By Yvonne Lau

By late April in Hong Kong, the city’s six official mosques were closed. Public gatherings were limited to eight people and the majority of the population were donning face masks.  

It was an unprecedented time for the Muslim community to be observing Ramadan, the year’s holiest month. In a regular year, Hong Kong’s mosques during Ramadan would be packed, hosting community meals and prayers. Family and friends would often meet in large groups at restaurants or in each others’ homes.

Fiza Khan and her team from Serving Islam breaking fast at Tamar Park. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

The traditional rituals and gatherings – a time for fasting, reflection and community – have been hindered by Covid-19 restrictions.

On one early May evening, as the skyline glowed dusk, a group of worshippers gathered at Tamar Park. At precisely 6:53 PM, the time of sunset, they turned towards Mecca and prayed. After the completion of prayers, it was time for iftar – the evening meal of Ramadan when the day’s fast is broken.

Prayer mats at Tamar Park. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

Fiza Khan and her teammates from Serving Islam had elected to gather at the harbourfront park to pray and to break fast, due to mosque closures.

“Covid-19 has affected everyone, in every aspect of their lives, and our lives during Ramadan are no different. But whether we’re gathering communally or in private worship – the fundamental purpose of Ramadan has not changed.”

Getting ready for prayer and iftar at Tamar Park. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

Khan, a Master’s student from Pakistan studying human rights law, explained: “Ramadan is a type of retreat from life’s desires – food, drink, anger, sexual relations and all else – towards [the development of] a better spiritual self. We hope to gather enough spirituality during this month to keep us fuelled for the year.”

Their shared meal of Pakistani vegetarian samosas, Asian vermicelli and Jollibee that evening was reflective of the city’s diverse Muslim population. Hong Kong is home to around 300,000 Muslims – hailing from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Somalia and more.

Photo: Yvonne Lau.

As the month of May progressed, Hong Kong contained its second wave of Covid-19 infections, allowing the government to cautiously start lifting restrictions. 

For Mohammad Husnain, a student at the University of Hong Kong, this meant he could meet a larger group of friends for iftar. Classes at HKU had not yet resumed, but the on-campus prayer room reopened. Husnain and his friends have been using this space to pray, to break fast and to catch up.

“This is a time for us to get closer to God… by getting rid of bad habits, asking for forgiveness and making positive changes,” Husnain said. As he reflects upon Ramadan and his final year in university, he decides he will search for a job where he can serve ethnic minorities.

Mohammad Husnain and friends at the HKU prayer room take iftar together. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

For now, Husnain creates vlogs for his Facebook page. A recent post in April was a Cantonese explainer on Ramadan. “I’ll do more Cantonese videos to introduce Muslim and Pakistani culture to Hong Kong. I’ve already been interviewed by Now TV for another Ramadan feature and helped out [popular vlogger] Nas Daily when he was in town.”

It seemed like the worst of the outbreak was over for Hong Kong by the latter half of the month. Religious venues received clearance to operate at half-capacity. But some families still opted to stay home.

The bulletin board at the HKU prayer room. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

Zunaira Erum and husband Abdul elected for a Ramadan spent at home this year, out of precaution for their one year-old, Layth. Erum has rarely left their home in Po Lam since the virus outbreak – “I just got used to it,” she said.

As a new mother, Erum is exempted from fasting this Ramadan, but still performs the daily rituals and prayers. She prepares iftar and also suhur – the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan – for Abdul. A regular iftar meal could be one of Pakistani biryani and lentil salad.  

Zunaira Erum and family, on Eid al-Fitr. Photo: courtesy of Zunaira Erum.

Erum, who is from Pakistan, remembered the festivities back home: “It would be a huge celebration, with family and friends coming at all hours. In Malaysia (where Erum and her husband met), the atmosphere would be more lively as well,” but could be subdued this year due to the virus.   

Abdul and baby Layth. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

For others, the Covid-19 outbreak had been a powerful source of disruption. Rashedur Rahman, who recently relocated to Hong Kong from Bangladesh, had plans to bring his wife and child to the city in May. With travel and border controls still in place, Rahman is unsure when he’ll be able to reunite with his family.

But Ramadan was passed with friends. “Even with mosques closed and the virus, I’ve been invited to take iftar with different people every evening. [The act of] creating bonds happens much of the time over food.”

Celebrating Eid al-Fitr at Zunaira and Abdul’s home in Po Lam. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

At Lamma Island one evening, when the Hong Kong air was becoming stickier and heavier with humidity, Rahman and a group of Bangladeshi friends met for social-distancing iftar.

They shared an extensive spread of tandoori chicken, extra-spicy lamb curry and mango lassi – with six seated at one table and three at another – 1.5 metres apart. It was followed by prayers and a night hike to walk off the meal.

Rashedur Rahman and a group of Bangladeshi friends break fast on Lamma Island. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

Back in Kowloon, Muhammad Mohamed Osman, who came to Hong Kong from Somaliland around eight years ago, had spent the better part of his day prepping a Somalian feast. At the day’s sunset, Osman called his friends over to Africa Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. “We’d normally be at Kowloon Mosque in a regular year. Tonight is a special occasion, otherwise we wouldn’t have this much food!” Osman served injera flatbread, suqaar beef and deep-fried Somali sambusa, while others set out multi-colored prayer rugs and snacked on dates.

As Ramadan came to a close on May 24, the final day of Eid al-Fitr, the festival of the breaking of the fast, coincided with the reignition of mass protest in Hong Kong.

Abdifaki Mohamud and Muhammed Mohamed Osman at Africa Centre to break fast together. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

Against the backdrop of political uncertainty, many conversations this Ramadan actually gravitated towards gratitude.

“In Hong Kong, we can pray in peace anywhere and nobody will disturb us. We’re free to worship as we wish,” noted Rahman. The sentiment was one of recognition for Hong Kong’s (relative) tolerance and accommodation of religious diversity.

“I’m glad we don’t need to have debates here around wearing the burqa or hijab. People accept it as a part of you – even if they may not understand the motivation,” said Erum.

Celebrating Ramadan at Zunaira and Abdul’s home in Po Lam. Photo: Yvonne Lau.

“I have found Hong Kong to be one of the nicest places as a Muslim to live in,” Khan concluded. “[They judge you less] on face value and more on what you actually have to offer society.”

Hong Kong has immense challenges ahead. And it has a way to progress in truly uplifting and equalising the playing field for all groups. But seemingly, its embrace of the Muslim community will remain a bright spot for the city. 

Yvonne Lau

Yvonne Lau writes about culture, society and art across Asia. She is documenting life in China-Russia border towns, and covers Asian financial markets during the day.