The gate beckons. You can see it as you travel up Shelley Street on the Central Mid-Levels escalator – an intricate wrought iron barrier, one half closed, the other propped open, inviting you to pass through it. Above the portal is a stone sign engraved in Arabic, English and Chinese: Jamia Mosque. Pass beneath and the mechanical whirr of the escalator quickly recedes, replaced by bird song and the occasional call to prayer.
“It’s an oasis.” That’s how a Tunisian woman named Leila described the mosque when I interviewed her for a short student documentary in 2009, along with my University of Hong Kong classmates Teracy Wang, May Zhang and Yiwen Fu. And that description came up again and again as we worked on our doc. The Jamia Mosque is Hong Kong’s oldest masjid, but it’s more than just a place of worship. It’s an historical landmark that stands on a lushly vegetated acre of land that is home to a unique squatter community. It’s a testament to the long history of Muslims in Hong Kong. And it’s a retreat from the crush of city life where anyone, Muslim or not, is welcome.
A mosque has stood on Shelley Street since 1850. It served Muslim merchants from as far as Oman and Iran, Muslim Indian soldiers in the British military, and Muslim sailors known as lascars, a word that came to English via Persian and Portuguese. Lascars worked as servants on British ships, and when they docked in Hong Kong, they made their way uphill to pray at the mosque.
In 1915, Bombay-born merchant Haji Mohammed Essack Elias paid for the mosque to be completely rebuilt in its current form, with a prayer hall, a minaret and arched entrances and windows that recall Islam’s Arab heritage. The building is painted in a green, the shade of mint ice cream.
The mosque was joined in 1929 by a three-storey hostel for Muslim travellers, which was opened in a ceremony by the captain superintendent of the Hong Kong Police, EDC Wolfe, who praised the Muslim community for its charitable work. The South China Morning Post noted in its report that the hostel had a “modern flush system” and a “good view of the harbour and distant mountains.” After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, Muslim families took shelter in the hostel to escape Allied bombing. They never left. Eventually, the mosque’s garden filled up with small houses that are still home to around 50 families.
“It’s a touchy subject,” says Hameed Jalal, the former chairman of the Incorporated Trustees of the Islamic Community Fund of Hong Kong, which manages the mosque. For years, the trustees have hoped to redevelop a portion of the mosque compound, following in the steps of many local religious communities, who have partnered with developers to redevelop their properties in exchange for extra space. Not far from the mosque, the gardens of Hong Kong’s oldest synagogue, Ohel Leah, were redeveloped into a high-rise housing estate and Jewish community centre in 1994, which allowed the dilapidated structure to be rehabilitated. “It can be developed beautifully,” says Jalal. “But they aren’t ready to move yet.”
The trustees tried to force out the squatters once, in the mid-1990s, but they backed down after the families that live in the mosque compound mounted a legal defence based on the concept of adverse possession, which holds that squatters have a right to the land they occupy if no efforts are made to evict them over a long period of time. “We have been here for so long, if we didn’t have the right to be here we would have been removed long ago,” said one of the residents, Zamir Khan. Although the families live rent-free, they pay their own utilities and help clean and maintain the mosque in their spare time.
And so things haven’t changed much over the years. When Jalal first moved to Hong Kong from Calcutta more than 50 years ago, there were so many worshippers at the Jamia Mosque, people had to pray outside. Today, Hong Kong has many more Muslims — around 300,000 — but only a couple of hundred worship regularly at the Jamia Mosque. Most prefer the larger, more conveniently located mosque in Kowloon Park, which was built in 1984, or the Islamic Centre in Wan Chai, which has a canteen that serves curries and halal Cantonese food. Even HKU students don’t go anymore, now that the university has its own prayer sessions.
The mosque is quiet most of the time, with stray cats and tourists roaming the property, and laundry hanging out to dry outside the squatters’ houses. Most of the congregants are Pakistani office workers who take the escalator up from Central, and often only on Fridays, the Islamic holy day. Dressed in slacks and pressed shirts, they remove their shoes, wash their feet in the wudu tap located next to the former hostel, and venture into the mosque to listen to the imam’s sermon. The handful of women who show up sit behind a curtain in the corner of the prayer hall. Afterwards, as they trickle back out of the mosque, the congregants buy lunch from a man selling chicken biryani in takeaway containers.
“I haven’t been to the Shelley Street mosque in awhile,” admits Jalal. “It’s a place you go to have old memories. It looks more elegant and serene than the other places.”
The mosque remains much as I found it in 2008, when I visited for the first time. There was something enchanting about its serenity in the midst of the Mid-Levels’ thicket of apartment towers. The following year, when I began working on the documentary while studying at the University of Hong Kong, I ended up meeting many members of the mosque’s community. There was Leila, who specifically chose to pray at the Jamia Mosque because it was so beautiful. Andy was an Indonesian student who worshipped there because it was the closest mosque to the University of Hong Kong. And there was Mustafa, a friendly young man who was born and raised in a makeshift house next to the mosque.
Like several other families who live in the mosque compound, Mustafa’s mother is Chinese and his father is Pakistani. He grew up playing field hockey and ended up joining Hong Kong’s national team. “It’s a very special place in Hong Kong. You wouldn’t find it anywhere else,” he told us in 2009. “I couldn’t live anywhere else. I can only just live in this place. I tried living somewhere else for two years, but I couldn’t take it, so I moved back. It’s very fortunate to be this close to the mosque. I consider this to have been given to us by God.”