Why Hong Kong should not wash its hands of Gurkha history
A new project between a former British Army Gurkha and the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence means the role played in the city by these famous Nepalese soldiers will not be forgotten
While researching a book about the Gurkhas, I wrote to the government, universities, museums and libraries in Hong Kong. The Gurkhas have served across the world, have fought in every single British war since 1815 and have become famous – in the UK and beyond – for their strength, loyalty and bravery. They provided security to Hong Kong for almost 50 years but no one today seems to hold any information about these famous soldiers from Nepal. It is sad but, as times have changed and so has Hong Kong sovereignty, it is perhaps not too surprising.
Although Gurkha military units have served for the governments of India, Singapore and Brunei, it was their relationship with the British Army that made them most well known.
It’s an association that started when the British Crown controlled the Indian subcontinent in the 19th Century. When the British left India, the Gurkhas moved to Singapore and Malay (now Malaysia) in 1947 and started to come to Hong Kong after the Malay Federations gained independence from the UK in 1957. They stayed until 1997, when Britain returned the then colony to China.
In Hong Kong, the bulk of the Gurkha garrison’s work was border patrols – in the decades after the Communist Party took power in China in 1949, illegal immigrants (IIs) became an real issue for the British colony, especially during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s – but they also provided back-up security domestically where needed and this typically included assisting the police or help with Vietnamese refugee disorder.
Also, at a time when invasion from China was a possibility, however distinct, the Gurkhas ultimately held the responsibility for the defense of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong.
To do this, there were six Gurkha infantry battalions, two of which were stationed outside Hong Kong, one in the UK and another in Brunei. Each battalion changed location every two years and the infantry were supported by engineering, signal and transport regiments plus a training depot based at Shek Kong in Hong Kong’s New Territories.
Recruits arrived in Hong Kong once a year, after a rigorous and vastly oversubscribed selection process in Nepal, and would undertake basic training at Shek Kong before joining their designated units.
I was one of them and I still remember it like yesterday, being whisked off for border duty on the same day that I had finished my training.
These were the days when the number of IIs caught on a nightly basis were in the hundreds, if not thousands, and we had to remain alert throughout the night as we manned borders at Sai Kung, Plover Cove, Sha Tau Kok, Ta Kwu Ling, Man Kam To, Lo Wu, Lok Ma Chau, Castle Peak, and Lantau Island. You name them. There wasn’t a single border point where we did not carry out our duty in the best way we could.
Regardless of the heat, rain or storms, we remained awake each night so Hong Kong could sleep safely. The Gurkhas provided almost four decades of unconditional and exemplary service to the city’s people and if there is one group that deserves not be forgotten from Hong Kong history, it is the Gurkhas.
Some of these Gurkhas have now moved to the United Kingdom while others stayed in Hong Kong and entered the security guard industry after 1997. But their story should not be forgotten.
It is a sad fact that nobody can talk on behalf of the Gurkhas. The Nepali government has neither the power nor the will to do so and the Hong Kong government appears to hold the same stance.
But isn’t it time for Hong Kong to start doing something to honor the Gurkhas’ work and their place in the city’s history? The public, especially government officials, should visit the Gurkhas’ cemetery, in Ngau Tam Mei and San Tin in the New Territories, to see how many died for Hong Kong.
Despite the poor response from universities and libraries, I recently made contact with the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence and have agreed to work with them to bring their stories to light and hopefully, we will be able to add a section of the Gurkhas’ history at the museum.