar headquarters in Admiralty, all army camps were in the New Territories, in places like Fan Ling, San Tin, Shek Kong, and Tuen Mun.
The total strength of the Gurkhas by then was said to be around 10,000, excluding family members. The numbers were reduced to 3,600 before the 1997 handover. All of a/m infantry battalions were disbanded and only two battalions (1st GR & 2nd GR) were formed. Gurkha Transport, Signal and Engineer somehow retained their respective names, albeit in reduced numbers, and are currently stationed in the UK.
As we all know, most of the Gurkha soldiers were made redundant and returned home before the handover. But many have returned to Hong Kong or found jobs here. After the Gurkhas won the right of abode in the UK in 2009, many settled down there.
Still, a vibrant and substantial Nepalese community now lives here, an important connection to the city’s past and a reminder of their ancestors many years of service in defense of Hong Kong’s way of life.