Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The First Muslims of Hong Kong

In our Tsim Sha Tsui walking tour, we reflect on why it is that the most eye-catching religious edifice on Kowloon's major traffic artery, Nathan Road, is not a church or a Chinese temple, but a mosque. The Kowloon Mosque, first constructed in 1894 and then rebuilt in 1984, is an imposing structure that dominates the busy corner of Nathan and Haiphong Roads, on the edge of Kowloon Park.

But a quick jaunt back in time to 1894 would have found this mosque on a sleepy road facing a few European-style houses, schools, and barracks. For it is important to remember that the entire expanse of Kowloon Park once served as an important military base for the Colony. And the Colony at that time was largely garrisoned by troops from the British Raj. Many of them were from Northern India, and were Muslim. So for a good part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hong Kong owed its security from external threats to the Indian troops of the subcontinent. Even as late as the 1960s, Pakistanis were patrolling the Lo Wu border crossing with China, and two of them were killed by a hostile exchange with PLA forces. Building these invaluable troops a mosque for their prayers was the least the British could do for them.

The bravery of these regiments were proven time and again in various theaters around the world; Stefan and I both saw plaques commemorating them at that most wild of areas, the Northwest Frontier Province of modern-day Pakistan, which includes part of the Khyber Pass. Here we were with a very friendly armed escort in July 2001, on the eve of many dark, momentous events of which we were then blissfully unaware. The two gentlemen to our right are our friends Mark Siford (creator of our upcoming Sydney Walk, great Aussie bloke in the French foreign legion cap) and Stephen Stephens (fine man, tie-dyed conservative vegetarian from New Orleans by way of Singapore).

Today, Hong Kong has 80,000 Muslims. While a good portion are from the subcontinent, it is important to remember that about half of that number are actually Chinese Muslims (Hui), a good number from Central and Western China, and who trace their roots to Muslim traders on the Silk Road as far back as the Tang dynasty.

Food for thought! And it is fitting that Hong Kong's most imposing Mosque is located in its most colorful and ethnically diverse district.

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