City provides a harmonious environment for Muslims to practise religion, leader says. But cultural differences and language barrier make it hard to explain Islam to locals. Emily Tsang, Fiona Sun specially for the South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong’s usually low-profile Muslim community found itself thrust in the spotlight recently, amid anti-government protests now in their sixth month. Violent clashes between radical protesters and police in Tsim Sha Tsui on October 20 spilled over to affect the landmark Kowloon Masjid and Islamic Centre on Nathan Road.
As police tried to clear protesters from the area, their water cannon sprayed blue dye on the mosque’s entrance, splashing its steps, fence and a handful of people outside. The incident sparked immediate criticism of police for their alleged insensitivity towards a place of worship.
Police said it was an accidental dousing. Muslim leaders accepted that the mosque was not targeted by police and urged calm among the community. Following the incident, volunteers from various religions, and even masked protesters, joined the Muslims in helping to clean the mosque premises.
Soon after, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and police chief Stephen Lo Wai-chung visited the mosque and apologised to the community.
The incident urged government officials and the wider community to do more to get to know the Muslims who call Hong Kong home.
How large is the Muslim community?
There are 300,000 Muslims in Hong Kong, or just more than four per cent of the city’s population of 7.5 million. They are part of Islam’s 1.6 billion followers worldwide.
Muslims in Hong Kong include about 150,000 Indonesians, many of whom are women working as foreign domestic workers. About 50,000 are ethnic Chinese, 30,000 are Pakistanis, and the rest are from other parts of the world. The vast majority are Sunni Muslims.
Mufti Muhammad Arshad is the city’s chief Islamic cleric. Born in Pakistan, he was the imam of the Pakistani armed forces for eight years before moving to Hong Kong with his family in 2001. He has been engaged in Islamic religious affairs as well as social services for various communities.
How did Islam arrive?
The religion arrived in Hong Kong in the early 19th century with Muslim seamen from South Asia, mainly India. After Hong Kong became a British colony, Muslim soldiers arrived here from South Asia as part of the British Army’s Muslim garrisons. Some of these seamen and soldiers ended up remaining in Hong Kong permanently.
According to the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund of Hong Kong, many Muslim seamen who stayed did not have proper accommodation and moved into a compact street in Sheung Wan called Lascar Row. Gradually, the place was packed with hundreds of Muslim families who held their religious gatherings in the open street.
It is said that the local Chinese were aware of the Muslims’ religious practices and would avoid passing by the street while returning from the market, worried that the pork they bought would hurt the Muslims’ feelings, especially during prayer times.
In 1911, a fire broke out in the Muslim quarter, destroying 16 houses and damaging another 24. Many Muslim families moved out after that to settle elsewhere in Hong Kong.
Who are the Chinese Muslims in Hong Kong?
Chinese Muslims first arrived in Hong Kong in the late 19th and early 20th century from southern Chinese coastal areas. They established a community around Wan Chai – home to Ammar Mosque and Osman Ramju Sadick Islamic Centre. Some South Asian immigrants who married Chinese Hongkongers raised their children as Muslims.
Kasim Wilson Tuet Wai-sin, an entrepreneur born in the mainland city of Guangzhou, arrived in Hong Kong as a boy and played a major role in the development of Islam in the city. A pioneer of Chinese Muslim education, he was the chairman of the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association for 40 years from 1950 until his death in 1990, aged 71. The Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College in Chai Wan is named after him.
How many mosques are there?
There are six, the largest being the Kowloon Masjid and Islamic Centre on Nathan Road. The current complex replaced the original mosque which was built in 1896 for Indian Muslim soldiers in a British Army regiment.
The original building had to be demolished in 1980 because of the damage caused by the construction of underground rail network. The new mosque cost HK$25 million, with funds coming from the MTR Corporation and public donations.
The new mosque was opened for worship in 1984, and can hold up to 3,500 worshippers. Designed by architect I.M. Kadri, its prominent features are the four 11-metre-high minarets and the extensive use of white marble. There are three prayer halls, a community hall, a clinic and a library.
Prayer services are held five times a day, attended mostly by South Asians and Indonesians, many of whom live in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Hong Kong’s oldest mosque is Jamia Mosque, built in the 1840s in the Mid-Levels area of Hong Kong Island. The others are Ammar Mosque in Wan Chai, Chai Wan Mosque at Cape Collinson Muslim Cemetery, Stanley Mosque in Stanley Prison and Ibrahim Mosque in Yau Ma Tei.
Is it easy to practise Islam in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong-born Adeel Malik, 35, a Muslim of Pakistani origin, says Hong Kong provides a harmonious environment for the Muslims to practise their religion.
Among other things, Islam requires believers to pray five times a day, with mosques holding a main weekly prayer at midafternoon on Friday. They are expected to dress modestly, which for some Muslim women means wearing the hijab or headscarf.
Malik, a secondary school English language teacher, says: “We go to mosques. Men can keep a beard and women can wear the hijab in public. Our daughters can go to school and they can request to wear a hijab without much problem. There’s a lot of harmony and understanding in Hong Kong that give us the freedom to practise our religion.”
But he adds that the Muslims in Hong Kong do face discrimination occasionally, due to a lack of understanding and the fact that many Muslims do not speak Cantonese. “I have had some students say to me, ‘Mr Malik, you have a beard. Are you like Bin Laden?’” he says, referring to the late terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. “Because of the cultural differences and the language barrier, we kind of find it difficult to express our teachings, our morals and our ethics to the people in Hong Kong.”
Malik is the chairman of the Muslim Council of Hong Kong, an organisation he founded in 2015 to help educate Hongkongers about Islam and clear misconceptions about the religion. He says there is a lot to be done to show the public what Islam is. Council members hand out materials every Saturday in Tsim Sha Tsui to raise public awareness of Islam, he says.
How do Muslims observe halal rules?
Followers of Islam observe restrictions regarding food and drink, and what is allowed is referred to as halal. They are forbidden from eating pork and drinking alcohol. Halal rules also require that the meat they consume comes from animals which have been slaughtered humanely according to specified rituals. During the Islamic month of Ramadan, many Muslims observe a fast from dawn till dusk.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board says there are more than 80 certified halal food outlets in the city. They include the Islamic Centre Canteen in Wan Chai, above the Ammar Mosque, which has gained an international following and rave reviews online for its halal Cantonese food, including dim sum.
Ma’s Restaurant in Sham Shui Po serves Xinjiang-style cuisine, while over in Causeway Bay, Aladin Mess serves Indian food and a cluster of Indonesian-style eateries dish out spicy Southeast Asian fare.
Malik feels the halal choices are not wide enough, and Muslims sometimes feel sceptical about halal food offered at non-Muslim establishments because they wonder if the meat is from halal suppliers. Some restaurants are certified as halal food outlets but also serve alcohol, and Muslims might feel uncomfortable there, he adds.
“For the Muslim community, we have very strict guidelines. That’s why, sometimes we find it difficult to trust the food we get from Chinese or non-Muslim places, even if they have halal food,” he says.
A row over Lascar Row
The early Muslim settlers lived on Lascar Row in Sheung Wan. The word “lascar” is said to have been derived from the Arab-Persian lashkar, which means a military camp, and the British used the word to refer to the South Asian seamen who congregated in the area. The local Chinese referred to the dark-skinned residents somewhat pejoratively as “mo lo” in Cantonese, and Lascar Row’s Chinese name became Mo Lo Street.
In 2010, eight district officers from the Central and Western District asked the government to change the Chinese name after some South Asians found the term insulting and racist. But the Lands Department ruled against it, stressing it did not find the term offensive to South Asians. Insisting the word is neutral, the government also explained that changing the name would wipe off the historical and cultural value of the alley, and create inconvenience and confusion.
The controversy did not end there. In 2015, Hong Kong television station TVB came under fire for using the term “mo lo cha” to describe an Indian character in a historical drama set in 1930s Hong Kong.