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An Indian Empire On The China Coast (Int'l Edition)

International -- Cover Story


Visit Hari Harilela's house in Hong Kong, and you'll see instantly just how big some Indian emigres have made it. His place looks like a Mogul palace, replete with intricate Indian mosaics on the outer walls and three lavish dining rooms. There are 40 bedrooms, an auditorium, a Hindu temple, and a swimming pool. Harilela, 72, his five brothers, one sister, and their families occupy the complex. Oh, there's also a 30-room annex for the younger generation mf Harilelas.

The Harilelas are by far Hong Kong's most prominent Indian family. They made their fortune not on India's doorstep, but on China's. One of the earliest Sindhis to settle in the region, Harilela's father, Naroomal Mirchandani, arrived in Guangzhou in 1922 to trade such goods as jade and amber. When the young man heard his mother was ill, he raced back to India--but too late: The woman had died, and his family had failed to await his return before cremating her body. Irate, the son walked away for good and created a new last name combining the first four letters of each of his parents' surnames.

BOOMING TRADE. He and his own family, including Hari, the second child, soon found themselves in Hong Kong facing adversities: depression, Japanese occupation, and a world war. At one point, the young Harilela brothers sold newspapers on the streets to scrape by.

But the Harilelas seized opportunity the moment it knocked. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the destitute family put its sewing machine up for sale--and found an eager buyer among the Japanese soldiers. The Harilelas then began a booming trade in sewing machines and other goods sought by the Japanese. After the war, the British commissioned them to manufacture their army uniforms, which led to a thriving business in custom tailoring.

It was Hari, now chairman of the company, who decided in the 1950s to branch out into real estate. The Harilela Group, currently a multimillion-dollar private empire, boasts hotels, shops, and restaurants throughout Asia, including the Holiday Inn Golden Mile in Kowloon, a prolific cash cow.

Today, the Harilelas are looking to India for growth. The group already makes interceptor boards for computers at Noida, an export-processing zone near New Delhi. Harilela says profits are "so-so" because his group entered the market shortly before the computer industry went into recession. "Now, I'm going into the paging business because telecommunications in India is extremely weak." He has targeted 10 cities throughout the country to build a multilanguage paging service with an initial investment of $6.5 million. He's also a director of the IndusInd Bank, capitalized at $32 million. "It has been operating for a year now with very good first results," he says.

"FAST PACE." When asked to compare the business climates of India and China, Harilela cites a recent study that says "there's a 40% risk in India, and a 45% risk in China." But he adds: "China has a very fast pace, while in India things move slowly, step by step."

He should know. He got government approval for his paging business in July, 1992, but it's only starting up this October. "I'm proud to be Indian," he says in his office, where Hindu music plays softly in the background and Indian paintings and sculptures are on display. "But I wouldn't want to live there." Why should he? He's got his own sumptuous Indian palace in modern Hong Kong.By Joyce Barnathan in Hong Kong

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