I am eating dinner with my aunt and cousin. Knowing that I was gone this morning, they ask me how my appointment went. With my mouth still full, I answer, “Oh, it was good. Actually, I think the woman I interviewed today is our relative.”
That morning, Moses Ahpak and I drove out to Mrs. Wang’s home. We walked up the driveway and approached the front door. We knocked, and eventually heard slow shuffling footsteps. Expecting to see an old woman, I was surprised to see a young man in a tank top, gym shorts and tube socks sleepily squinting at me in the sunlight.
“Umm, does an old woman live here?” Moses Ahpak asked skeptically.
“Check the side door,” the man mumbled as he began to close the door and return to bed.
We went to the side door, and once again, we were greeted by another young man. “I thought she lives alone,” Moses Ahpak murmured to himself. The man explained in Cantonese that he was Mrs. Wang’s apartment-mate and that she must have gone out for a while.
Confounded, we thanked him and headed down the sidewalk. But just as we started back to the car, Mrs. Wang came marching up the driveway in large shades and a wide-brimmed hat. She was smiling and had a booming voice as she greeted us.
“Ahpak, I thought she was in her seventies.” She looked to be in her late fifties or early sixties.
“Oh, she is,” he replied as Mrs. Wang led us to the side door of the house. We descended into a basement that was converted into an apartment. There was a kitchen, bathroom and two rooms—one for Mrs. Wang and one for the young man. For the first few minutes, I was still in shock that a widowed, elderly woman was fine with living with a male stranger. I am no prude as far as living arrangements go, but such an arrangement was almost unheard of in the Chinese-Indian community.
However, Mrs. Wang’s living arrangement would be just one of the many shockers that she had to present about her life.
Mrs. Wang was born in Calcutta, India on October 20, 1935. She was Indian through and through; by the time she was born, her family had already been in India for three generations. She grew up speaking Hindi, Nepali and Hakka. Like my own family, her family owned a shoe shop in Darjeeling. She and her husband eventually owned their own shops, O.K. and Nice.
In 1961, the tension between China and India had heightened, and the witch hunt began. That same year, the Indian government began to arrest Chinese-Indian individuals under the suspicion that they were Chinese spies or Communist sympathizers. In 1961, Mrs. Wang’s husband was arrested and deported to China. Upon her husband’s arrest, he was given a warning notice three months in advance to leave India; he was not given any reason as to why he had to leave.
A number of individuals were deported without being given a formal reason. It is believed that Mr. Wang was deported because he had been Darjeeling’s Chinese community’s representative when Zhou En-lai visited India in the 1950s. Other than meeting Zhou En-lai, he didn’t seem to have any pro-China or Communist affiliations. She later found that after his arrival in China, her husband managed to escape to Hong Kong.
But even after her husband’s deportation, the Indian government continued to watch Mrs. Wang. She later received an order for deportation, but this time, she hired a lawyer to take care of her case. With such a long history in India and without any connection to China, she won the case.
After her husband left for China, Mrs. Wang went about running the shoe business on her own. At the time, she also had many small children—three sons and two daughters. The youngest child was only a month old. But life got harder for her. In 1962, the Indian border swept up most Chinese-Indians for arrest. Before she left Darjeeling, she left the shoe shop to her brothers-in-law.
As a single mother with five children, Mrs. Wang was often abused by others, making her camp experience all the more difficult. The trip to Deoli itself was a difficult one. While on the train to the camp, her relatives would take most of the food that was distributed in the train car, leaving her and her children nothing to eat. The train ride lasted for about a week.
Altogether, Mrs. Wang lived in the camp for eighteen months. Since she was one of the first taken to the camp, she ended up living in A Wing, a residence that most camp members envied. Families that lived in A Wing had an entire housing unit for each family. While entire families in the other wings had to live in small, cramped rooms, A Wing families had the luxury of a bathroom, living room and bedroom. Seeing a husband-less woman with four children to care for, Mrs. Wang’s neighbors (who also happened to be her own neighbors) did their best to force her out of her house. One of her children once fell sick with the measles, and her neighbors/relatives saw it as an opportunity to force her to leave her house in A Wing. They complained that the children would spread the measles to the surrounding wing members. The camp authorities responded kindly by allowing her and her children to sleep in the police quarters.
Throughout her internment, Mrs. Wang never heard back from her husband and he never knew that his wife and four children had ever gone to a concentration camp. All Mrs. Wang knew was that he had escaped to Hong Kong, which at the time was not considered a part of China.
After eighteen months of living in the camp, Mrs. Wang was released with her four children. Like most, she was released in Calcutta. Fortunately, her parents had settled down there and were able to help her rent an apartment. For thirteen years, Mrs. Wang and her children lived in Calcutta. Returning to Darjeeling proved to be impossible for multiple reasons. For one, her shoe shop in Darjeeling had been usurped by her in-laws. The shop had actually been the most profitable shoe store in Darjeeling and everyone knew that it earned good money, but while Mrs. Wang was in the camp, her in-laws enjoyed the business’ profits. Hearing that she had been released from the camp and unwilling to return their new source of income, Mrs. Wang’s in-laws managed to convince the local police to permanently ban her from Darjeeling. Her in-laws were extremely well connected and were able to curry such a favor from the local police. She did once try to return to Darjeeling, but the police told her that she was not allowed to stay for more than a week.
For another two to three years, Mrs. Wang and her children lived in Calcutta, struggling to get by. She still had not heard from her husband. And then one day, she was sitting in the famous Fat Mama’s noodle shop in Calcutta’s Chinatown. While there, she overheard an Indian officer struggling to communicate his order with the waiter. She turned around to help him out and began talking to him. It turned out that he had been stationed in Hong Kong, and craving a taste of Hakka noodles, came to Fat Mama’s shop. As they began to converse, Mrs. Wang told the officer her story—her husband’s deportation, the concentration camp, her husband’s disappearance. The officer looked at her curiously and asked, “What is your husband’s name?”
She answered. As soon as she did, the officer was shocked to realize that he indeed had met her husband in Hong Kong. “I know your husband!” he exclaimed. There could be no greater coincidence. But wild disbelief was soon replaced with apologetic regret. He knew he had to tell her the truth.
Her husband had indeed made it to Hong Kong. But it was the officer who had to explain to her that he had found another woman and married her. He was living in Hong Kong with her and owned a restaurant. He appeared to be doing well.
Mrs. Wang returned home in shock. She of course told her family members and her in-laws the horrifying news. Her in-laws had no consolation to offer as they revealed that they had known the entire time. Her husband had actually tried to send his wife a letter to explain his new marriage and new life, but Mrs. Wang’s brothers found it and hid it from her, not wanting her to know the truth.
Mrs. Wang lived during a time in which it was common for men to remarry or take on multiple wives. And in return, many women had to quietly accept their husband’s decisions to marry other women and raise multiple children. But Mrs. Wang did not quietly accept her fate. She managed to save money for five airplane tickets to take her and her four children to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, she found her husband. He was still running a restaurant with his new wife. Upon arriving and seeing the new life that her husband had started without her, Mrs. Wang dug her heels in. She refused to leave, and furthermore, insisted that the other woman leave. She had not been through hell and back to be cast aside.
Sure enough, the other woman left. She returned a few times with gangsters and mobsters to oust Mrs. Wang, but the police soon interfered.
Mrs. Wang remained in Hong Kong with her husband and children until 1988. The business flourished and her children grew up. One son went into business while the other became a bus driver. One daughter went into real estate while the other daughter worked in a law firm. In 1988, her husband went to Canada to visit as a tourist. He liked the country and his friend reassured him that he could make a good living there, so he decided to move to Canada—this time, with his wife, of course.