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.