Overlooking a steady stream of traffic, at the end of a string of posh shops that includes a swanky Bentley showroom, stands the Zoroastrian Building on Leighton Road, the spiritual centre of the Parsis in Hong Kong. The Parsis emigrated to India from Persia (present-day Iran) to escape persecution and preserve their Zoroastrian faith from a pervasive Islamic tide, between the 8th and 10th centuries. Eventually, some came to Hong Kong during the 19th century, riding the waves of imperialistic expansion and trade, bringing with them a spirit of enterprise and philanthropy that is a trademark of the community. Today, they might be a long way off from Persia, where Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world once flourished, but their sacred fire still burns bright at the fire temple in the building, a symbol of enlightenment and hope. The winged figure of Asho Farohar—omnipresent in a Parsi’s life, signifying good thoughts, good words and good deeds —sits proudly on two sides of the building, deftly catching the rays of the sun.
The Zoroastrian religion spread in Persia through the teachings of Zarathustra who believed in one god, Ahura Mazda. In the pre-Islam era, Zoroastrianism held powerful sway over Iran, its practice now largely confined to the Parsis living in India and those scattered across the globe. The small, tight-knit Parsi community in Hong Kong valiantly keeps over 3,000-year-old traditions of an ancient civilization alive. The priest Ervad Homyar Nasirabadwala keeps the fire burning at the fire temple, carrying out navjotes, ceremonial rites of initiation into the faith, lagans or wedding ceremonies, and other priestly duties with steady regularity. The prophet Zarathustra’s birthday is celebrated, and ghambars or communal feasts marking the changing of the seasons and coinciding with harvest time are still held. The burial rituals are also observed much as they were thousands of years ago, though differing in the method of burial. Due to the absence of a Tower of Silence or dakhma in Hong Kong, the practice of sky burials has given way to earth burials. Traditionally, the sky burial exposed dead bodies to carrion birds, a swift and non-polluting way of disposing off the dead, given that Parsis hold all elements to be sacred. Sky burials are still followed in Mumbai which has the highest concentration of Parsis, but this practice is beset with challenges due to the dwindling population of vultures. Outside India, the Parsis have largely embraced earth burials, and so it is in Hong Kong. The quaint and serene Parsi cemetery was established here in 1852 and houses 197 graves. The earliest grave dates back to 1856, and some belong to Parsis who lived in Canton and Shanghai.
Parsi merchants came to China in the 18th century with the expansion of East India Company and trade. When Hong Kong was ceded to the British after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, many moved to make the city their home, flourishing as traders, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. Others found themselves displaced later, with the rise of communism in China, and Hong Kong became their natural destination. Mr Neville Shroff, President of the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton and Macao says, “My grandfather and family came to China in the late 1800s, and set up shop in Macao. My father worked in Shanghai before settling in Hong Kong. The challenges they faced in making a new life for themselves in a foreign land were immense and their spirit of enterprise deserves to be saluted. Four generations of my family have lived in Hong Kong and have been witness to its evolution from a small fishing village to the dynamic financial hub that it is today.”
The Parsi contribution to Hong Kong is not a well-acknowledged fact, but a closer look at the street names in the city points to this unexpected legacy—a legacy that has grown fainter with time, but remains undiminished and generous in the impact it made in setting up key institutions in the Fragrant Harbour in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Kotewall Road, Mody Road and Bisney Road are distinct reminders of the involvement of the Parsi community in helping build Hong Kong into the vibrant and multi-cultural city it is today. Cast your eyes over the city’s major establishments, and other Parsi contributions emerge.
The Star Ferry, one of Hong Kong’s humblest modes of transport and indisputably its most scenic, was founded by a Parsi merchant, Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala in the late 19th century. The Ruttonjee Hospital was funded by Jehangir Hormusjee Ruttonjee in 1949 in memory of his daughter who died of tuberculosis in 1943. Two of the founding directors of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, one of the premier financial institutions set up in 1864, were Parsis, and one of the founders of the Kowloon Cricket Club was Sir Hormusjee Nowrojee Mody. He was also one of the principal benefactors who helped establish Hong Kong University in 1911. His bronze bust still adorns the premises, looking forlorn and forgotten.
In a city teeming with 7 million people, the Parsis are a population of roughly 200, an insignificant number. It is disheartening, though not entirely implausible then, that their early contributions go largely unnoticed by the local populace that goes bustling about their daily lives, oddly unaware that this small community was instrumental in creating some of the major institutions and facilities they take for granted today. In this hectic, fast-paced city, one can only hope that its rich historical narrative receives the attention it duly deserves, and is not lost with time.
– by Shikha Bansal