Interview with Hari Harilela
by Ram Jawhrani
Sindhi Sarmayo by Ram Jawhrani highlights the selfless efforts put in to promote SINDHI language, literature, culture and heritage, along with information about their personal achievements.
Since centuries Sindhis have displayed a tremendous sense of adventure and courage. With limited means of travel to distant lands Sindhis daringly took to the sea. Travelling to far off countries they would not only engage in trade but also share love and affection.
There is one such Sindhi family – Harilela who at the beginning of the 20th century went and settled in China and Hong Kong. In spite of being victims of various worldly crises and wars, they courageously, with patience and determination re-established themselves. Nowadays when everywhere, one witnesses an environment of selfishness and greed, this is one dynasty whose approximately 100 family members live together lovingly and peacefully as one joint family under one roof in Hong Kong. They have carved a niche for themselves in the hotel and real estate business.
I share with you the fortunate conversation I had with Hari Harilela.
R. Jawhrani : At the outset can you tell us about your early years and your childhood memories.
H. Harilela : I was born in 1922 in Sindh which is now a part of Pakistan. Our family lived in poverty and misery and my brothers and I had to do everything from being hawkers to office boys. At a very early age I had experienced a hard life and we never got an opportunity for formal education.
R. Jawhrani : Is it because you were denied formal education that you have contributed towards access to education in a large way?
H. Harilela : Exactly, I am a firm believer of supporting educational causes, education is a must in life; to march ahead globally it is very important to gain knowledge through education and it is very essential for us to educate our coming generations with the latest technologies in this age of the ‘Concord.’
R. Jawhrani : It is said that a man keeps learning through his experiences of ups and downs in his life, from cradle to grave. Do you feel that life itself is a great teacher?
H. Harilela : Yes, I truly believe in that. My father used to say “Till we live we always learn, life is a journey with experiences, we have our ups and downs, happy and sad times, all make us the person we are, it teaches us to be strong and face life with a smile.
R. Jawhrani : Could you share with us your journey from selling newspapers to becoming newsmakers?
H. Harilela : When my brothers and I were young, we used to sell newspapers on the streets of Hong Kong, but after a while, through hard work, we somehow managed to open a small silk store. But along came the Second World War and once again we were devastated. We decided to put the sewing machines up for sale. Amazed at the response, we soon started a thriving business in sewing machines. The first fortune came when we won a contract for supplying uniforms to the British army after the war. Thereafter, we also got a contract for making outfits for the American troops. At that point we had 22 stores and were turning out 600 suits per day.
In the 1950s I wanted to diversify into real estate and hotels but the move was opposed by some of my brothers. I believed that the army uniform tailoring contract would cease one day. Hence I established the Harilela Group with my brothers in 1959. Thereafter there was no looking back. Today the Harilela Group encompasses hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, real estate, stores etc. in South East Asia, Europe and America.
R. Jawhrani : What got you through the hard times of your life, hard work or honesty?
H. Harilela : Both. My father Mr. Naroomal taught us to be honest, hardworking and most importantly not to think of only making money but also serving the community. My father was quite well off when he shifted to China. He even owned buildings in Canton and Hong Kong. But then the recession which started in the United States began to affect Europe and also his business in China and Hong Kong. He lost millions of dollars because his clients could not pay him. But being an honest man, he sold all his possessions to pay back his banks, debtors and suppliers. Left with nothing we were forced to work as salesman for other firms, but we manged to pick ourselves up. Those were difficult times but that is what has made us what we are today. My father always used to say, “No matter how much money you have, if you don’t have a reputation, it doesn’t count for anything.” That philosophy has been ingrained in my brothers and me and this philosophy has seen us through the bad times in our lives.
R. Jawhrani : Once you shifted to Hong Kong, were you accepted by the people or did you face any cultural and traditional differences?
H. Harilela : As mentioned earlier, my father shifted to China in 1911, so we were familiar with the culture and tradition of the other country as well as our Sindhi culture and Sindhyat which was taught to us by our parents.
R. Jawhrani : During World War II, the British forces appointed the Harilela family as their main suppliers for uniforms; did you face any opposition that time since you indirectly supported the war?
H. Harilela : No, we did not face any opposition; we were just doing our business so there wasn’t any ill feeling towards us in society.
R. Jawhrani : Some people think that there is no difference in risk taking between business and gambling. Your diversifying to real estate was a gamble or a calculated risk?
H. Harilela : As I said earlier, I believed that the army uniform tailoring contract would cease one day so I had to think of something else, but when I decided to establish the Harilela group I faced opposition from my brothers because the real estate and other business meant very little profit. But I went ahead nonetheless and now there is no looking back. At times it’s important to follow your intuitions which I did and the rest is history and today the Harilela Group has carved a niche for its self in society.
R. Jawhrani : Today the Harilela Mansion has over 100 members of the family living together, how do you manage to do this?
H. Harilela : We all stay together because of a promise made to my mother that we will always live together. As we were together in poverty, we should not separate in affluence. My father always believed that if you don’t have a reputation, nothing counts. That is the philosophy ingrained in us. I always tell my children to be what they are, to be honest, and have integrity. Most importantly, keep the good name of your family. Goodness becomes a legacy. Being a model to my children, grandchildren and friends, I urge them that it’s not the titles or the money that count eventually but what you do, must be done sincerely and with a clean heart. Earn name, integrity and establish a good foundation for your younger generations.
R. Jawhrani : In Hindu tradition usually the elder brother runs the father’s business, but instead of your elder brother George, you head the Harilela business, how is that so?
H. Harilela : Our success is by our joint effort, my elder brother George showed full faith in me and he trusted me completely with my work and that is the reason why I am where I am today.
R. Jawhrani : In a huge family egos are bound to clash and conflicts bound to arise at some point. How do you manage that?
H. Harilela : Yeah, like other brothers we to have our disagreements but we usually work our way through patience and keep our ego out of the picture, we do not let minor issues become major, and the essential harmony is maintained. All the wives are supportive of the joint family system, even if plans are made to split, the wives tell us, “You can leave if you want to but we are staying here together . . . .” so there is unity among all the members of the family. My mother used to always tell us, “If you take a stick and break it, it breaks very easily. But if you take a bundle of sticks and try to break that it will never break. Even if you have no money stay together and pool you resources.”
R. Jawhrani : Since the younger generations of your family have been born and brought up in Hong Kong, do you feel they have been influenced by the western culture and somewhere lost the roots of our Indian culture?
H. Harilela : Although we are very well adapted to the host country and most of us speak fluent English and Cantonese, wear western clothes and some of us have even anglicized our names, yet when it comes to culture and religion, we are rock solid in devotion. We follow and nurture Hindu values. The daughter-in-laws have learnt Sindhi and Gurmukhi, they read the Guru Granth Sahib and observe religious days. The children of the house are also taught Hindi and religious slokas every Monday. We even have a beautiful temple room from where we all draw our strength. There are even images of Jesus Christ and a copy in the temple room. No one eats breakfast or leaves for work without seeking blessings in the temple every morning.
R. Jawhrani : In one of the interviews you quoted, ‘Some people would like to get a return of 100 percent but we are happy with 20 percent.’ Please comment.
H. Harilela : ‘Earn profit, but don’t be greedy’ was the golden rule laid down by my father and this rule has been followed by our family over the last 90 years. We never overcharge our customers. Some people would like to get returns of 100% but we only target about 20%. In this way we are happy and our customers are also happy.
R. Jawhrani : Your father was seen as someone very simple, honest and courageous. What did you learn from your father and would want your son Aaron to learn?
H. Harilela : My father taught me to be honest and hardworking, to be a businessman who did not think only of making money but also about how to serve the community, and most importantly to be patient. That’s the same thing I want Aaron to follow – which he does. Otherwise I let him do whatever he likes. He has already learnt the managing skills and techniques for negotiation with wisdom.
R. Jawhrani : You have been conferred and recognized with a lot of prestigious titles and awards and also appreciated by the government authorities for your community work. What is the motive for this service, self satisfaction or recognition by the local society?
H. Harilela : For self satisfaction. I sincerely believe that the one thing that is very important in life is that if you do all the work for yourself, you are very selfish. Hong Kong has given us a lot that we are grateful for. We must give back not by giving money, but also getting involved in the community.
R. Jawhrani : Now on a lighter note, you are very fond of reading, what kind of books to you read?
H. Harilela : In this fast growing world it is very important to slow down and find oneself; I try finding myself by reading books relating to yoga and meditation.