Finally, a documentary! Check out “From Border to Border” by Chung Shefong

So for those of you who have been keeping up with AIDCI’s website and Facebook page, the documentary “From Border to Border” is finally accessible to viewers outside of Taiwan!  Chung Shefong, a documentary-maker/professor/record label owner based in Taipei, collected these narratives from the remaining Chinese-Indian community in Kolkata and a few hill towns.  When you get a chance, check out the film.  I had the privilege of watching this film come together at the final stages, while I was visiting Shefong and hanging out with her crew at Chung Trees & Music.  The film is primarily about the ethnic relations between ethnic Chinese and the Indian community, and Deoli is of course a major part of the history.  A number of other issues are couched within inter-ethnic relations though–gender norms, arranged marriage, occupational status and migration.

But most importantly, the documentary seems to bring up some pivotal questions:  Will ethnic Chinese in India always be perpetual foreigners?  Is there a way to reconcile 1962’s history without forgetting it?

But moreover, what does 1962 in India teach us about other overseas Chinese communities?  And on a larger scale, what about marginalized communities that once saw the US, Canada, the UK, Australia (pretty much Western “democracies”) as destinations for freedom?  These questions have surfaced in the last few weeks as I’ve reflected over current events including Ferguson and Michael Brown, the Eric Garner case, Emilie Grace Olsen’s suicide, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu’s deaths.  Working on my thesis on restaurant kids and the way in which ethnicity is more often appropriated than appreciated in the US have also fed these sentiments of alienation. One thing seems to be consistent in both my parents’ upbringing abroad and my upbringing in the US though:  the failure to speak about these transgressions yields a failure to empathize and seek to understand how our stories are actually very, very similar.

Part II

When the officials opened the coffin, a new, overpowering stench permeated through the air.  The girl’s face was tear-stained and distorted, as if she had been crying.  She had not originally been buried that way.  They all suddenly realized what had happened.  The girl had not died in the infirmary, but had been mistakenly declared dead.  After her body had been buried, she must have woken up inside the coffin and panicked, realizing that she had been buried.  She must have spent the night screaming and pleading for help before she suffocated to death.

The camp guard explained all of this to Maggie.  I never asked Maggie how he had told her all of this.  Was he apologetic?  Guilt-ridden?  Indifferent?

Regardless of how he felt, the camp guard went unpunished for his negligence.  Other camp internees heard and attested to the horror story of the little girl that had been buried alive, but no one seems to remember her name or who her family was or what happened to her aggrieved father.

Maggie ended her story with quietly telling me, “You don’t want to remember…life was so miserable.  We thought we would die there.”  For some, it is easier and less painful to just forget what had happened.  For others, it is a daily goal to forget—yet memory is a plague.

When I finally asked Maggie if she believed that a formal apology from the Indian government would mean anything to her, she thoughtfully answered, “The scar will always be there no matter what.  The Indian government put us through emotional, financial stress.  But, yes, it would be nice to at least have the Indian government recognize what happened.”

The story of the girl who had been buried alive continues to haunt me—but then I realize how much more it must have haunted Maggie and the other children in the camp.  Part of me wants to just believe that it was a rumor or mere camp gossip.  But a larger part of me knows that Maggie faced something truly traumatic as a child and had to live with such an ugly truth all her life.

“And then he heard the screams traveling from beneath the grave.”

When I open my eyes, I am finally greeted by daylight streaming through the curtains in my cousin’s room.  Though my body could use more sleep, I’m relieved that it is no longer night, no longer dark in every corner of the room.  I of course had a nightmare, which usually wouldn’t affect me too much. 

 

But I always believed that the worst nightmares are about the people you love the most.  While growing up, my mother told my sister and me a superstition: never repeat a nightmare aloud, especially when the nightmare is about someone else.  If you say it out loud, it might come true. But this nightmare had already come true.

 

It certainly didn’t alleviate my nerves when I woke up from the dream in the wee hours of the morning, while the room was dark and the rest of my uncle’s house was dead silent.  I’ve always been a bit afraid of the dark, but far away from home, I felt even more disoriented and vulnerable to my imagination and to the thoughts funneling through my head. 

 

No matter how much I tried to think of happy thoughts and fall back asleep, Maggie’s story kept pulsating at the back of my mind. 

I had been in Toronto for only one week by the time I had interviewed Maggie.  I had just started the summer’s round of interviews, and by this point, I had only interviewed Ying Sheng Ahpak, Andy Ahpak, and two of my father’s siblings.  We needed more.

Moses Ahpak and Ying Sheng Ahpak introduced me to Maggie.  While interviewing them, they had mentioned her sister—Maggie’s youngest sister was the one who was born on the train to Rajasthan.

While taking notes as Maggie told her story and occasionally fell into conversation with the others, I waited for any trademark details that would make this story uniquely Maggie’s story.  Not surprisingly, I end up recording many of the same details among all the ex-internee stories, and understandably, many ex-internees are hesitant about disclosing their memories and emotions.  In many other cases, bad memories have already been blocked out.

But in Maggie’s case, even the worst memories remained.

Maggie had been about 12 years old when she was taken to the camp with her parents and two sisters.  As an adolescent growing up in the camp, she remembered a lot of the people in the camp—and in particular, she remembered another 12-year-old girl with whom she used to play.  The girl had been brought to the camp with her father; it was assumed that her mother had either died or had not been incarcerated.

It wasn’t long before Maggie’s friend had fallen sick.  Maggie remembers that it was something minor—a cold or a fever—yet the girl was taken to the infirmary for treatment.

It was known around the camp that the infirmary had two doctors—one was fairly qualified while the other was regarded as “questionable” by many internees.  Regardless of qualifications though, the two doctors were not allowed to provide prescription medication or antibiotics and only had access to over-the-counter medication.

It so happened that the girl was given over to the care of the “questionable” doctor.  Her condition did not improve, and within a matter of days, the doctor announced that the girl had died.  Her body was laid in a coffin and the coffin was buried.  No one told Maggie what had happened to her friend.  She asked around, and finally, a camp guard came forth and told her that the girl had died and had been buried.

It was traumatic enough for a young twelve-year-old girl to learn that her playmate had died so silently and suddenly, without proper mourning or ceremony.  But the camp guard continued to tell Maggie what else he knew of the little girl.  The night that the girl had been buried, the guard had been on duty within sight of the grave plot.

And then he heard the screams traveling from beneath the grave.

The camp guard was faced with two possible scenarios.  It was possible that the girl was dead and that his imagination was getting the best of him.  And then it was also possible that the girl was indeed alive and screaming, for her life depended on it.

Faced with two possible scenarios, he figured he had two choices.  He could either assume that it was just his imagination and go on and remain at his post, or he could have run to get someone else and ask if they heard the screams as well.

Human nature would perhaps urge one to imagine the worst case scenario—that the girl had been buried alive—and act upon it.  But what happens when there is no accountability for such deaths?  What happens when an individual is given power over another individual?

The camp guard had a conscience, but he neither ignored the girl nor ran to help her.  Instead, he waited until the morning to tell camp officials of what he had possibly witnessed.  Camp officials immediately went to the grave plot and dug up the coffin.

To be continued

Back in the Swing of Things

Not even a year has passed, yet it feels like it’s been forever since last summer when I began this blog.  A few updates for my readers:

1.  I was in Shanghai last semester from August to December.  What I found out?  Despite the use of a VPN, the Great Fire Wall was difficult to navigate around.

2.  After a week of anxiety of trying to get a residency permit in Shanghai so that I could re-enter the country and after spending a night sleeping on an airport bench, I made it to Toronto for the 50th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony on November 18th (most memorable birthday ever!)

3.  I realize I didn’t do the greatest job keeping up with writing in The Deoli Diaries and maintaining AIDCI’s website (just updated it).  That will change!

question-mark-faceThe newest story that I’m working on piecing together right now is one of the most memorable and shocking stories that I’ve heard and retold as part of AIDCI’s presentation at the Toronto Hakka Conference.  Keep your eyes out…I’ll be posting it in the next few days!

Mrs. Wang

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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.”

“Oh?”

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.

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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.

“Fear and Forgetting” by Dilip D’Souza from The Caravan Magazine

“Fear and Forgetting” by Dilip D’Souza from The Caravan Magazine

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This past November, award-winning writer Dilip D’Souza published an article in The Caravan about the 1962 internment of Chinese-Indians.  After a number of interviews with ex-internees and members of the Chinese-Indian community, D’Souza reveals the complex sentiments toward nationality, identity and patriotism for one of India’s understated ethnic minorities.  The article is also the first to textually refer to AIDCI.

The Hou Brothers

 
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.

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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.

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.