Mr. and Mrs. Tang

Mr. and Mrs. Tang are a quiet, elderly couple.  When I first arrived at their home, they looked slightly uncomfortable and hesitant.  I could tell that they were somewhat wary of what I was going to ask of them.  For their sake, I have given them pseudonyms in this narrative.

Ying Sheng Ahpak and his wife, Moses Ahpak, the couple and I sit on the couches.  Mrs. Tang nervously putters around at first, turning on a light so that I can see my notebook, even though it is still light outside.  Ying Sheng Ahpak’s wife speaks with her, relieving us of silence.  They had known each other back in Shillong.  Ying Sheng Ahpak and Moses Ahpak sit together on the couch and converse.  The TV set is still on, with a game show flickering in the background.  The contestant on the show is struggling to figure on the key phrase.  I glance up at the jumble of letters on the screen and can pick out the key phrase:  Worth the risk.  How appropriate.

The side conversations come to a hush, and everyone looks at me expectantly.  Mrs. Tang’s eyes are round and wide, and I worry that she is afraid of remembering.  A part of me feels terrible for doing this to so many people; most have struggled so hard to forget about Deoli Concentration Camp.  A larger part of me fears that I will collect these stories only for myself.  I am not sure why the board of directors, Fuji, and my father has so much faith in me, and I constantly question what they could possibly see in me.  And then I coldly remember that no one wants to help us.

I always hate the first questions of an interview.  Besides being mechanical and clinical, these first few questions force me to talk, and I have grown into a habit of only speaking when I absolutely must.  But once the first few questions are over, a story forms and I gratefully listen.

Mr. and Mrs. Tang were both born in Calcutta.  They don’t mention much about their life before their move as a married couple to Shillong in 1959.  They simply mention that they were involved in the shoe business between China and Tibet, but due to fallen relations between China and Tibet, they had to move to Shillong.

The couple was taken to the camp on November 20th of 1962.  That evening, they answered a knock at the door at two in the morning.  A police officer stood in the dark and instructed Mr. Tang and his parents to prepare to leave.  He didn’t give much of an explanation as to why they were being taken or where they would be taken.

Three hours later, the military personnel came to take Mr. Tang and his parents away.   When Mrs. Tang heard the officer mention that only her husband would be taken away, she insisted that she and her children accompany him.  The officer at first tried to persuade her to stay behind in Shillong; she spoke with him in Nepali, and so he was convinced that she was a local woman instead of a Chinese, like her husband.  Despite the officer’s attempts, Mrs. Tang planned on keeping the family together.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Tang and Mr. Tang’s parents were taken with their four children, ranging from a four-year-old child to a mere five-month-old infant.  At the time of their arrest, the officer promised that the family would be returned home within a week.  He told them not to pack anything.  Believing that the man would be true to his word, the family didn’t pack anything except a few sets of clothing.

While most ex-internees remember being taken to a local jail, the Tang family was taken to a penitentiary where other Chinese-Indian families were kept.  They stayed there for a week and were not fed well.  Though the children were so young and though Mrs. Tang was still nursing a five-month-old infant, each individual was only given one meal per day.  Each day, the food would be distributed, but prisoners sometimes had to fight each other to get a decent portion.  And even then, the food was very watery and lacked in nutrition.  Surviving on only one meal per day, Mrs. Tang’s body was malnourished and began to go dry, and the baby cried with hunger.  There was no baby food and milk was very rarely distributed.

Mrs. Tang pauses before continuing with her story.  She goes quiet and speaks in Hakka.  I don’t completely understand Hakka, but I hear the words ‘seen ku’ and know that the memories are hurting her.  Moses Ahpak translates for me, “She doesn’t like talking about all of this.”

When she says this, I don’t have the heart to keep pressing her for the details that might be helpful for my own research and for the paper I hope to write with Fuji.

I smile and turn to Moses Ahpak.  “Don’t worry.  I think I have enough details about the camp.  I don’t want her to remember if she doesn’t want to.   Maybe she can instead tell me about life after the camp instead.”  Moses Ahpak agrees.  But I already know that whether I ask her about the camp or not, she will later on remember it in the privacy and silence of her home.

She continues.  The family was released sometime around October of 1966.  They were fortunate in that they were allowed to return to their hometown of Shillong.  By this time, the family acquired two new members while living in the camp.  Another daughter was born in 1964 and a son was born in 1966.  But Mr. Tang’s parents had decided to return to China when China sent three ships to pick up Chinese-Indians who wanted to return to their country of origin.

When the Tang family returned to Shillong, they found that their shoe shop had been confiscated by the Custodian of Enemy Property.  The only compensation that the family received was about 500 rupees, which was only a fraction of the thousands that the building and merchandise were actually worth.  Nothing else was given back to the family, not even the sewing machines.

It goes without saying that life was hard after returning to Shillong.  Mr. and Mrs. Tang had to work hard in order to regain what had been lost.  But their story is unlike other internees’ stories in that Mr. and Mrs. Tang were offered help—and they accepted it.  Though the couple had struggled to make ends meet, the local Khasi people in Shillong and the missionaries there were extremely kind and generous.  Many of the local Shillong people were Christians, as were Mr. and Mrs. Tang.  With Christian connections, the family was able to send of all of their children to missionaries’ schools.  The family was particularly grateful to their landlord.  This landlord had helped them throughout their entire internment.  After the Tang family had been taken to Rajasthan, they managed to write a letter to their landlord.  The landlord worried about the family and offered to send them supplies, which he did for the next four years of internment.  When the Tang family returned to Shillong, he did more than just offer them a rent-free place to stay—he turned the first floor of his house into a home for the family.

The Tangs’ experience with the Christian Khasi community was a unique one.  Most of the Hakka people in India identify themselves as Catholic, but for some reason, many of them did not accept help from missionaries and the Christian community.  It seems that many Indian Hakkas converted to Christianity for the convenience rather than for their spiritual needs; indeed, many are baptized as Catholics, but continue traditional ancestor veneration practices.  Most homes that I have visited still bear the traditional ancestor alter, and families routinely offer prayers.  Curious about the Tangs’ religion, I asked them how they converted to Christianity.  The woman explained that she had been baptized at a young age.  She was four months old when she became very sick.  A priest from the Sacred Heart Church of Calcutta cared for her.  He was a Belgian priest who could speak twelve languages, including Chinese.  After caring for her, he told her she ought to become a Christian, and soon after, the entire family was baptized.  The man became a Christian just before being taken to Deoli.  Rumor had it that those who converted to Christianity would not be taken away to the camp, and so he converted.  It apparently did him no good until after the camp.

During the first few months after their return to Shillong, the Tang family struggled financially.  Each day, they had to ask neighbors and friends to borrow money, and by the end of the day, they had to pay it all back.  However, it was truly remarkable how generous the community was.  The family often went to the same people to ask for money, and the family would always willingly loan them the money.

Not only were the local Khasi people very close-knit and generous toward the ex-internees, but the Chinese-Indian community in Shillong was suddenly united after the 1962 internment.  During the internment, the Hakka and Shandong people became particularly close to each other, inviting each other to parties and weddings and other social gatherings.  There was also more intermarriage between the Shandong people and Hakka people; in the past, the groups were very exclusive in their marriage selections.  Ying Sheng Ahpak adds in for emphasis, “In the past, a Shandong person might walk past a Hakka person’s store and not even say hello to us.”

The Tang family’s income mostly came from making shoes (they were employed by another family) and hand bags, as well as from vending street snacks such as paan and betel nuts.  Though the children were fortunate enough to go to school, they had to learn how to barter chicken eggs to buy fresh milk.  Mrs. Tang would also grow garden vegetables and mushrooms and sell them in Calcutta.

As Mrs. Tang is explaining the family’s financial struggles, Ying Sheng Ahpak interrupts and points at Mr. Tang.  “Ask him about his invention!”  I look at Mr. Tang, interested that he hasn’t said much up to this point.  He casually says, “Oh, yes.  I used to sell bags.”  Ying Sheng Ahpak seems more eager to explain.  In Shillong, Khasi men and women traditionally love to eat betel nuts.  With this in mind, Mr. Tang designed small leather pouches that could be strapped across the body.  When he peddled them from door-to-door, many Khasi women found them very quaint and cute and eagerly bought them.  While I am not looking, Ying Sheng Ahpak procures a small woman’s shoulder bag from the corner of the room and sports it.  “See, it was a little smaller than this, and could hold the nuts.  It had a small place for a knife, too, because you need a knife to peel the nut.  It was very funny; all the women wanted a bag.”  He smiles and pretends he is a lady, daintily taking an imaginary nut from the bag and offering it to us, and we all laugh at his animation.

I always enjoy Ying Sheng Ahpak’s company.  He is the most animated, high-spirited and passionate member of AIDCI, in my opinion.  He has accompanied me to nearly every interview, and when the interviews go quiet, he is always quick to prompt us with stories that he heard from different regions.  During our interview, he brings up the story of Francis Chiang, a story that appeared in Outlook magazine.  Recognizing the name, Mr. and Mrs. Tang reveal that Francis Chiang is their son-in-law.  Francis was originally from Calcutta, but he had been called to Shillong to care for his aunt, who was very old and sick at the time, and his uncle, who was paralyzed.  Mr. and Mrs. Chiang explain that because Francis’ uncle was paralyzed and unable to walk, the police dragged the poor man in the dirt to the hospital without a stretcher or a vehicle in which he could be safely carried.  When the government refused to care for the old couple, officials called Francis to come to Shillong and care for them.  These two were the only people in all of Shillong who were not taken to the camp.

As life got better for the Tang family, the children grew up and managed to migrate to other countries.  One son went to Austria.  A few went to Canada.  A few stayed behind in India.  They all pitched in to help their parents move to Canada in 1997.  One of their daughters did particularly well, considering that she had lived in Deoli Camp and at one time didn’t have milk to drink; the girl was able to study in Bangalore and later studied nursing at Michigan University, a feat that was almost unheard of in the ex-internee community.  The daughter has been practicing nursing in the US for the past fifteen years.

Since their move to Canada, Mr. and Mrs. Tang have gone back to India twice; once to see an ailing daughter and again to see their grandson’s wedding.

Over an hour has passed by, and I know it’s time to wrap up the interview—the couple looks exhausted.  I end the interview with the last question.  “Do you still consider India your home?”

Without any hesitation, Mrs. Tang nods.  Moses Ahpak doesn’t even have to translate the question.  She tells me that she has lived in Shillong altogether for forty-five years.  The Khasi people were kind, Christian people.  I smile, understanding how kind the people in Shillong had been to her and her family.

A large part of me is relieved and glad that there was a happy ending to this interview.  I leave her home, hoping that something good will come with these memories—for her and me both.

Andy Hsieh

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.

Wong Ying Sheng

I first met Wong Ying Sheng in early January of 2012 in a Hakka restaurant.  When I walked through the door with my father and uncle, he instantly recognized us and began talking to my father in Hakka.  He then turned to me and said in English, “We’ve been waiting for someone to write our story.  It’s a bit later than we hoped, but it’s never too late.”

I smiled, feeling as though I were in the right place at the right time.

**********

Wong Ying Sheng was interned in October of 1962.  At the time, Shillong was still the capital of Assam.  Like many others, Wong Ying Sheng was born to Hakka Chinese immigrants in the shoe business.  As the eldest child in the family, he only received a few years of education before quitting school at the age of 12 in order to help his father in the shoe shop and help support his other siblings.

Prior to his internment, he had already heard rumors that the tension between China and India had caused many Chinese-Indians to be arrested, but didn’t believe his family would be one of those arrested.  However, Wong Ying Sheng’s mother knew well that the family needed to be prepared.  She had survived two wars already; she managed to escape from China to Singapore when the Japanese invaded China, and again from Singapore to India when the Japanese invaded Singapore.  She packed supplies, food and cash, waiting for the day to come.

As predicted, the military personnel arrived at Wong Ying Sheng’s door around 1 in the morning.  The military personnel insisted that the family would not need to take anything, reassuring them that they would be taken to a “safe place for their protection.”

The family was first taken to Shillong’s local jail.  The males and females were separated, meaning that Ying Sheng’s mother and sisters were not allowed in the same cell.  Indian prisoners asked Ying Sheng and his family why they were in the prison.  Some prisoners advised Ying Sheng that since he was accused of being a criminal, he had to act like a notorious criminal so that the guards would feel intimidated and treat him nicely.  For their meals, the jail’s prisoners—including Ying Sheng and his family—were fed kitchari, a watery vegetarian dish.

While they were in the prison cell, Ying Sheng recognized one Chinese-Indian man.  He was the same man who had gone around the town asking other Chinese-Indians and Indians for donations.  He earnestly wanted to collect donations so that the Indian army could fight the Chinese at the border.  Other Chinese-Indians called the man a traitor and idiot and laughed at him, especially now—despite his patriotism to India, the man ended up in a prison cell with the rest of the Chinese-Indians.

The prisoners were later transferred to Guwahati by bus.  At the bus junction, Ying Sheng’s family saw that many Chinese from upper Assam had already been taken to Guwahati.  Before they boarded the bus, the authorities asked the prisoners if they wanted to buy any supplies at the G.S. Road Shop, owned by the Lila brothers.  Ying Sheng and his family selected a few leather jackets, not knowing that they would be taken to a desert where they wouldn’t need to use them.  The jackets cost 80 rupees each—which was a large sum at the time.

At the bus station, there were no bathrooms.  Women usually had to ask for company to use the toilet for fear that they would be taken advantage of if they went alone.  There were also many mosquitoes.  Once the Chinese-Indians boarded the train, they were stored in cargo cars under the supervision of five to six armed military personnel.  Ying Sheng remembers that one officer had advanced fire weapons and an automatic rifle. The constable carried a regular rifle.  Seeing the armed personnel was alarming to Ying Sheng; most of the prisoners were mere women and children.  None of the people surrounding him looked like criminals.  The security measures only amplified the reality of what was happening.

At midnight, Ying Sheng knew that the officers talked among themselves.  Though he tried to listen, he usually couldn’t hear over the wind, the creaking, the wheels running over the tracks and the snoring.  However,   he did hear the snippets of one conversation.  He heard the officers say that the Chinese had advanced over the border and the Indian army had retreated, but before the Indian army left, they destroyed the water supply.  He heard that authorities in Assam had heard about the Chinese army’s advancement, and out of fear, the authorities freed the criminals in their prisons—some of those prisoners were even convicted criminals.

During the first morning on the train, the prisoners had trouble with the bathroom.  With so many people, there were long lines and not everyone could wait.  The next morning, they learned to adjust themselves accordingly and organize their schedules.  Whenever the military personnel had to make meals for the prisoners, they would deliberately stop in remote places where the prisoners could not escape.  They would make food in large quantities—meaning a lot of the food was undercooked.  Even though the train usually stopped in remote areas, there was one incident in Nagajin.  At the front window, Ying Sheng remembers about 150 to 200 Indians coming to the train platform, armed with spears, sticks, spades, shovels and even sandals.  They waved their weapons at the Chinese-Indians in the train and yelled at them to go back to China.  Ying Sheng recalls, “For the first time, the police did a good thing.  They kept the Indians away from us and simply told them that they were taking us to a ‘safe place.’”

It took 8 days and 7 nights to reach Deoli Internment Camp.  Before entering the camp, there was a large truck waiting at the railroad station.  The prisoners were loaded on the truck and taken to Deoli.  Before they boarded the truck, the military personnel collected the numbers of people in each train compartment.

Inside the camp, tea was served with bread, but the bread was old and hard and barely edible.  Tents were set up as lodging for the first night.  When Ying Sheng lied down on his cot (it was made of jute), he noticed there were holes in the ground, but because he was so tired, he disregarded them and fell asleep.  Later that night, he heard women screaming.  The holes turned out to be snake homes.

The next day, the camp became more defined for Ying Sheng and the internees.  There were 5 wings—A, B, C, D and E.  Ying Sheng’s family was sent to Wing E.  Though the wings were connected, they were separated by fences and gates, and people from different wings could visit each other.  However, after 9 PM, the gate closed and the internees were not allowed to visit each other.  Despite this regulation, young people from each wing were chosen to sneak from wing to wing since they were so small and could stretch through the barbed wires of the fences.  The guards would often find the wires warped, stretched or broken in the morning.  At first they tried to fix it, but eventually gave up.

At the camp, children met new friends and allied with each other against the guards.  The guards would often ask them from which wing they had come.  The children would always lie, saying that they were from whichever wing they happened to be wandering in at the time.  Eventually, the guards set up a “warning” fence in front of the taller fences to prevent children from sneaking across their wings.

Every morning of the first week of internment, the guards would conduct roll call.  However, after the first week, the guards chose different representatives from each wing to take roll call instead.  Some could interpret this as the guards trusting Chinese-Indians enough to care for their own numbers.  Others could interpret this as the guards’ negligence; had someone gone missing or run away, perhaps the guards didn’t even care to know.

In the camp, there was a small office with a postal service system.  People tried to send letters.  However, internees were only allowed to send postcards.  Because postcards were so small and had limited writing space, Ying Sheng believed that this tactic was an attempt to limit Chinese-Indians from writing or saying too much to those who lived outside the camp.  Any letters that were written and enclosed in envelopes were opened and censored.

During the first months after the internees’ arrival, there were not many activities or programs for the young people.  Often times, young people had to come up with their own entertainment.  After dinner, Ying Sheng and his friends would often go to Wing E.  Near Wing E, there was a movie hall where he could overhear the film voices.  Other nights, he and his friends would set up cots in a circle and just talk to each other.  Ying Sheng remembers he used to go to D Wing sometimes to exercise.  There was a man there who used to serve the Expedition Army.  He taught kids how to exercise.  However, because he was trained by the military, he trained the kids based on a military routine as well.  A guard in the watchtower saw the kids exercising in such an organized manner.  Worried that they were plotting a rebellion, he forced the group to stop their exercises.

The camp eventually began showing films.  Ying Sheng remembers Raj Kapoor films were popularly shown.  Internees also enjoyed singing as a form of entertainment.  Mr. Song from Shillong and Mr. Liao from Japbalpur were famous in the camp for their good singing.  Mr. Song could sing Hindi songs and entertained in C Wing.  Mr. Liao could sing traditional Hakka hill songs and Cantonese classics.

Singing was not just a form of entertainment in the camp; it was a form of empowerment for many internees and symbolized their grasp on multiple cultures and ethnic identity.  During one of Mr. Song’s performances, the internees invited the camp commander R. H. Rao, along with the deputy commander and supervisor.  They came escorted by armed military.  As the group stood and listened to Mr. Song, Mr. Song intentionally sang the following lines in Hindi:

“If I’m in China, I’m a Chinese.

But if I’m in India, I’m an Indian…”

After Mr. Song finished his song, Rao asked him, “Do you know the meaning of this song.”  Another internee answered, “Of course, he does.  He’s lived in India all his life.”  Many Chinese-Indians were fans of Hindi music and Indian culture, and they considered themselves Indians.  But despite their understanding of Indian culture and ability to sing Hindi songs, the camp commander still questioned whether or not they could understand what was being sung.  Was he genuinely curious of whether or not these people could understand the Hindi language, or was he mocking their identity?

Surrounding the camp, there was a hospital, funeral home (outside of Wing E), and a grocery shop/canteen called, “Natalie and Sons.”  Internees had to seek permission to go to these places.  Around 9:30-10:00 AM, there would usually be a line at the camp office with people seeking permission to buy things at the canteen.

If people had minor illnesses, camp doctors would only give over-the-counter medication.  Those who were severely sick were sent to the camp hospital.  Only one person was allowed to accompany the hospital patient, and even then, the person had to have a permission form.  Those who accompanied the sick were not treated well.  There was one time when Ying Sheng’s friend was sick.  Ying Sheng went with his friend to the hospital.  Often times, he had to sleep on the floor.  Other times, he slept in beds where other patients had died just days or hours before.

In June 1963, China sent the first of three ships to Madras.  The Chinese-Indians were given the choice to leave India and go to China.  Forms were distributed; those who filled them out were able to leave.

Before everyone knew this though, rumor had it that the Indian government was going to clean out the camp and send everyone back to China, including the Tibetans.  This rumor upset many Tibetans; they didn’t want to go back to China considering the state of affairs between Tibet and China at the time.

Not long after the rumor spread, a riot began.  No one actually knows who started the riot or why it began as one group of people collected stones and began hurling them at another group of people.  A group of patrolling soldiers saw the scuffle and contacted higher authorities.  Armed soldiers came rushing in and beat rioters and innocent bystanders alike with lathis.  Anyone who happened to be in the wing was beaten or punished.

Ying Sheng happened to be standing near the wing.  As he was trying to leave the scene, a soldier brought him to a halt and accused him of partaking in the riot.  When Ying Sheng insisted that he had no part in it, the soldier told Ying Sheng to open his hands.  His hands had a bit of dust on them and they were sweating from Ying Sheng’s nervousness.  When the soldier saw the dust and sweat, he told Ying Sheng, “See.  Your hands have dirt and sweat, meaning you picked up some rocks and were throwing them.  Stand to the side.”

Nearly 30 people were arrested along with Ying Sheng.  Those individuals were later taken to solitary confinement.  A number of them, like Ying Sheng, had nothing to do with the riot and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Some were completely innocent.  For example, one old man, Mr. Huang, had been sleeping in a barrack, far from the riot.  When the soldiers came in, he woke up and was bewildered to see what had happened.  The soldiers pointed at him and yelled, “Stop pretending to sleep!  You were involved in the riot!”  He suffered a bloody blow to the head that knocked him out.  Many claimed that his skull had even cracked.  After the soldiers saw the damage that was done, they rushed him to the hospital.

As the military personnel continued to arrest and round up internees, Ying Sheng obediently stood to the side and waited for further orders.  One young man wearing a pair of shorts asked the soldiers, “Why are you arresting me?  I didn’t do anything.”  One of the military personnel answered him with a beating.  Ying Sheng could see the welts that formed on the young man’s back.  As the young man was beaten, Ying Sheng shook with anger—the young man was his brother, but there was nothing Ying Sheng could do to protect him.

Enduring solitary confinement was awful.  Nearly 30 men were taken to a small, dark room.  Standing in a desert, the room was naturally hot, and with 30 prisoners, it was crowded.  The men had to sit facing each other in order for everyone to fit.  They were fed watery dahl each day.  The odor of sweat combined with the beans’ effect on the men made the room smell horrible.  There was also no private bathroom; the men had to overcome their embarrassment and relieve themselves in front of everyone.

Ying Sheng recalls one man who sat near him in solitary confinement.  The man was quite hairy and had a very prominent and distinct beard—he looked very much like a Chinese Muslim.  The man begged Ying Sheng to help him—the man claimed that the soldiers mentioned, “The bearded man is a troublemaker.”  The man worried that the soldiers would punish him, and so he begged Ying Sheng to help pull out the hairs of his beard so that the next time the soldiers came, they wouldn’t recognize him.  Ying Sheng tried his best to help pull out the hair, but the sweat from the man’s face and from his own fingers made it a difficult task.  By morning, most of the beard was gone and the man looked different.  However, the soldiers never came back for the man anyway.   Most of the men stayed in solitary confinement for an entire week.  However, Tibetans were released early as a result of the riot.

After sending the first ship, China sent two more to pick up internees who wanted to return to China.  Most of those who returned were the Hubei and Cantonese; most of the Hakka chose to remain in India.  When Ying Sheng heard about the first ship, he planned on boarding the next one with his friend, Mr. Hsieh. When his mother found out his plans to escape, she refused to let him leave, reminding him that he was the eldest of his siblings and needed to help them.  He reluctantly stayed behind.

In mid-April of 1963, Ying Sheng’s father fell seriously ill.  He eventually had to be taken to the hospital outside of the camp.  The illness worsened.  The doctors and authorities eventually told Ying Sheng that he had to make a decision—his father could remain at the camp hospital or he could be taken to the Bundhi Hospital.  The family decided to take Mr. Wong to the hospital, but only one family member was permitted to accompany him.  Worried and concerned for her husband, Ying Sheng’s mother chose to accompany her husband and she told Ying Sheng to stay at the camp and care for the children.  She only spoke Chinese, but she insisted on going anyway.  Though Ying Sheng does not mention a great deal about his mother and father’s relationship, he stops to comment, “It was the greatest love I’ve ever seen between husband and wife.”

On the evening of May 5th, Ying Sheng had been passing time with his friends as usual.  And then a friend came up to him and said that his father had passed away.  Ying Sheng didn’t believe it at first.  Surely it had to be a mistake.  But when he returned home, he found that it was no mistake.  His father’s body had been taken to funeral home.  The next day, Ying Sheng and his brother got a permission pass from the camp office to prepare for the funeral.

The authorities allowed Ying Sheng two take two people to help him dig a plot for his father’s grave.  He had to pay quite a hefty sum just for a basic coffin for his father.  Ying Sheng picked a sandy area in the graveyard for his father.  But because the camp was in a desert, there weren’t really any other options.  Ying Sheng began digging his own father’s grave.  It was a hard task to dig in the sand as the grains morphed and rolled back into the hole he had just dug.  His hands became blistered.

After the plot was chosen and prepared, it was finally time for Ying Sheng to go to the funeral home to part with his father.  The scene was by far the most traumatizing experience for him.  When he saw his father’s body, he was disgusted and shocked.  Due to the heat and humidity, the body was already deteriorating and melting in the heat.  Worst of all, the body had thick, ugly stitches across the torso and along the arms.  The eyes had been removed.  The doctors had no reason to operate or remove body parts; and even if they did, they had not asked for the family’s permission to do so.  To this day, no one can explain why the doctors mutilated the body.  Perhaps they had tried to operate on him.  Perhaps they wanted organs for experiments.  In either case, the body had been disturbed and violated—which is particularly distressing in Chinese culture as most Chinese believed that the body needed to be complete and at rest before going on to the afterlife.  As Ying Sheng stared at the body, he thought, “This is a terrible end for any human being.”  His father had been perfectly healthy, but the stress of war and the camp internment had exhausted and ruined his father.

In some ways, camp life improved.  After some time, the internees were taken on trips to see local places.  Initially, only the families that were most involved in the camp community were given the opportunity to go.  Eventually, more people went out.

One tourist destination was Hinduli, which was two hours away.  The internees were loaded onto a lorry truck.  They had to pack their own food and water.  Hinduli was a lovely place.  There was a pond, trees and hills.  Concrete steps led to the top of what Ying Sheng calls “the mysterious pond.”  With the weather so hot and dry, Ying Sheng and his brother jumped into the pond to cool off.  However, Ying Sheng’s brother could not swim, and though he did not go too deep in the water, he began to flail in the water.  It seemed that he was being pulled down.  Ying Sheng tried to help his brother, but he almost got pulled in as well.  A man, Mr. Hu, was watching the whole scene.  He jumped in the pond and managed to save both of the young men.  While the two men were drowning, the camp authorities were not supervising the pond and its swimmers.

Ying Sheng does not end his interview with telling me the date of his release from the camp or about the life he had after his release.  He never ends his interview.  Out of all the people I have interviewed, he is the most fervent about getting all the details and facts written down.  For that reason, I had to interview him twice—and even then, I know that he has not finished telling me his story.  He instead organizes and accompanies me to my other interviews, making sure I note down key points of each person’s story and adding his own memories if necessary.  As I typed up other interviews, I always felt the need to insert my own thoughts and actions at the time of the interview.  But when I interview Ying Sheng Ahpak, everything else around me is blocked out and it is easy to grasp onto his story.

Ying Sheng’s thoughts have never left Deoli.  He ended his interview with the following scene.  I have narrated it in the first person for him:

In the camp, there was a tall building.  It was the highest building in the entire camp, and it located in B Wing.  Tibetans mostly lived downstairs, and there were about twenty steps leading up—but each step was so high and took great effort to climb. No one climbed the building, except for two youngsters.  One was of course I.  The other was Mr. Hsieh.  We would climb up the building and enjoy the view and the breeze all to ourselves. 

There was a tree next to the building.  It was tall and would shade me from the sun.  I tried calculating its age; it must have been fifty or sixty years old.  The tree would also play music for me; its leaves would rustle in the wind, and the sound was soft and lovely. 

I would often time sit quietly, just to think.  On those days, I would sit at the top of the building and stare straight ahead at the horizon.  I would sit very still so that my line of sight was focused on the horizon and the land beyond the camp.  I concentrated so hard because if my eye even twitched, the barbed wire and fence would come into my view and I would be reminded that I was trapped in the camp. 

I once sat in the shade of the tree and listened to the rustling leaves.  As the leaves rustled, I imagined that they were telling me, “Oh, how unlucky you are.  I have been here for years and years.  I’ve seen the prisoners of World War II.  I’ve seen prisoners from Germany and Japan.  And now you are here.  How sad.” 

People often stopped and stared at me from down below.  Many thought I had gone crazy.   Indeed, there was one man in the camp who had once been so clear-headed but slowly went mad; I always wondered what happened to his poor wife and young children—surely, life must have been difficult for them all.

But I continued to climb the building, sit next to the tree and stare straight ahead at the horizon.  Sitting on top of that building was as close as I could ever get to freedom.

It’s as if he never gained back freedom.