(This feature article about a Indian-origin businessman in Hong Kong who left Mumbai in 1968 on borrowed money and earned fame and fortune in Hong Kong through sheer enterprise, was published in DNA in July 2006.)
On the walls of Manohar Chugh’s office in Hong Kong are photographs of him with many world leaders: former Chinese Premiers Li Peng and Zhu Rongji, British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major, former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten and former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa… They mark moments in time in the inspirational life journey of a man who left Mumbai as a 24-year-old, against his parents’ wishes, with just US$100 of borrowed money and a bagful of dreams.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamt of going around the world,” says Chugh, 62. Given the penurious circumstances of his childhood, it was an audacious dream. His father, who had been a flourishing textile trader in Shikarpur in Sindh province, had lost everything in the Partition riots of 1947. The family, including three-year-old Manohar, had arrived penniless in Mumbai, and had been accommodated in refugee camps. The Chughs then moved into a chawl tenement, where they slept six to a room on the floor, dazed by the dramatic subcontinental change that had pushed them from prosperity into abject poverty.
On the strength of merit scholarships, Chugh earned an electronics engineering degree. And although after a succession of job hops, he was earning Rs 600 a month, he began to feel restless: he knew his dreams of going around the world would never be realised on a Rs 600-a-month job. Something drastic had to be done.
In 1968, the 24-year-old Chugh took the first big gamble of his life. “I gave up my job, against my parents’ advice, and came to Hong Kong with no job, no friends – and virtually no money.” The choice of destination wasn’t his to make: Hong Kong was then the only major world city without entry barriers for Indians.
Attempts at landing a job with Chinese electronics firms failed because Chugh could speak no Cantonese. Running desperately low on funds, but too proud to return to India without realising his dream, he went door to door, ready to take up just about any job. “My father used to say: ‘If you don’t succeed in an endeavour, it doesn’t mean you have failed; you’ve failed only when you’ve stopped trying.’ That served as my inspiration,” recalls Chugh.
Finally, he got a small break when an Indian trading firm hired him as goods inspector on a salary of HK$600. Over the next two years, Chugh switched jobs twice, each time for a higher salary, but it was still a struggle. The next break came in 1970: “I was offered a junior partnership in a trading firm, which I accepted.” Over the next 10 months, he travelled around the world, carrying eight suitcases full of samples to book orders. It was hard work, but Chugh was thrilled to be finally doing what he’d always dreamt of.
By 1974, Chugh had earned enough to make his next big move: he bought out his senior partner, and came to own the business. From then on, Nisha Electronics, the company he named after his daughter, has grown into a multi-million dollar trading firm.
Today, Chugh has been around the world many times over, and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Along the way, he’s had several interesting adventures: he was nearly kidnapped in a Venezuelan town, was knife-attacked by a Chinese bandit in Holland, and (unwittingly) had an argument with the King of Bahrain over sea-bathing rights! He is also an elected member of the General Committee of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce – a responsibility that, again, takes him to several parts of the world, including India, to promote trade. He also serves with distinction on the Committee for the Promotion of Racial Harmony, a government advisory body, and works to ensure that Indians and other ethnic minorities in Hong Kong are not racially discriminated against. Yet, all this success rests lightly on him.
Sometimes, the pursuit of a dream can bring several unanticipated rewards. Manohar Chugh set out to see the world, and risked everything he had in order to take his chances in an alien land. And in the process, he built a big business, and earned a reputation as an upstanding member of the Indian community in Hong Kong. For all this, Chugh unreservedly qualifies for a place in the Global Indians Hall of Fame.