x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Explore Hong Kong's muslim enclave

After much scouting, Saeed Saeed finesses a trip that covers Hong Kong's Islamic sites, community and halal food stalls.

The biggest of Hong Kong's mosques, the three-storey Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre sits on Nathan Road, which also known as The Golden Mile because of the high-end fashion houses that line it. Alamy
The biggest of Hong Kong's mosques, the three-storey Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre sits on Nathan Road, which also known as The Golden Mile because of the high-end fashion houses that line it. Alamy

The clanging of hammers and riffs from a driller echo across the driveway. The haggard mosque on the receiving end is not exactly a tourist destination. Then again, I didn't travel to Hong Kong to be enchanted by The Victoria Harbour or sample the cut-and-thrust banter of The Temple Street markets. I was on a day visit searching for Hong Kong's Muslim community.

Hong Kong's progressive outlook is not just driven by its booming economy, its underrated pluralism also plays a hand. Finding a tour that celebrates this is hard work, though. Packages focused on popular options such as ferry rides across the harbour, culinary tours of the markets and even day trips to the remote coastlines of Sai Kung.

It seems strange for a city touting its cosmopolitan nature that a tour of its religious sites wasn't readily available. I was beginning to think my fellow Muslim business travellers were right: Hong Kong was too hard. No halal food. No mosques. Best to order the veggie spring rolls from room service and roll out the prayer mat inside the hotel room. But after a few rejections from travel agencies, Culture and Leisure Limited were game enough to plan a four-hour tour of Hong Kong's major Islamic sites.

With the day being windy and rain soaked, I ditched hopping on the metro and instead went for the more expensive option of using taxis. Since we began at 10am, we avoided the morning traffic. Apart from the epic winds, it was a pretty leisurely half-an-hour drive from Langham Place hotel in the vibrant Mong Kok district to the tour's first stop: the historical Jamia Mosque on Hong Kong Island.

We are in the cashed-up Mid-Levels district; hulking apartment blocks dominate, with price tags topping 10 million Hong Kong dollars (Dh4.7m). On that score, the mosque doesn't exactly fulfil the basic mandate of serving the local community.

The mainly Indian and Pakistani congregation are not the bankers, lawyers and fashionistas populating the neighbourhood. The mosque's regulars are labourers and small business owners living and trading on the island's outskirts. What brings them to the lime-green edifice is a bond both spiritual and historical.

Built in 1849, the Shelley Street mosque was the first to be built in Hong Kong. Also known as Lascar Temple, the mosque's elegant, perforated arches and colourful facade, coupled with its quiet suburban location, offer an ethereal vibe. With sounds of the traffic only a faint hum, the atmosphere is ideal for reflection.

Just in time for the Holy Month, the mosque is receiving a new paint job in addition to a spree of small maintenance tasks, including new window and door hinges. While partly funded by donations, a majority of the work is undertaken by the Hong Kong government, which classifies the building as a Grade 1 Historic site that - according to a government website - "every effort should be made to preserve if possible."

Sitting cross-legged inside the prayer hall, the mosque's Imam, Sheikh Abdul Zamman, informs me that the building has serviced generations before him.

"I came to Hong Kong from Pakistan when I was 14, about 20 years ago" he recalls. "Before I came from Islamabad, I already had family here: my father, uncles and cousins. They would come to the mosque and they would tell us back home about the Muslim community here. So a lot of us knew that being a Muslim in Hong Kong would not be too difficult a life."

Dodging the small army of maintenance crews, Zamman leads me on a tour of the building. The mosque's rectangular shape, punctuated by the Moorish arched windows, would have stood out among the mostly rural community more than 150 years ago. A major expansion in 1915 transformed the solitary building to include a paved driveway, a security gate and three apartments within the site, which housed former mosque leaders and local families.

Ironically, this benevolent feature currently scuttles all future building plans. "Years ago, some philanthropists from Kuwait wanted to donate some big money to rebuild the mosque to include a school, library and many other things. But in order to do that we had to use the land where these houses are, but we just can't," says Zamman. "It's the law, you see. As long as the family of the original people who lived there are still here, and they keep passing it on to future family members, we can't do anything. Everything here is an important part of Hong Kong history."

The Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Centre also holds a prized location. It stands proudly, and rather oddly, on the glitzy shopping district that is Nathan Road and is walking distance from Kowloon Park. Nathan Road is known as The Golden Mile because of the premiere fashion houses that line it, including Versace and Givenchy. Such variety presents more snapshots of Hong Kong's cosmopolitanism: Nehru caps and shalwar kameezes on the same footpath as designer heels and business suits.

Built in 1896, the mosque was first situated a few blocks away, primarily servicing the city's first generation of Indian Muslims recruited by the British for security jobs, the army, police and as prison guards.

In 1984, the mosque was moved to its present location after the original site suffered structural damage from the underground construction of the Hong Kong MTR railway system. A redesign by the Indian architect IM Kadri resulted in the mosque becoming the biggest in Hong Kong. The three-storey structure can hold up to 3,000 worshippers.

More ostentatious than the quaint Jamia Mosque, the white-marbled Kowloon centre has long arched windows and evocative marble grillwork. The site boasts four imposing minarets (11 metres high) and is crowned by a 5-by-9-metre cream coloured dome.

As well as prayer halls - including a level reserved for women - the centre also hosts its own clinic and library, cementing itself as a community hub rather than simply a place of worship.

With major business hotels (including The Peninsula and Novotel), and the Tsim Sha Tsui underground metro station nearby, it is an ideal place for Muslim travellers and is suitable for congregational prayers.

With both the Jamia and Kowloon mosques delivering sermons and religious classes in English and Urdu, it is easy to assume that Islam is a purely foreign addition to Hong Kong's social fabric. However, a 40-minute taxi ride from Kowloon to our last tour stop to the north of Hong Kong Island, the Wan Chai-based Islamic Union of Hong Kong, reveals an Islam that is distinctly Chinese.

Since 1981, the eight-level building has been catering to the local Chinese-Muslim population. As well as the regular prayers, the centre offers Islamic classes in Mandarin and the in-house restaurant serves nearly 100 Muslim-friendly Chinese dishes including Hong Kong's only halal dim sum.

Perfect. It was 2pm and time for lunch. "But I feel like roasted duck today," says the centre's second in command, the Taiwanese born Imam Sulaiman Wang, with a laugh.

I bid farewell to my private guide and place myself under Wang's care. "Let's walk to the real Hong Kong," he says. "You will not find tourist here."

It's the smell of fish that hits you first. Taking a side street off the main arterial of Wan Chai Road, the boutiques and trendy cafes give way to the dense Bowrington Road Market. Specialising in seafood, the trading hub has an outdoor street market in addition to a first-floor food court dubbed the Cooked Food Centre.

While some tourists are spotted in the outdoor market, the grimy food court is a locals-only affair. We are there during the lunch-time rush; dim sums and noodle stalls are doing a boisterous trade to a crowd of mostly young students and office workers.

Even though the shop's name is in Chinese, it is easy to spot the halal roasted duck vendor; just look for the line with customers wearing skull caps or hijabs. "If it is quiet, ask for a place called Waikee," says Wang. Or look for shop number CF 5, which is placed on the bottom right corner of the sign.

My medium lunch serving, costing 100 Hong Kong dollars (Dh47), is gooey, slightly bony and delicious; like all good roast duck should be.

Wang, who was born Muslim, says only a small number of Chinese convert to Islam; an average of 20 a year. Their transition is made easy, however, by Islam's contribution to Hong Kong's history. "Being a Muslim in Hong Kong, thank God, is easy," he says. "This is because the local population have been exposed to Muslims for a long time. Also, from the beginning, Muslims had respectable positions and were involved in public safety. This helps when Chinese become Muslims because they are familiar with the community and it is not so strange for them."

Wang dismisses the idea that Islam and Chinese culture are at odds. He explains that the faith shares a lot in common with the ancient Confucian tradition widely practised in China. "Family is very important for the Chinese. Sometimes you will go to a house and find three or four generations of the family living together. Another similarity is the respect and looking after our neighbours," he says. "It is about building a community in peace. We are together on this."

sasaeed@thenational.ae

If you go

The flight A return flight from Abu Dhabi to Hong Kong costs from Dh3,175 with Etihad Airways and Air Seychelles (www.etihad.com). The flight takes eight hours.

The hotel A stay at Langham Place Mongkok starts from Dh730 per night, including taxes (www.hongkong.langhamplacehotels.com; 00 852 3552 3388).

The tour To negotiate a private tour of Hong Kong's Islamic sites, email Harold Tang from Culture and Leisure Limited at haroldtang@cultureleisure.com. Prices differ depending on dates and group size.

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