Sticking Together: The Harilela Clan

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Dec 17, 2008
*Special to asia!

The prosperous Harilela clan of nearly 100 lives under one roof in Hong Kong.

 

Many rich families aspire to be unique. The Harilela clan, which runs the richest Indian business concern in Hong Kong, doesn’t even need to try — since they share their surname with no one else in the world.

The Harilelas hail from the Indian (now Pakistani) province of Sindh. A century ago, they were called the Mirchandanis — a surname that ended with the three letters "ani", like those of so many of their compatriots.

It was changed to its present form by Naroomal Mirchandani, who left hilly Hyderabad, then capital of Sindh, to seek his fortune in Canton (now Guangdong), China, at the turn of the last century.

It was in Canton that Naroomal received news his mother was ailing in Sindh. He rushed back only to find she had died and her body cremated. Deeply hurt by what he saw as an unthinkable act by his relatives, Naroomal renounced his surname and created a new one, "Harilela", by combining the names of his parents Haribal and Lilaram, noticeably without the tell-tale "ani" at the end.

The Harilela clan which grew to include six sons and two daughters of Naroomal made two fortunes, one in Canton and the other in Hong Kong, where it moved during the 1930s, only to lose both due to war and circumstances.

Hari Harilela, second (now senior) son of Naroomal and clan leader, recalled having to hawk goods on the streets of Hong Kong with his brothers at the age of 10 during the 1930s, as their father was too poor to send them to school. It was only later, after the clan had made friends with the British soldiers in Hong Kong who provided them with uniforms and many other things, that the clan started to prosper.

Today, the extended Harilela clan has close to 100 members and, amazingly, almost everyone lives under the same roof, in a gigantic house and an annex in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district.

 

harilela house

 

The house and the regular lavish parties staged inside it are as much a talking point among the people of Hong Kong as the fabled fortune of the clan, which today encompasses nearly a dozen hotels in various countries, restaurants, travel agencies, real estate and stores.

Hari and his wife throw two parties a week, in a dome-like chandeliered dining hall that throngs with dozens of visitors, ranging from top politicians and tycoons to visiting Indian celebrities. The house, on a 100,000-square-foot piece of land, has 40 bedrooms, an underground garage for more than 20 cars, 30 servants, three cooks, six drivers, several repairmen and gardeners, and even a live-in tailor. The centrepiece is a temple room, which everyone visits daily, before breakfast.

Through six decades the clan has held itself together, but things are beginning to strain. George, the eldest, died last December, age 86. Mike, the youngest, died suddenly of a heart attack this February, at a relatively young age of 61. Rani, a sister, died some years ago. Hari, the clan leader, is still going strong at 85 but it is only a matter of time before he passes the torch to the younger generation.

The problem is that some of the younger generation do not want to stay in the big house, or even in Hong Kong. After going overseas for education, some have refused to come back. A scandal involving a gay offspring some two decades ago only outlines how this communal living, where everybody knows what everybody is doing, can prove to be too much for some members. Hong Kong is waiting with bated breath to see who Hari will appoint as his successor, and whether the clan will continue living the way it has lived in the coming years.

 

 

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

Contact Han Shih