The Last Of Mumbai’s Vanishing Chinese Community

The Last Of Mumbai’s Vanishing Chinese Community
Rashi Arora

Yahan pe Chinese log kahan rehte hain (Where do Chinese people live here)?” I ask an old, shabbily-dressed man sitting on his haunches beside a tea stall, sipping on chai in the bustling by-lanes of Mumbai’s Kamathipura. “Chini log rehta tha pehle, ab sab chala gaya (They used to, now they have all gone away),” he says as he slurps the last of his tea. As he gets up and starts walking away, looking at his disappearing figure into a sea of sex workers, clients, shoppers and even families, it’s hard to imagine that the now-seedy and chaotic Sukhla Ji lane in Kamathipura was once a thriving old Chinatown.

“It was full of Chinese grocery shops, restaurants, Chinese schools, medicine stores and barber shops... It was lovely,” reminisces Albert Tham, a 67-year-old man of Mumbai’s Indian Chinese community. After a failed attempt at looking for the community in Sukhla Ji lane, I met him at perhaps the only Chinese Temple in Mumbai, located in the quiet Nawab Tank lane on Dockyard Road. The three-storeyed Seeyup Koon building or the Kwan Kung Temple is small in stature but the inner ambience is as captivating as the strong scent of incense that permeates every corner of it. On the top floor, besides the altar, sits Albert, the caretaker of the temple, prepping for the Chinese New Year (15th February 2018) which was then just two days away. The Chinese temple, too, has stamps of Goddess Laxmi’s feet on the stairway and on the entrance of the temple, just as Indian temples do.

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Albert is the former owner of a Chinese restaurant and a carpentry workshop. He speaks Bombaiya Hindi as fluently as he speaks Cantonese and English. Having been born and brought up in Mumbai, he relates more to being an Indian than Chinese. “I have always had more Indian friends than Chinese friends,” he says excitedly. When asked if he would like to go to China now that it has advanced, he vigorously shakes his head. “India is a free country, unlike communist China. Who would want to live under a dictator? Everyone deserves to live freely. Free to worship who they want, free to buy what they want, free to speak what they want. I have been to China many times but I still like the life here. Bombay is the best and I am proud to be its citizen,” he exclaims.

Albert’s grandfather arrived in India in the late 18th century as a rich merchant and slowly earned goodwill with the British. His son, Albert’s father, was flown in to learn English. Albert’s highly-educated mother, too, fled to India during the Chinese Civil War when Mao Zedong started prosecuting intellectuals. The youngest of the 7 siblings, Albert defines himself as the rebellious Chinese kid studying in a convent school. “Fellow students would call me names like Chinki and Makad but I never took it to heart. In fact, I played pranks to get back at them,” he says as he grins mischievously.

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Like Albert’s grandfather, many Chinese traders, dentists, expert shoemakers and businessmen arrived in Bombay from Canton in South China. Most of them were brought in by the British to work for the East India Company in Kolkata and Mumbai. While Mazgaon’s Chinatown nowhere rivalled the thriving one of Kolkata, it still had its own sweet charm. However, once the Sino-Indian war broke out in 1962, many Indian Chinese were forced to flee back to China, a country they never really called home.

“The war wasn’t our mistake. Yet we had to face the brunt of it, just because of our ethnicity. There were no jobs, no houses, nothing for us. The entire Indian-Chinese community lived in fear of backlash from our fellow Indian brothers. Our properties were looted and broken into and many faced harassment in the internment camps, including my own brother. We had a flourishing business here, so we decided to stay back, but all those who had working jobs in addition to the youngest generation went back to China or flew to the West in search of a better life,” Albert explains.

Albert Tham

In the following years, Mumbai’s Chinese population has gradually decreased to an estimated 15,000 in the early 1960s, after which the Sino-Indo war in 1962 marked the mass exodus of the Chinese from Mumbai and Kolkata. As of 2009, there were an estimated 400 ethnic Chinese families and 3,500 Chinese residing in Mumbai. Mumbai’s Chinatown has now disappeared with the families scattering all over the city and the suburbs.

I found 52-year-old Betty Yah keenly watching a very irritating yet popular Indian Hindi soap opera when I met her at her beauty parlour. “The only difference is our looks, but we are very much Indian,” she says. She grew up in Kolkata’s Chinatown and moved to Mumbai in search of a job as a beautician. She found one in a Chinese parlour on JJS Road in Chira Bazaar and married the owner.

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“That’s my late husband,” she says pointing to a photo of an Indian-Chinese man adorned with a garland, in true Indian fashion. Now the proud owner of the Yah salon, she lives a simple life with her 17-year-old daughter Yui Laan, who she humorously complains cannot speak Cantonese.

While talking about the difference between the Chinatown of Mumbai and Kolkata, Betty suddenly goes quiet, perhaps reminiscing about her days as a little girl growing up in the hustling Tiretta Bazaar. “Everyone is so busy in Mumbai. The Indian-Chinese community hardly meets. I will meet everyone on Chinese New Year now,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.

Betty Yah in her beauty parlour.
Betty Yah in her beauty parlour.

The Indian Chinese Community of Mumbai has lived here for generations and many identify themselves as more Indian than Chinese. When asked about food habits, both Albert and Betty say that their regular diet includes dal chawal and roti. They thoroughly enjoy ‘Chindian’ food as well.

This intermingling of cultures is also noticeable in what could be called the last fragments of Mumbai’s China Town on the Nawab Tank Lane, where 2-3 Chinese families still dwell. In fact, the community’s oldest member, Liao Hung Tsing lives right across the street from the temple. Having moved to Bombay from Kolkata as a 20-year-old, he has been living in Mazgaon for the last 50 years.

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In another interview, Liao talks about his life in Bombay. He talks about how in 1990, he went to look for his brother in China. There, he found out that his brother was living in much worse conditions than he was. His nephew asked him to come and stay in China, but Liao proudly muttered, “No, India is my hometown. I was born there. I will go back there.”

And indeed, two days later, I find Mr Liao in the Kwan Kung Temple on the occasion of the Chinese New Year Eve. He folds his hand in front of the figure of Kwan Kung, an ancient Chinese warrior General who is believed by the pious Chinese to be a sort of demi-God with the ability to grant wishes. He holds up a bunch of incense sticks and wishes me a ‘Kung Hai Faat’ (Happy New Year), and shakes my hand.

Having spent many new year eves in this temple, he feels that even though the Chinese community may have shrunk, their spirit remains intact. “Every new year’s eve I wish for the happiness of not just my Chinese brothers, but also Indian brothers,” Liao says sweetly.

Liao Hung Tsing
Liao Hung Tsing

On the Chinese New year, the temple is beautifully lit up and flocks of Indian Chinese families come through, exchanging greetings and making small talk in a combination of Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Upon entering the temple, they ring the huge Yin Yang gong as an announcement of their arrival and then proceed to bow down in front of their demi-God, seeking his blessings for the year to come. The strong yet sweet aroma of the incense stick accompanies the celebratory mood that fills the air as the Indian-Chinese community’s old and the young gather, perhaps only for this one night, clicking pictures and wishing each other the best. Everyone seems to know each other. While some exchange pleasantries over cakes, fruits and soft drinks, others light up candles for a brighter future. Some also burn strips of a pink paper in a copper barrel to do away with bad luck.

A 25-year-old Chinese Exchange student from IIT Bombay, Qiu who had been feeling homesick all day feels better now that she’s here. “It is such a warm celebration. I miss home a little less,” she says enigmatically.

A woman from the Indian Chinese Community performs rituals in the temple while an Indian Sikh too prays to the demi-God. Photo by: Rashi Arora

A few Indian friends and devotees also gather on the streets as the drum starts beating and the Chinese lion, a symbol of wealth, comes out dancing. Here, I witnessed a peculiar yet fun tradition where the lion performs the Cai Ching or “picking the lettuce”, an important phrase as Cai is Chinese for both, ‘lettuce’ and ‘fortune’. During the Cai Ching, the dancer operating the lion’s head is lifted up to give an impression that it is eating the lettuce that is being suspended from a balcony. Once the hanging lettuce is caught, the dancer shreds it and throws the pieces over the crowd so as to shower everybody with ‘good fortune’. The occasion was also graced by Zheng Xiyuan, the Consul-General of the People’s Republic Of China in Mumbai. Visiting with his wife, he meets the people of the community with warmth. “I wish peace and harmony to all the Indian Chinese people,” he stated, making his New Year wish.

The Chinese Lion Dance
The Chinese Lion DanceRashi Arora

This peaceful and calm community that is slowly shrinking and vanishing, also fails to find any acknowledgement, even in history textbooks. Any dwindling community’s future is decided by its future generations. While many of their youth seem to be going away, a few want to progress without letting go of their roots.

College student Liao Kimlan feels that visiting the temple every new year’s eve is an important step for understanding her cultural heritage. “I absolutely love meeting with other community members. I get to learn so much from them. It is like meeting extended family,” she says. 25-year-old Vincent has little idea about his culture but is making an effort to learn his language, just like 17-year-old Yui Laan who wishes to understand her culture better by visiting China but settling in India.

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India has always shared an unusual love-hate relationship with China. However, the Indian Chinese community who are ethnically Chinese, but citizens of India, fail to find representation in either of the countries. Their priority is not to seek acceptance but celebrate whatever little is left of this unique hybrid, born out of interesting historical events and the seamless intermingling of cultures. But until the differences are resolved or continue to be blissfully ignored, here’s wishing everyone a Kung Hai Faat!

All photographs by Rashi Arora.

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