Monday, September 12, 2005

The Muslims of Hong Kong, Marginalized

We have discussed before how the Kowloon Mosque, pictured at left, came to stand in such a prominent position on Kowloon's most important commercial artery - Nathan Road. To recap - the land adjacent to it is Kowloon Park. Until the 70s/80s, this land was the Whitfield Barracks, home to part of the British Garrison. From its earliest days, Muslim soldiers from the British Raj formed a substantial portion of men under arms that protected Hong Kong from external and internal threats. In 1894, the British government finally saw fit to grant these Muslims a plot of land in Tsim Sha Tsui at which they could worship; at that time it faced a number of middle-cass European homes and stood on a broad avenue of leafy trees. A mosque still stands on that original site today, although it had been rebuilt in 1984. The oldest mosque in Hong Kong is the Jamia Masjid on Mosque Street in the Mid-Levels; the community of believers numbers 60-70 thousand, of which over half are Chinese Muslims.

Many are under the misapprehension that Muslim Indian soldiers no longer took part in the defense of Hong Kong after the Partition of India in 1948 and the independence of India and Pakistan. But even as late as 1967, not only were Muslim soldiers serving the Queen in Hong Kong as part of the Hong Kong Regiment, but three of them were shot dead that year by Mainland PLA snipers. Postwar Hong Kong had seen a flourishing Muslim community in Hong Kong develop, small in percentage terms but still valuable in both their trade and their services to the community.

So imagine their displeasure in 1970: in 1870 the Muslims had been given a plot of land in the Happy Valley Area to bury their dead, which although on Hong Kong's limited-lease system, they had been led to believe was for all time. This was in keeping with the practice of granting areas for burial to other communities, such as the Catholics, the Jews and the Parsees, immediately adjoining the main Colonial Cemetery. However, in 1970 Hong Kong's Public Works Department informed the Muslims (but not any of the other groups) that all their graves were to be excavated and moved to the Cape Collinson area, to make way for the Aberdeen Tunnel flyover. Things have not been much smoother in the post-Handover era, with plans for a new mosque in Sheung Shui in the New Territories stymied by Chinese resistance and local community red-tape. The unwillingness for the Chinese in the New Territories to accommodate a mosque (as opposed to a Christian Church) very much reflects the increased leeriness of the population towards Muslims after 9/11, according to the City University study I linked to above.

The voice of moderate Islam has been drowned out by frustrated radical and violent demagogues, but the people of Hong Kong should realize that the vast majority of Muslims want what the rest of them want - happiness and success for their family, friends and themselves. Let me conclude with a beautiful passage from the Qu'ran quoted by celebrated Biblical scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his latest book, Whose Bible Is It? (great book, by the way, on a history of the Scriptures), and meditate on its inclusive message of peace, universality and wisdom:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The semblance of His light is that of a niche
in which is a lamp, the flame within a glass,
the glass a glittering star, as it were, lit with the oil
of a blessed tree, the olive, neither of the East
nor of the West, whose oil appears to light up
even though fire touches it not, - light upon light.
God guides to His light whom He will.
So does God advance precepts of wisdom for men,
for God has knowledge of every thing.


Anonymous said...

I'm very always surprised and impressed too that a mosque can be situated so homely at the bustling Nathan Road!

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes, it's always a bit of a surprise that a mosque is the most prominent religious edifice in Tsm Sha Tsui. But then if you look a little further, nearby is also the St. Andrew's Church (founded by Mr. Paul Chater), a Chinese Temple, and a few steps further the Cannossian College and the Rosary Church. Not a bad collection for a city that professes to be avowedly secular!

Anonymous said...

Can you find a mosque in Macau ? Thanking you in advance.

Dave and Stefan said...

Sure: check out this link at

Anonymous said...

three of muslim soldiers were shot dead that year by Mainland PLA snipers?

How did the British react to that?

Dave and Stefan said...

Not too well, I'm afraid, Boris... but given the heightened tensions of the period, and that fact that British knew Hong Kong was completely indefensible, there wasn't much they could do!