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.
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.