Soldiers from the 2nd Gurkha Rifles on parade in Hong Kong in the early 1970s

Soldiers from the 2nd Gurkha Rifles on parade in Hong Kong in the early 1970s
©Gurkha Museum

On the 1st of July 1997 Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese government when the 99 year lease that Britain had been granted expired. By the time of the handover, Gurkhas had been based in Hong Kong for decades and 'for so long to be a Gurkha had meant that Hong Kong was your home'.

In the years leading up to the handover of Hong Kong, the Brigade of Gurkhas was once again reduced by almost by half when the four Gurkha rifle regiments - 2nd, 6th, 7th & 10th GR - became the 1st and 2nd battalions of the newly formed Royal Gurkha Rifles, but the biggest change after 1997 was that, for the first time, the Brigade of Gurkhas was based in the United Kingdom.

End of an Era and a New Beginning

To the present generation of Gurkhas the move to the UK has brought opportunities (and comparative riches) that would have been unimaginable 50 or even 40 years ago. There have also also been losers: men who drew the short straw and either retired or were made redundant before the new, improved Terms and Conditions of Service (affecting pay, pensions and settlement rights) finally put Gurkhas on a equal par with their British counterparts. To over-simplify an extremely complex set of issues, it could be said that before 1997 Gurkhas were regarded as imperial troops who fought in Britain’s colonial wars, while after 1997 Gurkhas finally took their rightful place as equal members of the modern British army - and in British society.

I was present at the closure of Tam Mei Lines at Cassino, Borneo Lines (28 Army Education Centre) and Malaya Lines (by then 1 RGR), where in 1996 the last of the old-style beating of retreats took place. For the last time dusk and the backdrop of the mountain of Tai Mo Shan silhouetted the white tunics, gleaming teeth and accoutrements of the Pipes and Drums of the Brigade... It was an emotional night – to those who had seen Hong Kong’s Gurkha Garrison at its height... It was on that day that it all felt at an end.

Lt-Colonel Nigel Collett, 1997

Such nostalgia for a bygone age is perhaps fitting for a one-time colonial officer contemplating the end of an age of empire, but a new era was just beginning: one in which it would no longer be acceptable to treat Gurkhas as inferior to British soldiers - or to expect them to accept anything less than equal rights, pay and pensions. The implications of this huge change are still being felt today, as Gurkha veterans who served before 1997 are still campaigning for their right to fairer pensions.

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