Before his journey to the Deoli Concentration Camp, Andy Hsieh was a student at a boarding school in Shillong, a city that used to be the capital of Assam and is now the capital of the state of Meghalaya. He was taken at the height of the 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict.
It was my first winter in Toronto, and I felt a bit bulky in my multi-layered clothing and snow boots as I loafed about Market Village. I came to know that Market Village was the hangout place and unofficial headquarters for a lot of Chinese-Indians and ex-internees. My own uncle can often be found there on Saturday mornings with his old camp buddies.
As I waited, I went through my checklist. I had my interview questions prepared in advance (I later learned that the best stories come not from prompting but simply from patiently waiting). I had a decent recorder on my phone. I had my notebook. I just needed to find my interviewee.
Andy Hsieh was the first of my Canadian interviewees. I first met and interviewed him on an early January morning in 2012 at Market Village over a cup of coffee. Before we began our interview, there was so much that I did not know about the camp. I was a sponge. For years, I had asked my father questions about the camp, but he couldn’t remember a lot of things; he had only been six years old when he was taken. I wanted to know every detail about the camp, and finally, I had met Andy Hsieh.
On November 19th, 1962, Andy was eating breakfast when the school principal approached him. He was instructed to go to the principal’s office. As Andy and the school’s other Chinese students were led to the principal’s office, two to three policemen came into view. His two younger brothers were also there. The police informed the students that they intended to “protect” the students and take them to a safe place as the war between China and India heightened. The students were told to collect their belongings and take their books with them in case they needed to study; the police and principal could not say how long the students would be gone.
Andy and his brothers and fellow classmates were first taken to the local jail in Siliguri. The weather was hot and the mosquitoes were the largest that Andy had ever seen. It was impossible to sleep at night as the mosquitoes swarmed around him and his brothers. He stayed up most of the night trying to chase away the mosquitoes from his younger brothers so that they could sleep, but there were so many.
After a few days in the Siliguri jail, authorities began transporting the imprisoned Chinese-Indians to “a safe place.” The train departed from upper Assam and proceeded with boarding other Chinese-Indian passengers and other pro-China suspects. The journey took about seven days. On the train, Andy and his siblings were separated from his parents, and were not reunited until they reached their destination. When the train reached and the passengers exited the train, the passengers found themselves surrounded by vast, dry and empty land all around them. They were in the middle of the desert in Rajasthan.
As the weary passengers filed out of the train, all passengers had to undergo the registration process. During registration, the roll was taken to note the names of the internees. Authorities also confiscated items such as money, jewelry, knives and cameras. They reassured the internees that their belongings would be recorded and later returned.
On the second day, food was finally distributed. Up until the first meal, the internees had only had muddy tap water and stale bread to eat. However, when Andy and the internees began eating, they realized that their meal was not fully cooked. The authorities probably did not know how to cook food for such large masses of people. Additionally, the weather was so hot, and so the authorities used cold water on our food. Many people found themselves sick from eating.
Soon after registration, internees were assigned to live in barracks. Andy lived in number forty-three with his two younger brothers, younger sister and two parents. Each barrack had four to five rooms, and barrack was about 25 by 40 feet. Each room was supposed to house one family, so on average, that meant over twenty people were living in each barrack. There were only two cots in most rooms. Some had mattresses, but most people had to sleep on jute. Many people found that the cots and mattresses were infested with bugs. Because the weather in Rajasthan was so hot, young people chose to move their cots outside on the veranda to sleep at night. However, mosquitoes were a common pest to many people, and yet the camp never provided mosquito nets to protect internees from mosquito bites.
There were only one or two doctors and one or two nurses available to aid injured or ailing internees. Though the doctor on duty showed some knowledge about medicine, it is unknown as to how well-trained or certified he was for the job. If internees were sick, they were given over-the-counter medicine. The medicine and medical supplies were provided by the Indian government. However, many of the Chinese-Indians in the camp believed in using baby urine to cure their ailments. The urine of an infant was believed by many Chinese to have curative properties, and therefore, urine was a precious commodity.
Initially, camp authorities cooked the meals for the internees. Because the meals were so poorly cooked, the internees asked camp authorities to allow the internees to cook their own meals. Many Chinese-Indians were tired of the curry rations that they were given, especially as most of them were accustomed to Chinese diet. The camp authorities entertained the internees’ requests, and after the first ship to China was sent, authorities allowed the internees to cook their own meals. Rations were divided among the families. Each day, the families were usually given rice and vegetables as well as a different type of meat each day. Mutton, fish and pork were served usually once a week. Eggs were also rationed. Milk was scarce though. The International Red Cross later supplied milk for infants.
The International Red Cross came during the winter before the first ship to China was sent. Before the Red Cross’s visit, the Indian authorities cleaned the camp to give it a cleaner appearance. Upon their visit, the Red Cross left critical responses for the camp authorities. The Red Cross noted that hygiene was substandard, especially in terms of the food. However, whatever criticism the Red Cross left for the camp authorities, little was enforced to improve the conditions of the camp.
Andy remembers that the Chinese government once sent care packages to the Red Cross to distribute to the camp internees. The Indian Red Cross received the care packages and distributed them within the camp. Each package contained toiletries, such as toothbrushes. Other preserved food, such as canned fish, was in the packages as well. In addition to the care packages, the Chinese government also donated soccer balls, volley ball equipment and other such games to keep the youth preoccupied and distracted. However, the government did not send books. Andy presumes that the Indian government did not want the children to read and perhaps educate themselves about the events of the war.
Roll call was taken every morning. It was initially taken by the camp authorities, but eventually, each wing was trusted to select its own representative to take the roll call. Within each wing, the families were expected to report to the wing representative whether or not their family members were all present.
I ask Andy if there were any runaways. He laughs, “No. There was nowhere to run.” Running away would have been futile; many internees had Chinese physical features and would have been easily picked out and persecuted by the surrounding Indian population. Additionally, the camp was located in a desert. Running away was out of the question.
Outside of the camp, there was a canteen where internees could buy extra supplies and food. Internees needed permission to visit the canteen. In order to buy supplies, internees were given a coupon each month to each family. Each coupon was worth five rupees. Because money was so limited and because families subsequently could not afford more expensive items such as shoes, some individuals set up a shoe repair shop for the camp internees. Like many Chinese-Indians, these individuals previously owned shoe shops and therefore had the skills to repair shoes.
While in the camp, children received very limited education. Though the Red Cross noted and criticized the camp for not having proper facilities or teachers, the Red Cross never enforced any requirements or standards of education. Instead, a few older students got together and volunteered to teach reading and math classes to the younger children. Andy and the other volunteer teachers used their personal schoolbooks to teach their students. Andy taught math subjects, namely Geometry and Algebra.
As I write down my notes about education, Andy’s eyes light up. “You know, Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Home Minister of India, once visited the camp.” Interested, I listen. “I approached Shastri and explained to Shastri that we had concerns about his education. I told him that I was just a student, and so close to graduating from high school. I asked him if he could arrange for the young people to study at a local school. Even if we had to go early in the morning and come late at night, that would be better than nothing. I also suggested that he simply release the young people and let them return to their studies.”
In response, Shastri merely said he would consider Hsieh’s request to attend school. He never replied to the request.
Without educational facilities or certified teachers, the camp’s education system continued to run on volunteers. The camp was willing to pay twenty rupees per month to volunteer teachers. Classes were divided into the senior level, middle level and lower level. Altogether, there were about 60 students. There were only English and math classes. Chinese classes were never taught, and according to Andy, this was because the Chinese-Indians worried that they would be forbidden from teaching Chinese classes anyway.
Andy continued to teach math until he left the camp. The camp first began releasing groups of people at the end of 1964, but Andy’s family was not released until the late summer of 1966. By then, the camp’s population had dwindled down to 150 people. Individuals and families had been kept behind in the camp for various reasons. In Andy’s case, his family had been kept behind because the family had declared that they wanted to return to Shillong. Families that agreed to simply return to Kolkata were usually released earlier.
Though Andy’s family had rest their hopes in returning to Shillong, it seemed that Shillong could no longer be a home to them. When the family returned to Shillong, they found that their restaurant had been taken over my locals, and the locals refused to return the property. Upon seeing the family’s return, the locals also threatened Andy’s family against opening up a competing business.
In addition to their stolen property, Andy’s family was subject to restrictions, namely the extension fee. The extension fee was a fee imposed on ex-internees, and it was intended to restrict their movement. Those subject to the fee were only allowed to travel seven to eight kilometers within their city of resident. If an individual needed to leave the city for any given reason, he or she had to apply for a permit and have it approved. While it was difficult to acquire a permit, the few who did get one were only able to leave the city for a few hours. This fee was not only intended to restrict movement, but it was a means of restricting ex-internees from efficiently conducting business.
Greeted and surrounded by so many enemies, the family had to find work elsewhere. After ten months of unemployment, Andy’s father managed to find work as a food contractor. However, in 1970, Andy’s father died. He was only fifty years old, but the concentration camp and the stress of surviving after the camp had worn away his health.
That same year, Andy’s brother migrated to Canada. He later sponsored his other brother and sister to join him. Finally in October of 1973, Andy migrated to Canada, leaving India behind him.
Andy currently has two children. His son was born in India and his daughter was born in Toronto. He only went back to India once in 1998 to show the country to his children. After 1962, it was difficult for Andy to think of India as a home. Once he moved to Toronto, Canada became his new home.