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Overseas Chinese in India

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Overseas Chinese in India: Thick Description, I
A classroom meeting with Tony Leong

This following document consists of thick description notes of a classroom meeting with Tony Leong; who is a third generation Overseas Chinese that was born and raised in India. Mr. Leong came in to provide a ‘Global Migration and Refugee Studies’ class at the South Asia Center in Bangalore with a first-hand account of life in Chinese communities in India. The following is a record of my extended notes from his lecture, thoughts and observations that I made about its’ content, and a transcription of selected portions of his talk; of which I recorded with a digital recording device. My opinions have been strongly stressed throughout without regard to audience; as this is only a more in-depth declaration of my free-hand notes and not a final product of any kind. Proper English construction has also been abandoned; as its’ restrictive conditions would not properly fit the open and coded nature of these field-notes. This paper is a portion of my larger “Overseas Chinese in India” ethnography project, and thus should be read in conjunction with the rest of the study.

16 November 2006:

It was mid-morning when Tony Leong entered into the South Asian Center in Bangalore. He was a short, black haired, pot-bellied Chinese man who spoke English with a deridingly Chinese accent. He appeared to be full of nervous energy when he began to address the class: which consisted of a center advisor, an Indian co-speaker who was to talk about an unrelated topic, two students, and me. The mood of this meeting was highly informal, and our seats were arranged in a circle. Tony opened the dialogue by asking us students for some general information about ourselves. The first two students, whom were seated to my right, told of some things that they were interested in (which are of no pertinence to this study) and then I told him that the focus of my studies was on Chinese anthropology and language. I directed this statement directly towards him, and his ears seemed to perk up a little.

Tony began his lecture by telling us a little about his life as a person of Chinese descent who was born and raised in India. He said he grew up in the small Chinese community in Mumbai; where there is not a huge Chinese presence. He said that he was the third generation of his family to live in India. His grandparents came to India in 1948, as a result of an invitation from family members who were already there. Even though he was born and raised in India, the strength of his Chinese accented English gave me the impression that he did not have much contact with Indian communities while growing up. Tony’s way of speaking English sounded very similar to the Chinese in the south-east of China; which is where he came from. His soft R’s and choppy manner of speech was almost identical to that of the people who still live in his native region. If he did not previously tell me that he was born in India, I would definitely have thought that he arrived from China recently.

Tony went on to give us a short history of Hakka communities and why they have spread themselves all over the world. He said that the Hakka traditionally lived in Northern China but were uprooted by Mongolian invaders and were forced to move south. Now in motion, large segments of the Hakka community stayed somewhat transient, and have created communities all around the world. He also added that, due to the fact that the Hakka were from the north of China, their language is relatively close to Mandarin [but it is still considered to be a separate language rather than a dialect].

Tony told us that he became a mechanical engineer [he did not say where he studied] while in India and then he worked for John Deer for three years in Iraq. This got our attention and a student asked him to emphasis what he did there. Tony laughed and then made sure that we knew what John Deer was. Then he just restated that he had worked for them in Iraq without any further detail. He also did not mention anything about Chinese communities in the Middle East.

Tony then provided us with a short synopsis of the history of Chinese communities in India; with a special emphasis on the formation of the Kolkata Chinatown [which is the only fully recognizable Chinese community in India]. He said that Chinese first began coming to India to fill the British military needs for high quality leather products. As most native Indian communities have a strong taboo against producing and using leather goods there was a vacant niche that the Chinese willingly filled. Kolkata’s Chinatown now has around 17,000 members but is currently on the decline. Tony then told us that, “Chinatown is not a place where the Chinese run to to take shelter from the locals; it is a place that they build up to keep the locals from getting to them. . . and I can say that it is very racist; they don’t like to inter-mix.” To satisfy my own curiosity, I asked him how easily he could move between different Chinatowns around the world and if his Chinese appearance was enough to gain acceptance within these communities. He quickly answered in the affirmative and explained how most Chinatowns have reasonably large segment of people who can speak English and that he fits in pretty easily with this portion of the community.

Tony Liang then went on to explain how the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 greatly decreased the Chinese population in India. During the buzz of this dispute, thousands of Chinese were forcibly put into detainment camps (in Rajastan), and over 10,000 people of Chinese descent were deported to China. When these Chinese got to China they found themselves in a very precarious position, as many of them were born in India and have never even been to China before. This was also a very turbulent political time in China, and most of the deported Chinese, many of whom were private merchants, found it very difficult to adjust to life in communist China. I then asked him the criteria that the Indian government used in respect to the deportation of people of Chinese descent. He responded by saying that all Chinese who were born before 1950 were not necessarily given Indian citizenship and they could be deported. Tony then laughed about the fact that if an Indian was married to a Chinese who was selected to be deported they (the Indian) were deported as well. We all laughed at this, and Tony did so with a little added gusto [this is a prime example of Chinese humor].

Tony also talked about his visits to China. “I was a tourist,” he said, “but a private tourist.” He then laughed and told us about how he found it novel to fit into the crowd in China; as opposed to India where he stands out on the streets. He spoke of this as such, “One interesting feeling I had was (pause) I wasn’t feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb.” He then added that, “It is nice to be faceless.” [this was obviously an interesting experience for him, as throughout his entire life in India he did not look like the dominant population. Then upon entering China, he became a part of the crowd].

Tony Liang seemed to be entirely Chinese to me. His mannerisms, way of speech, and basic disposition reminded me very much of what I have observed in my friends and acquaintances in China. When, at the beginning of his talk, he said, “I think like an Indian,” I was a little taken aback. There seemed to be nothing Indian about him [this has been reinforced in subsequent meetings with him]. When I asked Tony if he still felt like an outsider in India, his reply was a simple and straight forward, “I do.”

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Filed under: Anthropology, Asia, India, Journalism, South Asia

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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