‘Our roots in HK longer than many local Chinese’
Ashok Sakhrani is an eminent barrister based in Hong Kong. He shares his profound experiences of living in HK for three generations, his professional achievements and the contributions of Indian diaspora to HK’s growth.
Q: Historically there have been links between India and China from the days of Marco Polo…What is so striking about an Indian living in HK for so many years?
Ashok: Like Indians have done elsewhere in the world, we have immersed ourselves into life here. Because many of us trace our origins in Hong Kong to before World War II, our roots here are actually longer than many local Chinese whose fathers may have come after 1949, when the Communists overran the Mainland. Many in my father’s generation and in my generation actually studied in local schools alongside children from traditional Chinese families and so we integrated by learning the language and the customs. In many ways we became, and were even considered to be, one of the local children. Although non-Chinese, we were not considered as different as the Westerners were, and I suppose that had a lot to do with our historical ties to Hong Kong, our commitment to Hong Kong as our home, the similarities in the culture and value systems of the two countries and the greater integration of the Indians with the man on the street, whether in business or in the community. The Westerners were always perceived to be part of the Government administration or in multi-nationals, and many did not learn Cantonese, and this probably explains the greater identification with the Indians for the man on the street. Unfortunately, with the transition back to Chinese rule and the greater localization in Hong Kong, one can see a noticeable shift … many Indians study in international schools, many don’t speak Cantonese well and they seem more in tune with the westernized children, whether they be Chinese or Western.
Q: You’re exposed to different cultures in such a small place…Tell us about your positive and negative experiences in HK…
Ashok: Hong Kong has been home except for a few years in the early 80’s when I studied in England. But even then, I was very comfortable in Chinatown, perhaps more so that in Little India. I remember that people in the Chinese restaurants there were always so astonished that I spoke Cantonese so well such that we were always received well. The Chinese in Hong Kong have been largely accepting the Indians and I have had many Chinese clients who have had no difficulty being legally represented by an Indian lawyer. Of course, there have been rare instances where one perceives some discrimination but I really think it has been more due to lack of proper exposure to Indians rather than anything malicious. Actually, I have always thought it is important for Indians to ‘give back’ to the community, as this will show our essential participation in the community and it will also change the wrong perceptions and stereotypes some locals may have, which I don’t necessary blame them for. These are really the natural result of differences in the cultures and the customs which have been highlighted by Indians who have not adapted as well. As I said above, this divide has not always been perfectly bridged and so the perceived instances of discrimination.
I suppose my negative experiences of Hong Kong are not really because of being Indian. They have more to do with the shortcomings of this city, which I am sure even the Chinese face … the growing materialization, the sometimes inconsiderate social behavior, etc.
At the Bar I have a lot of access to Westerners, and even amongst them there are those who have so acclimatized to living in Hong Kong that they would not want to go back to their countries of origins. Like us, they too are HongKong-ers. However, many of them have not learnt Cantonese and still retain features of their European culture.
One of the great positives about living in Hong Kong is the access to the best of the East and the West. As an Indian, we have our rich traditions and spiritual heritage, which still have an impact on our sense of self, but we also have an openness and access to the West and Western ideas, which I believe with some sensible discrimination provides the Indians a unique ability to mature as balanced individuals in the world and within. Unfortunately, we don’t always use this unique opportunity and sometimes focus too much on our material and social development.
Q: You are a barrister specializing in Personal Injuries work and have a huge clinical negligence practice. You have been involved both on your own and as junior to leading PI Silks, in numerous complex high value cases, including cases involving injuries of the maximum severity … what’s the most memorable case you handled and won?
Ashok: I started off doing criminal work and really learnt my advocacy in the Magistrates’ Courts and the District Court. After about 10 years I developed a general civil practice and eventually developed a specialization in PI work and Clinical Negligence cases in the High Court. They’ve been many wins, but my fair share of losses … sometimes you’re only as good as your papers! One of the most satisfying cases was winning employees’ compensation and damages for a woman and her young child when her husband was hacked to death after work at a local bar, where he worked as a manager. The attack is difficult to comprehend, since the husband really only intervened to stop a dispute between a waitress and a customer. The insurance company argued he was not entitled to employees’ compensation because he had gone off work and also that the bar should not be liable in negligence for the actions of the criminals. It was really important that we got some money for the wife and child, which we did. The most memorable was actually a recent one in which we settled a huge multi-million dollar claim on behalf of a hospital for the loss and damage suffered by a young girl as a result of admitted negligence in diagnosis and treatment. The injuries were multi-dimensional and affected the girl’s education and career opportunities, and so the case was a real challenge and learning opportunity.
Q: Tell us about your professional achievements…
Ashok: I’ve been fortunate to develop a reputation in the PI Bar as Junior Counsel. I sit some sub-committees of the Hong Kong Bar Association and I have written two chapters in Hong Kong’s leading Tort Law textbook. I’ve resisted taking Silk, but that’s another story. I’ve also deliberately limited my other professional associations because of my responsibilities in the Sathya Sai Baba Centre, which I have always taken very seriously.
Q: Being an Indian do you face any difficulties in your professional life in a foreign land?
Q: Indians in Hong Kong are a vibrant immigrant community. Some of the iconic names in HK today have been influenced and inspired by Indians including the Star Ferry which was founded by Darobji Naorojee, a Parsi, the Ruttonjee Hospital. Sir Mody was also one of the principal founders of the Hong Kong University and Kowloon Cricket Club. This heritage has continued throughout Hong Kong’s history…
What is the contribution of Indian business community to the growth of HK?
Ashok: In the post-WWII era, Indians played a significant role in Hong Kong’s trade and at one point in time it was estimated to be 10% of all trade. However, things have changed and I think it is fair to say the contribution of the Indian business community to the growth of HK has steadily diminished since those hey-days. The challenge is of course greater now with the opening up of markets and greater access to information which limits the role of many Indian traders shipping out of China. Nonetheless, the Indians are still making a contribution to the business community. Noticeably, they continue to be active in the legal profession and in banking. Some are going into teaching and medicine and so I think Indians will always have something of significance to contribute, even if it is not in the headlines.
Q: You’ve been associated with Sathya Sai Centre and have been doing commendable social work. What inspired you to embark on this spiritual journey?
Ashok: I have always felt fortunate to have been brought into Sai Baba’s fold. It started even before my university days and continued thereafter. I never thought I would be allowed to serve as local administrative head of the Hong Kong Sai Baba Centre, which I did for many years, and learnt a lot in the process. I’ve now stepped down from that position and have taken a more regional duty. What inspired me? Rather than being inspired, which suggests something moved me to want to embark on this journey, I believe it was Sai Baba’s grace that brought me in and kept me there, giving me the chance to use my education to serve. This was not a choice I made consciously in my present being … I believe it was willed, if you like. But the spiritual journey has been a great inspiration, it has influenced me tremendously in my thinking and has given me some knowledge of life that I would never have had otherwise. I have done things and visited places in China I would otherwise never have, for example giving a talk about values-based leadership to a group of teachers at a university, under the watchful eye of several uniformed police-officers, who left as quietly as they entered, never to be heard from again. The spiritual journey has been a struggle against the lower self and the mind, but this is where the insights have come from. Seeing the role of Baba in my life has been truly awesome, as millions around the world will testify about their experiences.
Q: Please tell us about the kind of work the Centre does…
Ashok: The structure of the Centre is based on the teachings in our Gita; there is a Spiritual Wing, Service Wing and Education Wing. Work is done in each area, so in addition to devotional singing and study classes, we have numerous community based seva programmes to help relieve the suffering of the poor, and we also have a Bal Vikas, or Sai Spiritual Education for children. We publish magazines (I serve as editor, due undoubtedly to my writing skills developed as a lawyer), we have a wonderful website dedicated to the teachings of Baba (Google: Sai Baba and Hong Kong for access to the site), we have been active in inter-faith work, and we have also worked with the Social Welfare Department in our seva programmes. Additionally, the Centre provides the resources for expansion of the teacher-training work being done in China by the Institute of Sathya Sai Education, Hong Kong, whose work is already in its 11th year.
Q: Any future plans for the Centre…
Ashok: It is important that all Sai Baba Centres around the world carry on the work that Baba started and inspired in India and around the world. Since He left His body in 2011, He has demonstrated in so many tangible and intangible ways that He continues to guide us in our own lives and also our Centre work. He always forbade the public solicitation of funds and He promised that if we can be sincere in our efforts to serve, the money would always come. He has kept to His promise, and it remains to us to carry forth His work, which will not only bless us but transform us to be the spiritual beings He wants us to be. Ultimately, the work of the Centre is really about providing a platform where people can come together and learn from each other as they walk on their individual spiritual journeys. Swami’s work was to reveal to us our innate divinity, and the Centre is a part of that work.
This interview appeared in www.theindiandiaspora.com