A pay rise for the Gurkhas as they leave Hong Kong - and their families - behind

Everything about the Gurkhas' presence in Hong Kong is slightly incongruous, so it was not surprising that last night's departure ceremony should add to the oddness.

After 48 years' service here, the Nepalese soldiers have become victims of cuts and the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, which will ensure that their soon-to-be-renovated barracks are handed to the incoming People's Liberation Army garrison.

As for the incongruity, it was everywhere, starting on the Polo Field, where the ceremony was held. The field is, in fact, a football pitch. The Malaya Lines, where the Gurkhas are based, have no connection with Malaya or modern Malaysia, and the 700 Gurkhas who will be leaving appear to be doing so without regret. They have never really been part of the colony, nor integrated into the rest of the British garrison.

Yet they have developed a taste for things British, ranging, from a liking for spam sandwiches to an affection for Scottish melodies. Thus it was that the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas belted out "Scotland the Brave" and "The Skye Boat Song" into the warm night air. A traditional dance using the kukri knife, which has been deployed for less benign purposes, was also part of the proceedings, as was the lowering of the Union and Royal Gurkha Rifles flags while the band played "Sunset".

"A time of parting is a time of sadness, especially when long years of service have developed friendship and respect," said Governor Chris Patten, who pointed out that the Gurkhas had helped protect Hong Kong's enterprise and investment. In practice this largely meant patrolling the border to prevent a flood of illegal immigrants from mainland China.

The job is neither pleasant nor rewarding, but Gurkhas are not famous for complaining. As they prepare to pack, they are showing no signs of complaining about the move which will leave 71 men redundant and take 600 to a new posting with 5 Airborne Brigade in Britain.

Those going to Britain are happy they will be getting a rise. In Hong Kong the Gurkhas were always paid significantly less than British soldiers in the garrison. The bad news is that they will not be allowed to travel with their families. It seems the Army does not mind Gurkhas having something approaching a normal family life as long as they do not do so on British soil.

The Gurkhas, in white shirts and regimental ties, watched last night's ceremony with evident enjoyment. They were officially off duty, and, like the other military guests, not in uniform. However, the Gurkhas never really seem to be off duty - discipline lingers at all times.

This may explain why there is a vogue in Hong Kong for employing retired Gurkhas as security guards. They are viewed as far more disciplined and alert than the Chinese. Whether the incoming regime will tolerate their presence is not known.

The Gurkhas will be replaced by the 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment, which marks a piece of military coming full circle. The regiment was in the colony in 1842, the year China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, ceding Hong Kong island to the British in perpetuity. On 30 June next year they will provide the military presence at the ceremony marking the end of British rule.

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