It is a Saturday morning in July when I meet Hou Chao Hua and Hou Tang Hua. They are unmistakably brothers and look very much alike. I had originally come to interview another man, but Ying Sheng Ahpak managed to recruit them and they sat at the “waiting table” drinking tea and eating buns as I finished up my first interview.
The Hou brothers did not go to the camp. Instead, their father Hou Chin Hsiu (I will refer to him as Mr. Hou) was the only member of the family taken to the camp.
Mr. Hou’s roots begin in China. His father, Hou Jiap Sheng, had been born in China and had migrated to India. Mr. Hou had been born and educated in India, and like many Chinese-Indians, owned a leather tannery in Calcutta. Despite his Indian citizenship and having an Indian passport, Mr. Hou was arrested in March of 1963. He was forty years old at the time and was the only family member who knew how to manage the factory at the time. In the past, Mr. Hou was able to rely on his eldest son, Hou Kang Hua, to manage the factory. But he disappeared in 1961.
Hou Kang Hua was arrested at three o’clock in the morning, on the spot, unable to collect any clothes or supplies. He was not an Indian citizenship cardholder, and so he was taken to Sikkim, a hill town on the border of India and China. In Sikkim, he was forced across the border and never to be seen again. This was the way in which he was deported.
After Mr. Hou’s arrest, he was first taken to Alipur jail. A few weeks later, he was sent to Deoli Camp on a train with the other arrested Chinese-Indians from the Calcutta region. While in the camp, Mr. Hou would send letters to his family in Calcutta. He usually asked for money, and each time, the family would send 300 to 500 rupees. He attempted to write about the camp, but his family would open the letters and find them censored with words and sentences blacked or cut out.
Curious about what Mr. Hou did with the money, I ask the Hou brothers. I discover that he was buying chickens with the money from the local shop, Natalie and Sons. He eventually built his own small poultry farm with barbed wire and a poultry shelter. Mr. Hou would even ask his sons to mail him poultry feed for the farm, which they did.
The chickens were extremely profitable. They were lovely, picturesque chickens with white legs and feathers and red heads. A few people bought the chickens for their eggs. Mr. Hou also collected their eggs and used them to barter and make friends. Eggs were highly valuable in the camp, so presenting eggs to someone could quickly build useful alliances.
As the Hou brothers finish telling me about their father’s chicken farm, Ying Sheng Ahpak interjects, “Oh, I have another thing to tell you.” And then he says it—the trademark Wong Ying Sheng phrase: “Write it down—this is a very real thing!”
“There was actually one guy who looked just like their [the Hou brothers’] father. The guy was a young teenager named Thomas Yap. I think he eventually immigrated to Sweden and was very successful. But he had a very Winston Churchill look about him. He always had on a small cap and carried a cigar—he had asked the owner of Natalie and Son’s to especially order them for him. And whenever he took out his cigar, he would slide it under my nose to let me smell its tobacco scent before lighting up.” Ying Sheng Ahpak pretends his finger is a cigar and waves it under his nose, inhaling a good whiff of imaginary tobacco. I never know where exactly Ying Sheng Ahpak’s interjections will lead me, but they usually lead to a good laugh.
Among all of the people in Deoli, Mr. Hou was among the longest interned. For nearly five years, he lived in Deoli, waiting to return home. He waited until the camp itself shut down. But even after the camp closed down, Mr. Hou was transferred to Alipur jail once again.
There he was again in Alipur jail. He was painfully close to his family. Over the years, the family had struggled without Mr. Hou and the eldest Hou son. After Mr. Hou’s arrest, the tannery was seized and sold by the Custodian of Enemy Property and run by the government. The family was still able to work at the tannery and manage it, but business quickly slowed down after the government’s seizure, and the family struggled to provide for themselves.
Every week, Tang Hua and Chao Hua would visit their father to bring him food. Weeks and months wore him down. Finally, an entire year had passed. Mr. Hou was released on January 10, 1968. He had suffered nearly six years of internment.
But when Mr. Hou came home, the family found that he was gravely ill. He had been ill in the Alipur jail as well. He later revealed that the jail’s medical officer had given him an injection of some sort—he wasn’t sure what it was supposed to do or what it was. The Hou family took him to the family doctor to find out what was ailing him. The doctor suspected that a liver problem had developed from the injection. There were a number of possibilities. Perhaps the injection had been too strong of a dose. Perhaps the jail’s medical officer had not prescribed the treatment correctly.
Mr. Hou died three weeks after his release from the jail.
Tang Hua migrated to Canada in 1993, sponsored by his daughter. In 2006, Chao Hua also joined his family in Canada. I ask what seems to be an age-old question by now: Do you still consider India your home?
Both men say yes. They reply that they only came to Canada to be with their family members. They still like to visit India sometimes, and it is still home to them despite having to live their darkest years there.