In Hong Kong, a Once Prominent Parsi Community Faces Demise

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Rogers / Getty Images

The Star Ferry crosses Hong Kong Harbour on May 31, 2013. The ferry service was started in the late 19th century by a Parsi, Dorabjee Naorjee Mithaiwala.

Each Oct. 12, Homyar Nasirabadwala, the gaunt, white-haired priest of Hong Kong’s Parsi community, pays a visit to the University of Hong Kong to conduct a brief ceremony of thanks on the birthday of its founding benefactor. Standing alone with his head bowed, in a crepuscular corridor next to a broad, stone staircase, he looks up at a bronze bust of Sir Hormusjee Nowrojee Mody, a Parsi who was the principal donor of funds for the university’s establishment in 1911. The priest raises his arms and hangs a garland around the bust, whispering a prayer as he does so.

A group of students walk by, chatting and giggling. On being asked if they know who the bust is of, they shake their heads and walk off. Nearby, a young woman gazing at her smartphone confesses to having no idea who founded the university. “The government?” she ventures.

Nasirabadwala is used to conducting his ceremony in the shadows. “Not a soul turns up because nobody is aware of it,” he shrugs. “People pass the staircase and I don’t think they even take a second look at the bust there.”

It isn’t just Mody’s contribution to Hong Kong that’s in danger of being forgotten, but the contributions of all the old Parsi families, like the Rutonjees, Shroffs, Parekhs, Powrees and many others. Together they helped forge the banking, ferry and academic systems of this Chinese city, but they are now slipping through the historical net — ignored by dominant historical narratives that either focus on British colonial rule or establish the city in a broader Chinese context, but gloss over the fact that then, as now, Hong Kong has not just been British or Han Chinese but a place of many cultures and ethnic groups.

(PHOTOS: Hong Kong Yesterday: The Pearl of the Orient in the 1950s)

The Parsis — descended from Iranians of Zoroastrian faith who emigrated to India between the 8th and 10th centuries to escape religious persecution — were among the pioneers of the China Coast trade. In the early 1700s, as the East India Company spread across Asia, so did the Parsis with their consummate business acumen. The first of the Parsis arrived in China in 1765 to deal in spices, opium, silk, tea and cotton, and to build trading houses (some are still going concerns in Hong Kong, including this one, thriving under a fifth-generation family member). When the British obtained the island of Hong Kong in 1841, the Parsis based themselves there and flourished.

Today, remnants of Hong Kong’s Parsi connection are everywhere. There’s a Mody Road, Kotewall Road and a Bisney Road. You’ll find a Ruttonjee Hospital in Happy Valley and a gleaming office tower, Parekh House, in the Central business district. A Parsi, Dorabjee Naorjee Mithaiwala, was behind the establishment of the iconic Star Ferry. As well as coughing up the cash for the university, Mody was a benefactor of the Kowloon Cricket Club and its first president. The Parsis also played an instrumental role in the founding of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in 1864.

However, academics and members of this tight-knit community say that apathy on the part of the Hong Kong public, and within the Parsi community itself, means that a distinctive ethnic and religious community that played a pivotal role in building modern Hong Kong is in danger of fading away.

“There are many people in my generation (I’m 31), especially those who have grown up outside of the traditional Parsi heartland in western India, who know and care little about our religion, unique culture, and history,” says Dinyar Patel, a Parsi history scholar at Harvard University, via e-mail. “It is therefore unlikely that any of this will be passed down to their children.”

Part of the problem is that the Parsis, never a large group, are numerically insignificant in Hong Kong today — as they are in India itself. The Hong Kong community is thought to number no more than 200. “It’s because of the sheer size of the community,” says Noshir Dadrawala, founder of the Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy and a former trustee of the apex body for Parsis, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat. “If you’re 200 [people] in a commercial capital like Hong Kong, no one is going to delve into your history.”

Census projections suggest that by 2020, there will be just 23,000 Parsis in India, and because marrying outside the community is frowned up, they face extinction. Younger Parsis come under intense pressure to marry and propagate. One young Parsi man, who did not wish to be identified, says that every young member of the community “knows how many eligible boys or girls there are. They’ve known from the time they were born. It’s a fact.”

As the number of potential partners continues to decrease, Parsis, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, become increasingly attached to the community’s cultural, philanthropic and historical legacies, and concerned that these are not sufficiently recognized. To Dadrawala, this is the fault of the Parsis themselves. “We’ve maintained a low profile,” he says, “sometimes humble to the point of being self-effacing.”

Harvard scholar Patel agrees. He says that while the Parsis were once held together by language, geographical concentration and “faithfulness in the Zoroastrian religion,” today, the “relative apathy and indifference among many of the youth,” and the squabbling of community elders, is pulling them apart. “Coupled with a staggering demographic decline, this has created a unique crisis whereby, perhaps for the first time, the future of the Parsi community and Zoroastrianism is not threatened by external forces, but rather by ourselves.”

Back in Hong Kong, it is tempting to think that those who work for the great Parsi-founded concerns will be aware of a certain heritage. But even here, there is barely a glimmer of awareness. Although the information is on the company’s website, a promotions department employee at the Star Ferry is caught off guard when asked who founded the legendary service that carries over 26 million people a year across Victoria Harbour and has featured in countless movies and novels of Hong Kong. “It’s very old, though,” is the best that she can do.

MORE: Can China Make Its Cuisine — and Finance — Friendly to Muslims?

19 comments
tehmirandiparsi
tehmirandiparsi

parsis like to marry evil muslims and stupid Bori muslim men.....They should be banned from Hongkong

tehmirandiparsi
tehmirandiparsi

Parsis in mumbai and world are very stupid flocks of sheep of stick to there stone age ways....I am glad The Parsi Gandus are getting Kung fu kicked so they dont have to disease another country with there selfish thoughts... Parsis in mumbai are very selfish and most of them of have mad"bawa" like behaviour. Some of the Parsis are very good and and bring innovation but apart from a few gems most of them are lazy and selfish frustated people who go to fire temple.....the Parsis and there big corporation have also agenda to to do evil and dominate india and its states into there business and factory grounds...they lure people with big money but not everyone does a clean job...parsis are selfish and frustrated....Even great Bengali Tagore is Revered in china because of his big heart of bengal....compared to the low life work of mediocre parses.... parses in mumbai only imitate the west there design style they dont do anything by themselves...they might have a lot of omen but because they breeder with muslims and got there money....


Sooni
Sooni

"The first of the Parsis arrived in China in 1765 to deal in spices, opium, silk, tea and cotton, and to build trading houses (some are still going concerns in Hong Kong, including this one, thriving under a fifth-generation family member)."

Please note the error: the link takes us to the Abdoolally Ebrahim Group website. The Ebrahims are NOT Parsis. 


Bookevil
Bookevil

It is a general tendency worldwide that people become more educated and realistic, and therefore less religious. Specifically, the big religious groups are less influential, while the smaller ones are simply disappearing. Be the pioneers of human race---standing as atheists.

James_Roth
James_Roth

The Parsis will never be forgotten.

Samadhiberry
Samadhiberry

Parsis in particular -- and let's be clear, Indians in general --  were once numerically, culturally, and commercially large and diverse communities --- not just in Hong Kong, but also in Shanghai before 1949.  In fact, many Shanghai Parsis -- and other Indian brethren -- migrated from Shanghai to Hong Kong after the communist revolution. So in the '50s, Hong Kong was an even more diverse place. The Parsis and other Indians were not just the educated elite, but also traders and workers of diverse economic backgrounds.

But dominant historical narratives in any society favor the dominant culture-- and ignore the historical diversity that may once have prevailed. Whether it's elite Parsis or elite other Indians highighting the contributions only of their brethren lucky enough (or light-skinned enough, let's be real) to gain benefits of English-language education. Or South Africans knowing little about its longstanding Indian and mixed Indian populations (where Mahatma Gandhi first pushed for civil rights for its Indian populations; and where Parsi ANC leader Frene Ginwala fought against apartheid for decades).

So as the article states, Hong Kong's new 'story' it wants to tell about itself de-emphasizes the contributions of non Han Chinese peoples. In this larger picture, the contributions of the educated elite Parsis and other Indians who founded universities and businesses and commerce get forgotten. But the vibrant multicultural society lived in by 'regular' Hong Kong Parsis and other Indians, is rapidly being erased.

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

its ok, the economy is collapsing, the islamic republic will surely fall in short time, inflation is through the roof. With that collapse will rise a nationalistic Iran, therefore , zoroastrian and ancient persian renewal. I have seen my own cousins and friends in iran who openly speak against Islam. In shiraz, barely half the people are true muslims anymore. The rest are either christian, atheist, or Zoroastrian(self proclaimed of course)

noshir
noshir

In this article I have been erroneously introduced as "a former president of the apex body for Parsis, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat."

Please note that I have been a former trustee not president of this institution.

KumarA.
KumarA.

Unquestionably, Parsis as a community are the most enterprising, talented, successful and philanthropic of all communities, wherever they are in the world. They are the role model for everyone. I have been fortunate to have a few Parsi friends and learn a bit about their culture, belief and heritage. It is sad to read their current state. But I feel it is the time and the state of society in a world of IT, internet, TV, air travel, globalization that has created this state of affairs.

zarathustra
zarathustra

I am a Parsi and feel very sad when I read articles like this.

I feel the problem with my community is that we have lost our connectivity, the will to help each other and to raise each other to prosperity and maybe this is one of the main reasons we are diminishing. 

I live in the UK where the Parsi community's contributions are second to none.  There are approximately 3000 Parsis in the UK and we are considered Britain's most successful minority community having the first 64 Knights of the realm, the first three Baronets and the first three MPs from the minority communities being Parsis in the 1800's.  In recent times producing talents like Freddie Mercury and Parsi businesses employing over 55000 people in the form of Jaguar Land Rover, British Steel, Tetley Tea and Cobra Beer to name but a few.  And yet as the average man in the street what a Parsi is and they would be oblivious.

I personally would love to live and work in Hong Kong or India where the Parsis have made  major contributions but I hear, especially about India, that there is reverse discrimination faced by Parsis in Parsi companies due to the fact that these companies do not want to be seen a communal.  I hear this but wish it were not the case and maybe one day I will return to find out the true situation.  I sincerely believe we should help our own first before helping others and maybe the decline in my community's numbers can be stemmed.  Afterall we Parsis are descended from refugees who fled Persia to escape the forced Islamisation, we came with a common goal to preserve our identity and yet it seems the modern stalwarts of the community have forgotten this and have neglected our present and future generations. 



Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/07/17/in-hong-kong-a-once-prominent-parsi-community-faces-demise/#ixzz2ZKRH0GXt

dead2k1
dead2k1

My college roommate in the US was a Parsi and told me when he did a 'parsi match' search online, the only parsi female who came up within 100 miles was his sister. 

I've told people I know about the work of Mody, Ruttonjee, and Dorabjee but I'm glad someone's making this more publicly known. This needs to be part of HK's narrative, we owe it to history, and we owe it to them to recognize them.

benyaminshaker
benyaminshaker

How sad, one of the most noble and brave people in the world are at a risk of fading away into history. Only religious freedom in Iran could boost their numbers.

tehmirandiparsi
tehmirandiparsi

@Bookevil parsis are disappearing for a reason they have evil norms in there religion they wish to be torn spar by a vulture and disrespect there body..... parsis are very greedy in mumbai.... and destroy innocent peoples life secretly in work

LourençoGaiteiro
LourençoGaiteiro

@Bookevil Preserving culture and standing as a comunity has little to do with religion, specially in this modern age. Just look at the kurdish diaspora, the japanese nikkei and gaucho traditionalist centers, among many others, spread all over the world, uniting its members regardless of religion, just to preserve their culture. And as for religions themselves, if it wasn't for zoroastrianism, coptic christianity and other "stubborn" minorities, ancient languages like avestan, coptic egyptian and aramaic would have vanished...

tehmirandiparsi
tehmirandiparsi

@noshir  Bombay parsi panchayat is evil....they like to link with dirty muslims and psychiatrist to do there dirty jobs... filthy  dhansak eating pigs...

tehmirandiparsi
tehmirandiparsi

@KumarA. parsis do lot of blackmarketing and dirty jobs too even the big companies do it.....as well

zarathustra
zarathustra

@benyaminshaker 

How true.  I believe many Iranians, once they leave Iran, abandon their Islamic faith for Zoroastrianism and Christianity.  

We Parsis are also India's most successful minority community and de facto India's most successful community with a minority of 80,000 contributing to India's GDP at least 8% in my opinion and whose charities are worth countless billions.  And yet in India we are dwindling too.  I wonder what the answer is?