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The love and longing of the Chinese-Indians

As relations between India and China turn tense after the Galwan Valley stand-off, and the coronavirus pandemic fuels an anti-China sentiment, the Chinese-Indian community is caught in the cross fire

Meiyang Chang’s mother, Gaichen Chang, and father, Khai Chin Chang in the 1970s;
Meiyang Chang’s mother, Gaichen Chang, and father, Khai Chin Chang in the 1970s; (Photo courtesy: Meiyang Chang)

On 17 March, 41-year-old musician Francis Yee Lepcha was on a train back to Kolkata from an abruptly shortened trip to Puri. The novel coronavirus was making its presence felt across the country and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was about to announce a stringent nationwide lockdown. While Lepcha was still in Puri with his family, tourists at the hotel raised objections when he was checking in; on the streets, they were teased and called “coronavirus".

Francis is an Indian of Chinese descent—his maternal and paternal grandfathers came to India in the 1930s, fleeing the Japanese invasion like many others. They worked as carpenters in Darjeeling and married women from the local Lepcha tribe. Eventually, his parents moved to Kolkata, where he was born and raised.

The musician spent his childhood in the 1980s watching Mickey Mouse and Chitrahaar on Doordarshan, fawning over Madonna and bobbing his head to Cliff Richards’ Dancing Shoes, which he enjoyed at the age of 6, in large part because it had a reference to the nursery rhyme Jack And Jill. He speaks fluent Bengali, “a rough and raw Hindi" and, as he puts it, was “pretty much raised by the Chatterjee family that lived across the road".

As the train rattled along, others in the AC-sleeper began to voice their suspicion of the “Chinese man", assuming he had no idea what they were saying. Francis was quick to intervene. “I explained in fluent Bengali that I am from Kolkata, I have never been to China and I would not infect them," he says. “You should have seen their faces."

Back in Kolkata, Francis got a T-shirt printed. He lives right above the Central Metro station and thought it would serve as both a jovial disclaimer and an effective tool against racism. “I’m not the coronavirus. I was born in Kolkata and I’ve never even been to China," reads the neat Bengali lettering on Francis’s crisp white tee.

Across the country, on 15 June, actor and singer Meiyang Chang was out for dinner at a friend’s home in Mumbai, a city he has called home for the last 13 years. They were watching the news on TV, and the broadcast was particularly alarming. Twenty Indian soldiers had been killed by the Chinese army in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a border which has been contested for decades between the two nuclear powers.

“In an interview I did with Down To Earth after the clashes, my first response was anger: ‘Why do I have to prove my patriotism? Why do I have to say I love India and hate China? I don’t even know that country. I understand my heritage through that lens but that’s it. India is the only home I have ever known," he says. But anger, in his experience, serves no purpose. “Instead, I spoke of the beauty of cross-culturism—that’s something that exists all across India, it astonishes me that people think we don’t belong just because of the way we look."

Meiyang Chang
Meiyang Chang

Chang, too, is of Chinese descent. He was born in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, and did his schooling in Uttarakhand. His father is a dentist; Chang has a degree in dentistry from Bengaluru as well. Though he hasn’t been able to trace his ancestry in great detail, he does know that his ancestors were from Hubei province, which has been dominating news cycles since January. Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus was first reported, is the capital of this province.

The 37-year-old is perhaps the only person from the Chinese-Indian community to have gained fame in the mainstream entertainment industry. He came fifth in the third season of the TV show Indian Idol in 2007, won the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhla Jaa in 2011, hosted various TV programmes and sporting events such as cricket’s Indian Premier League and has acted in four big- banner Hindi films: Badmaash Company, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Sultan and Bharat.

But over the last few months, he too has felt the heat of covid-19 and now, the India-China face-off. He has been heckled online and on the street, with people passing racist remarks owing to the pandemic. This was followed by an unsaid pressure, or an insatiable “patriotism-lust" as he calls it, after the stand-off on the LAC. “A skirmish and horror stories from the border coming forth smack in the middle of a medical, economic, and to some extent humanitarian crisis, I didn’t know what to think," he says.

As third-generation Chinese-Indians, Chang and Francis appear to have a lot in common—they were both born in India and trace their ancestry to China, they have both deviated from the Chinese tradition of continuing the family occupation, they have both grown up celebrating a mix of Diwali, Eid, Christmas and Chinese New Year, and they both belong to what Francis quite accurately terms a “microbial minority" in this country.

The two also epitomize the predicament Chinese-Indians find themselves in, at a time when the pandemic has triggered an anti-China wave around the world, with American President Donald Trump repeatedly describing the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus". In India, the situation has been compounded by the border stand-off with China. With anger running high, the government banned 59 Chinese apps, ministers called for the boycott of Chinese food and restaurants (run largely by Indians), effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping were burnt, and covid-19 and conflict were perilously conflated.

The fallout of this hostility has been borne by citizens like Chang and Francis, as well as North-Eastern Indians, who were spat at on the street or evicted from their homes. Delhi-based journalist Liu Chuen Chen, 27, of Chinese descent, was confronted with racist slurs at the local supermarket. “My mother would usually call me to tell me to wear a mask to protect me from the virus, but after the border conflict she asked me to wear it so I could hide my face," she says.

As India-China relations become tense, memories of the 1962 Sino-Indian war have come to the fore—a trauma that continues to permeate through generations. In such times, then, what does it mean to be an Indian of Chinese descent?

Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata’s Tangra area in February 2018
Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata’s Tangra area in February 2018 (Photo: Hindustan Times)

The Chinese are coming

The Chinese-Indian community in India traces its roots to the arrival of a trader named Tong Atchew aka Yang Dazhao, who landed in India on a ship in 1778. Legend has it that Atchew was either told by then British governor general Warren Hastings to ride a horse between sunrise and sunset—and the land he traversed would be his—or (as the more official version states) that he gifted his British host a pack of tea and was, therefore, granted a plot of land.

Atchew’s land, along the Hooghly river, is now known as Atchipur. A memorial has been constructed there in his honour; it’s a pilgrimage site for Chinese-Indians. Thousands of Chinese immigrants followed in Atchew’s wake—their port of entry was Kolkata, and over the years, various groups practising different professions found their way to the then capital of colonial India.

“The 1901 census recorded 1,640 Chinese in Calcutta. The number of Chinese immigrants continued to grow in the first four decades of the 20th century, especially due to civil wars and the Japanese invasion of China," writes Debarchana Biswas in her paper, The Chinese Community Of Kolkata: A Case Study On Social Geography, published in the IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science in August 2017.

Dana Roy’s grandparents, too, came to India around the time of the Japanese invasion. The 36-year-old, who teaches dramatics at a school in Kolkata, traced her mother’s Chinese ancestry while working on a theatre project titled Exile. “Chinese families were polygamous, so my grandfather married thrice; one of his wives died in China itself, and the second fled with four of their children from the Japanese invasion during World War II," she explains. Their home was the only two-storeyed structure in the small village in Canton, which the Japanese turned into their headquarters.

Roy’s grandfather was already in the import and export business in India by then, with a wife in India of Chinese descent who spoke both Hindi and Cantonese. His profession made it easier for him to get his family across by ship. “One of my uncles has vertigo and was scared of loud noises, which I was told (in passing) was because they were chased by Japanese fighter planes while fleeing the village," she says.

Though they have long been seen as a homogenous group, the Chinese who came to India were actually from different communities. The largest of these were the Hakkas, who took up leather tanning and, eventually, shoe-making. They found a home in Kolkata’s Tangra area—one of two Chinatowns in the city, the other being Tiretta Bazaar. The community did not specialize in one skill, like some other groups, but since the Hindu caste system relegated work dealing with leather to Dalit communities and the Hakkas had no such hierarchical constraints, they were able to run tanneries successfully in Kolkata.

The Hubei community, to which Chang belongs, took to dentistry and paper-flower-making. “We made all the flowers in the old Hindi movies with Raj Kapoor, Sunil Dutt—when an actor played a piano and flowers would hang in the mehfil, those were all made by the women in our families," says Mau Chi Wei, 65, president of the Hubei Community Club in Kolkata.

The Cantonese were largely carpenters—some were employed by shipyards and railways, and to construct wooden tea containers. In 1838, the British brought in skilled and unskilled Chinese labourers, many of them Cantonese artisans and tea growers, to work on tea plantations in Assam.

With the communist party led by Mao Tse-tung coming to power in 1949, it became clear that return to China was out of the question. So, the women began to join their families in India—soon, hair salons, restaurants and dry-cleaning stores dotted Chinese settlements in the eastern states.

Temples were built, Chinese schools came up in Kolkata’s Tangra and Tiretta Bazaar and Assam’s Tinsukia. So did gambling parlours, Chinese newspapers, community centres and congregations to celebrate the Chinese new year, the moon festival, as well as weddings and funerals in accordance with Chinese rituals.

“From the late 18th century, the time they started settling in Kolkata, until the early 1960s, the Chinese immigrants successfully preserved their ‘Chinese identity’ through endogamy, especially within the same dialect group, cultural practices, distinctive educational system and confined dwelling practices," writes Zhang Xing in his essay Who Is A Chinese Indian? Search For The Cultural Identity Of The Chinese-Indians In Kolkata, Sihui And Toronto.

This era of community and celebration ended abruptly with the India-China conflict of 1962. From a population estimated at 50,000 before the war, the Chinese-Indian population has dwindled to approximately 5,000. Many of them have since emigrated.

Dana Roy epitomizes the intermingling of Chinese and Indian cultures.
Dana Roy epitomizes the intermingling of Chinese and Indian cultures. (Photo courtesy: Dana Roy)

Fusing cultures

“Identity is more complex than ‘am I Chinese or Bengali?’," says Roy. “You only really feel the need to claim or assert identity when you feel like it’s being taken away. When we are asked about identity, particularly during these times, we wonder, ‘would any other Indian passport holder be asked this?’"

Roy is a symbol of the inevitable intermingling of Chinese immigrants with locals. Her mother, of Chinese descent, is married to a Bengali, and the family lives in south Kolkata, away from Tangra and Tiretta Bazaar. Roy visits these areas mostly to buy Chinese sausages or have a Chinese breakfast with a friend once in a while.

The Chinese-Indian population today confronts the dual realities of fading Chinese traditions and the amplified conflict between nationality and heritage. For instance, the Chinese New Year celebrations, once elaborate affairs in Kolkata’s Chinatowns, have largely gone private. Often, Chang just invites friends home. Roy celebrates over a grand feast with relatives or just eats oranges to mark the occasion “if everyone is busy".

As younger generations grow up learning Hindi and English, and not Cantonese or Mandarin, and move away from traditional Chinese religious customs such as those of Confucianism, the Chinese aspect of their identity is slipping further away. Tangra, too, which previously served as a shorthand for that identity, has now given way to a mixed culture. And environmental concerns led to the closure of tanneries in 1996.

Still some, like Francis, are doing what they can to preserve their culture. His friends and he perform the dragon dance every Chinese New Year in Kolkata. “We take the costume, the drums and perform over four days in Old Chinatown, new Chinatown and other parts of Kolkata where the community is scattered," he says. They hand out the red envelopes of money that he used to enjoy receiving as a child.

But the larger question of belonging and acceptance continues to loom. Chang says his association with the entertainment industry and “proficiency with Hindi and Urdu"—he has grown up on Bollywood and his father loves Mehdi Hasan ghazals—has meant that people have always embraced him as “Indian". His fanbase transcends age and ethnic groups—the Chinese community supported him when he was part of Indian Idol, his younger fans love him because he “reminds them of K-pop stars or anime characters". Yet expressing opinions on social media, especially of late, has been toxic, sometimes overwhelming.

“With issues like CAA (the citizenship amendment law), I try to make indirect references to make my opinions known, because this is important," he says. After the Galwan Valley stand-off, an anonymous account, claiming to be that of an army captain, commented on one of his YouTube videos, asking him to pledge allegiance to the nation and publicly express support for Indian soldiers. “I made light of it and told him, playing on his pseudonym, ‘aap dushman se ladne mein dhyaan dein, na ki apne deshwaasiyon se (please focus on fighting the enemy, not your fellow countrymen).’"

Journalist Liu Chuen Chen says her outspokenness, both about her identity and Indian politics, is an anomaly within the community and has often led to targeted harassment online and offline. “Once, while taking an Air India flight, the officials insisted I show them my passport instead of my voter ID because they didn’t believe I was from India," she says. “I didn’t even have a passport."

Francis Yee Lepcha (left) and friends during Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata
Francis Yee Lepcha (left) and friends during Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata (Photo courtesy: Francis Yee Lepcha)

Political engagement among the older generation is somewhat different—they still follow Chinese politics, but from a distance. “I did get a sense, during my research, of the division within the community between those with nationalist and communist sympathies," says journalist Dilip D’Souza, who has co-written The Deoliwallahs, which records the history of the 1962 India-China war, along with Joy Ma’s documentation of oral narratives of those interned during that time.

“But that’s it. They are looking at that conflict between Taiwan and the PRC (People’s Republic of China) like I might—they may have relatives there but it’s not like they want to become Taiwanese citizens or pledge allegiance to the PRC."

Much of this engagement is out of sight. A common story among the community is that they like to keep their heads down and not attract attention. In large part, this is a result of the internment of the Chinese community, and those associated with them, in 1962.

A Fear That Lingers

After the 1962 war, when the Chinese army moved into NEFA on the eastern front and Aksai Chin on the western front, the atmosphere in India was one of rage and suspicion. Indians were infuriated with then prime ministerJawaharlal Nehru’s assurances and felt betrayed by China. Once again, the brunt of this hostility was borne by the Chinese community in India.

As author Kwai-Yun Li wrote in her thesis, Deoli Camp: An Oral History Of Chinese Indians from 1962 To 1966, “Whipped up by the national furore, mainstream Indians ostracized and sometimes brutalized Chinese residents and attacked and destroyed their homes and businesses."

The Indian authorities, Li adds, “closed Chinese language schools and newspapers and Chinese organizations that leaned towards support for Mao Tse-tung. Schools, clubs and newspapers that favoured Chiang Kai-shek (sic) (Taiwan) were allowed to stay open. These schools and clubs added portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Indian flags beside Sun Yet-sen (sic) and 12-pointed star Chinese Nationalist flags."

These circumstances, along with the passage of the Defence of India Act in 1962, giving authorities the power to arrest “people of hostile origin", and amendments to The Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, became a “legal fig leaf" for the detention of Chinese-Indians at the Deoli internment camp in Rajasthan, says D’Souza.

Close to 3,000 Chinese nationals, or Indian nationals with relatives of Chinese descent, were rounded up on suspicion of being spies and incarcerated for up to five years.

Meiyang Chang with his grandmother La Show Shieh; and photograph of his parents' wedding in Dhanbad, Jharkhand.
Meiyang Chang with his grandmother La Show Shieh; and photograph of his parents' wedding in Dhanbad, Jharkhand.

“When the Galwan Valley skirmish took place, I wasn’t even thinking of it. My grandmother was the first one to say it: If things go wrong, they might round us up," Chang says. “It took my uncle and me to convince her that nothing of the sort would happen, even though I wonder if we were also thinking the same thing,".

Francis recalls that his mother, in her early teens in 1962, had gone to visit her grandmother in Darjeeling—they were both interned. So was Yin Marsh, who was taken to the internment camp in November 1962 at the age of 13, along with her father, grandmother and eight-year-old brother from Darjeeling’s Chowrasta area.

Like Marsh, many from the community left India for Canada, the US and Australia. But the overwhelming trauma and feeling of betrayal persists to this day, given that there has been no acknowledgement or apology for this chapter of history by successive governments.

Chinese-Indians are still picking up the pieces. A 48-year-old from the community in Assam, who wished to remain anonymous, received a phone call from her 89-year-old paternal aunt after the Galwan Valley incident—worried that they might be interned again. “I laughed it off and tried to make light of it. I told her, we would all go together if it happens again, we will all eat dal-bhaat now," she says.

The amendment of laws all those years ago has also ensured that most Chinese immigrants who came to India, or were born before 1950, were never granted Indian citizenship. Her aunt, for instance, has now lived in the country for 87 years. “She still has to go to the foreigners’ registration office every year to renew her residence permit. This is the only home she has ever seen but for all legal purposes she will never belong, she will always remain an outsider," she says.

Such factors have nudged the community in India to make its allegiance to the country of its birth public. After the Galwan Valley stand-off, for instance, Chinese-Indians held a procession in Kolkata, holding up banners that read “We support the Indian Army".

“I wish people would realize the communist party in China (CCP) doesn’t care much for Chinese-Indians, they probably don’t even know we exist. If I want to go full Bollywood, I will go as far as to say, ‘maine iss desh ka namak khaya hai,’" says Francis. “My priorities are simple—I am an Indian citizen, I live by the Indian Constitution and my support will always be with this country."


With tensions between India and China unlikely to ease soon, issues of identity and belonging may often be foregrounded. Chang’s apprehensions, too, pivot around such considerations. “When everyone in the entertainment industry was worried about when we would start working again, why did I have an additional worry that perhaps no one would want to give me work because I wear the perceived face of the enemy?" he asks.

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