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Overseas Chinese in India, part II

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Overseas Chinese in India: Thick Description, II
Lunch conversation with Tony Leong and Lawrence Liang

The following is a record of a conversation that I had with Tony Leong and Lawrence Liang in a high class East Asian restaurant off Cunningham Road in Bangalore. Both of my conversation subjects were of Chinese descent but were born and raised in India. Our discussions were based around Chinese communities in India, as well as various off topic stories, personal philosophies, and random anecdotes. This is a product of my fieldwork on Chinese communities in India, and I have written this piece from my own perspective; therefore, my opinions, thoughts, and impressions are evident throughout.

17 November 2006:

Tony Leong, a third generation Overseas Chinese in India, called the South Asia center in regards to me the day after he gave a lecture there. I was not in; so he called back the next day when I was in Mandarin class, and a message was taken down for me. By the time that I had finished class I was about ready to forget about everything for a few minutes and quickly leave the center. I was then given the message that he called; so I called him back. I was not in the mood to do anything that had anything to do with school and the prospect of engaging in an afternoon of fieldwork was not enticing. I was worn out. I did not want to talk to anybody, let alone in a formal ‘interview’ setting for an Ethnography project. But I called him back anyway thinking that he had procured a book for me (on Kolkata’s China town) that I had asked him to try to find.

On the phone he said that he thought that I showed a good deal of interest in his lecture, which I did, and wanted to know if I wished to meet with him again to learn more about the overseas Chinese of India. I said that I would love to; so he said that he would be over to the center in 15 minutes to meet with me. This was it; the start of a day in the field. Grudgingly, I smiled.

Tony was right on-time. He also brought with him the human-rights lawyer Lawrence Liang; who is somewhat of a legend in the Indian Chinese community. I shook their hands and we sat down in the class area of the South Asian Center for a short talk. They were the typical Chinese looking men- black pointy hair, short, wide faced, a little stocky- and the generations of Indian living did not alter their appearance at all. They were both really talkative and would get loudly excited when they told stories. Their conversations had a way of elevating in decibels as they went on in a particularly Chinese fashion. We hit it off initially, as I rather enjoy the Chinese manner of conversation, and our talks danced around China and our plans to return. Both men have only visited China and, from what they told me of their visits, I had the impression that I had spent far more time there than both of them combined. Tony told me how he was, essentially, a tourist in China; albeit one who could blend in and look like a local. I did not get much information on what Lawrence’s visits to China entailed but they did not seem to be very intensive. He told me that he was planning on leaving for Hong Kong on the same day that I am to speak at a conference in Beijing. They also talked a little about the restaurant business (Toney was a restaurant owner) and how they know of a man who ran Chinese restaurants in India and Indian ones in China. Tony and Lawrence talked as men on top of the world and seemed to even enjoy telling me their stories [I did not know then, nor do I now, what Tony’s purpose was behind his somewhat incessant attempts to contact me. I assume that it is a rare case when informants try to find researchers- (*)]. They both seemed like real jolly typically Chinese fellows, and when Tony invited me out to lunch I gladly accepted.

Lawrence’s family was from south-eastern China and spoke Cantonese. I think that he was also a third generation overseas Chinese in India. I did not get much more information on his family during the course of our talks; which is something that I would really like to pursue later on in this study. Lawrence is a human-rights lawyer who would often take on cases of ideology. I was told that he represents gays, minorities, women, Tibetans, and the whole round of dispossessed people in India. He is also very active in the intellectual copyright debate (more of this later).
Tony’s family was also from S.E. China, and he spoke Hakka as his native language. He told me that his grandparents migrated to India in 1947 [I wonder how they bypassed the deportation waves subsequent to the Sino-Indian war]. His English was jotted with a slight Chinese accent; which implied to me that he did not speak any Indian languages very frequently while growing up. His mannerisms- the way he walked, sat, talked, gestured- reminded me very much of native Chinese in China [I found it very interesting how many of the subtle ways of Chinese communication have stayed so thoroughly intact. It almost leads me to think that the Chinese mannerisms that his grandparents held sixty years ago stayed in-tact in India-(*)].
Neither Lawrence nor Tony could speak Mandarin; though they seemed as if they wanted to learn [which could have been a put-on to make up for their lack of knowledge of the standard Chinese language].

We then left the South Asia Center and got into Tony’s van. We drove over to a really posh East Asian Restaurant which was just around the corner from the SAC that I had never been to before (it was way out of my league). We were sat at the front table, which was large and round. Lawrence sat at one side and I sat at the other with Tony between us-(*). Our conversations were mildly impeded by the large size of the table, and I often missed many thinks that Lawrence said. The waiters were also impervious; they would continually bring and then dish out the food in a way that would disrupt our conversations. Many times Lawrence would be in the middle of making a point when a waiter would come up to the table and interrupt him. The story would then be lost; as both Tony, Lawrence, and, unfortunately, myself were all vying for conversation space in which to show our knowledge. In this setting, I found it difficult to implement a ‘by the book manner of fieldwork’ and I also felt the pressing human need to be a ‘friend’ rather than an ethnographic fieldworker-(*). I had my voice recorder in my pocket and a notebook and pen in my hand but I did not use them, as I felt that they would formalize the mood and chasten the free flow nature of the conversation. I was just meeting these men and I thought that it would be more beneficial to my academic interest if I provided them with an impression of me that was ‘human’ rather than professional. Bluntly speaking, I also did not feel like making this a formal session; I wanted to get to know my informants through the lens of personality; I wanted to have a part in our relationship, rather than intentionally constructing a layer of abstraction around myself. Perhaps this is an example of shoddy field work, but I feel as if I acted in accords with my situation. I realize that may have lost information (I know I did) from this free form “technique,” but I also recognize that I may have concurrently gained extra information as well; as pertinent information comes from all directions and not just those that I plan on it coming from. Who can know? Fieldwork is always a learning experience.
When we first arrived at the restaurant and were seated, we began looking through the menu; which was full of nice East Asia delicacies that were all priced in the hundreds of rupees. I could not afford such a meal; so I quickly scoured the prices to find something under five dollars- there was not much. Then Tony and Lawrence ordered a wide range of food and indicated that they included me in this, which meant that I was their guest. I must say that I was much relived and appreciative of this.

Lawrence quickly jumped into conversation; he began many of his statements with, “I have a theory about this….I have a theory about that.” He seemed to really like to show himself off, and he would ask me if I have ever read certain authors and so on… He was definitely proud of himself; he seemed to really like sharing his knowledge and was absolutely willing to answer any question that I could put forth. From his conversations, I could tell that he also possessed very well-worn and widely dispersed contacts within the Chinese community- he was the perfect contact. But the one thing that made me question him a little was the manner in which he barraged me with hints and direct statements that would indicate his social status [perhaps a common Asian tactic to allow others to gauge your standing; which, in the Asian context, may be a polite thing to do]. He seemed to be very concerned that I knew where he stood in society- that he was a ‘go to man’ [which I feel confident that he is]. He offhandedly would tell me about how he had to speak at some conference at Yale; how he had a hand in this incident of prestige, and how he took that righteous action…..he wanted me to think of him in a certain way, and was very insistent upon it. He was a show-man; he was a lawyer.

Early on in the conversation I asked Lawrence why he wanted to become a lawyer (Lawrence the lawyer sounded rather humorous to me). He answered simply, “I talk a lot.” That he did. Then he went on telling of some righteous reasons as to why he perused the profession which were fairly obvious and do not need to be repeated (desire to help people and all that). I think he loved the attention that lawyers receive in all facets of life, and he seemed to make good use of it.

Lawrence and Tony talked about the President of China’s upcoming visit to Bangalore and of the surrounding political ramifications. This led us to discussing China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh. I asked them what they thought of this issue; as, by being of Chinese descent in India, they kind of float on both sides of the line. Lawrence said that it is an issue of two sides having different maps. I tried to press this issue further by bringing up the McMahon line and the historical issues inherent to how British-India seized the presently contested land from Tibet [and if Tibet is historically a part of China, as they claim it is, then British-India would have, essentially, taken territory from China]. But they just kind of dropped the discussion. “Yes,” Lawrence said, “two different sets of maps.” There was nowhere else for me to go with this and I did not really want to have the Tibet discussion anyway.

But the instance of the Chinese president’s visit did provide impetuous for Lawrence and Tony to launch into a tale about the last time he came to Bangalore. I do not know how long ago this visit happened but I am under the impression that it was not too long ago (within the past year). The president of China came to India and the whole Overseas Chinese community was in an uproar. Tony told me about how everybody in the community wanted to greet him but only a few people would be allowed to do so. So the Chinese association in Bangalore needed to be called into action to choose who would get the privilege of meeting the president. I was told that ‘face’ played a large part in this proceeding but they did not go much further this point (instead they opted to make sure that I knew what ‘face’ was- I did).

[I find it very interesting that people of Chinese descent who are at least three generations removed from their homeland felt so much connection to the political and ideological representation of China that they would battle each other to meet the president. This shows me that the Overseas Chinese community still very much identifies itself with China. Both Tony and Lawrence complemented this point by the way in which they continuously talked to me about China and how they had a good deal of knowledge of what was going on there. Or perhaps this was all a matter of ‘face’ and that the competition to meet the president was due to the fact that it would show the social hierarchy of the individuals within the community and really had nothing at all to do with the China. Perhaps, Tony and Lawrence’s desire to show their Chinese affinity was also an extension of ‘face’ motives which impelled them to present themselves to me in the way that they thought that I viewed them- through the lens of China].

It was decided through the Chinese association who would greet the Chinese president, and Lawrence and his brother [I did not seek any more information on his brother (!)] were among those chosen (the overseas community in Bangalore is small; and Lawrence is relatively prominent and his brother was the founder of the association]. So they greeted the president at the airport in the morning and went to watch his presentation. When the president was up on stage doing his president thing a Tibetan broke through the security barrier and dropped a ‘Free Tibet’ banner from the rafters. He was promptly arrested. We all laughed about this in support of the Tibetan. Then the punch line to this story came when Lawrence told me that he was the one who bailed the Tibetan out of jail [he later spoke of this as an act of righteousness- “They (overseas Chinese) were all concerned about the president while I was bailing out the Tibetan”] . We all laughed about this, and Lawrence and Tony thought this was REALLY hilarious. We all repeated the story a few more times- ‘he shook hands and welcomed the Chinese president in the morning and by evening he was bailing the Tibetan activist out of jail!’ The seeming irony of the situation was readily embraced: a Chinese bailed out of jail a Tibetan who just made a political statement against China! Lawrence went on to tell me how he took his case and the particulars of it. In the usual lawyer way, he said that the Tibetan would get off fine and would be alright (he is still on house arrest in Dharmasala). This act seemed to be the capstone definition of Lawrence’s show- a man of many faces fighting injustice on all fronts- (*). The way in which the story was told and the manner in which Tony (and myself) supported it was a mechanism in which Lawrence was given ‘face’ [this also enabled me to see the nature of Tony’s relationship with him].

In fact, the way these two men interacted with each other in this particular conversational setting (telling about themselves to an outsider) was very lop-sided. Tony would talk of Lawrence in a bright way, would support his stories and ideas, would bring up stories by which he could be shown off, and, perhaps most pertinent of all, gave conversational right-of-way to him. Tony also made a few subtle references that indicated his degree of familiarity with Lawrence, which may or may not have been influenced by my presence (to show me his status through routine connection with Lawrence). Such statements as “Ah, don’t get him started on this again,” and other such remarks showed that Tony wanted me to perceive his connection with Lawrence as being deeply route [I fully acknowledge that I could very well have exaggerated and given false meaning to these statements as well as my perception of Tony’s social affinity to Lawrence- (*)]. In the midst of all this attention, Lawrence seemed to hardly acknowledge Tony and did not bring up any of his activities. Overall, Tony was into Lawrence, Lawrence was into Lawrence, and I was into Lawrence; and Lawrence seemed to eat it up.

Early on in our conversation, Lawrence asked me what got me interested in China. I answered promptly with, “Old-time Chinese Poetry” and named off a few poets. Lawrence added on to my list with a few names but did not seem to really have that much of a knowledge based in Classical Chinese literature. [Usually when I tell Chinese people this in China they prompt me by asking me to recite poems or they do it themselves; as all school children in China have many classical poems ingrained into them]. This was exuberated by the fact that Lawrence followed up this exchange by asking me if I had ever read some anthology of Chinese short stories; which was a book published by some big time American university of English translations of the original Chinese [I did not ask if they could read Chinese -(!)]. He said that the book was very good but did not say anything more about it. Again, this may have been a put-on to reassert himself as an authority on China. In fact, almost all of Lawrence’s literary allusions (there were many) were of western, and most often American, origin. He made an allusion to Turkish poetry but, again, he did not back it up with any examples [he may have also wanted to go for obscurity here because he was making a counter point to a bold (and very much un-backed) statement that I made about how there is not much good contemporary poetry anywhere in the world]. But, again, almost all of his literary conversations revolved around western topics and ideas.

Lawrence was a very compelling conversationalist (though he seemed to be primarily interested in the speaking portion), and he brought up some interesting topics. One of which was his (maybe his?) observation that people who are really into eating are not as into sex, and, conversely, those who are really into sex show less inclination towards eating. I took this one step further and stated that this could be applied on a cultural scale; in which societies that have extensive cooking rites have rather restrictive sex (like India), whilst societies that wholly engage in sex have limited faculties in the kitchen (such as America). This was simply a good natured discussion and we laughed about the oddity of it. Lawrence summed it up when he stated that he “would rather eat a good meal.” Lawrence also had an interesting view on Anthropology. In our conversation we recognized that there is a new form of Orientalism that is occurring in the field of ethnology; as so much information that is being recorded about Asian culture is coming from the pens of westerners. In a time when Asia is becoming increasingly susceptible to western influence, the western idea of the east is also being imported by the east. I brought up the example of how a large number of Japanese youth loved the American movie, “The Last Samurai,” which shows Japanese culture through a western lens. Essentially, many Japanese seemed to apply this westernized version of themselves to themselves, and in fact self-fulfilled the exotic prophecies of the west. In point, Asia seems to be importing “Asia” in the same package as western movies, clothing, technology, and language. I was just getting going on this point when it was somehow annihilated by another topic of conversation [I was simply talking far too much and it greatly inhibited my fieldwork abilities-(*)]. Lawrence went on to talk about how he feels that Asian anthropologist need to do the same thing to the west as western anthropologist are doing to the east and that they should go to America and study their culture. Lawrence was in no ways opposed to westerners studying in Asia; he just felt as if the stream is a little one sided and, therefore, the collective stream of cultural knowledge is western dominated. He also drew a major differential between anthropological and ethnographic study. He said that he thought that ethnology was important, but to call it anthropology was a little pompous [these are my own words applied to him; I do not remember what he said exactly, and even when he said it I had a difficult time following him].

Lawrence is also very active in the intellectual copyrights debate, and deals with this issue in both the legal and social realms. His stance is that it is not acceptable for someone to copyright their work, as everything is a summation of everything else- there is no such thing as an independent idea [these perhaps are as much my own words as they were Lawrence’s]. He said that all artists takes influence from other places, and that it should not possible to section off a single ‘final source’ (for the sole monetary benefit of its ‘creator’) as if it is disconnected for all of its reference points. He also viewed this issue as being a manner of a historical oddity, as no one has ever before attempted to prevent all other people from enjoying and building upon their art. Lawrence thoroughly felt as if intellectual copyright laws were ridiculous, and he would get really excited and loud when talking about them. He said that this was one of the reasons that he was going to China; “to fight the debate at its source”, I chimed in smiling.

During these conversations we also had ample opportunity to discuss the main reason for us getting together: the Overseas Chinese communities of India. I started out by asking them about the Chinese in Bangalore. They told me that the “community” mostly consisted of a few hundred members; most of whom, such as my hosts, came from larger Chinese communities in other Indian cities. In response to my inquiries about the actions of the Chinese association, which was founded by Lawrence’s brother, they told me that their influence was slight and that they did not do much other than orchestrate a couple yearly get-togethers. Lawrence cut in here and told me about how they had tried to organize a more cohesive force but, “if you put two Chinese in a room together, they will immediately start gambling.” He seemed very put off by this activity, and spoke of it as a low point in Chinese culture [he kind of acted as if the gambling at the meetings undercut the influence of the organizers (including himself)]. They also implied that the Chinese community in Bangalore was not really a “community,” but rather just a socially associated handful of people with a similar background and appearance.

We then began talking of the Chinese community of Kolkata; which has the only recognizable ‘China-town’ in India. They said that they have many contacts there and then began talking about ethnography on this community. I asked them about how the book was received by the Chinese in India. They began by saying that it was a really good book and that they really liked it. But when I pressed the issue by asking how the immediate study-group reacted to it, Tony stepped it and said that, “They said that her observations were correct but her analysis was a little off.” Lawrence then changed his position and agreed with Tony. I then went on a slight rant about how people cannot know the intricacies of their socialization and how people inherently have think ideas of their culture that are not necessarily accurate. They agreed with me but did not add too much more. Tony then asked me about what aspect of Overseas Chinese culture in India I was most interested in. I thought for a moment and then said, “recreation,” in hopes that it would provoke an invitation to a Chinese gathering-(*). But Tony just laughed loudly and Lawrence made the self-parodying comment about how gambling and mahjong were the only things that I needed to know.

We then just made small talk, listened to Lawrence talk about his theories (which were mostly based upon twentieth century western philosophy), and Tony taught me some Chinese eating customs [some of which I did not previously know about- (*)]. Then Lawrence’s phone rang and he answered it and got into a very serious conversation. By the time he hung up his mood was changed. He said that he has a client who was just raped in the North of India and how she was at a police station as we were speaking. He seemed very concerned about this and made a sequence of follow-up calls to various people; putting on his lawyer jib as he did so. Tony and I just talked amongst ourselves as this was going on. Lawrence then told us a little more specifically what was happening. It seems that the Indian authorities were trying to get the girl to drop the charges on the account of the man saying that he would marry her if she did. We were all appalled by this and laughed in disbelief.

It was during this conversation that I began to notice how Tony and Lawrence talked about Indians as if they were disconnected from them. The looks on their faces and the tones of their voices when they would refer to Indians gave it away that they were not a part of the broader Indian social diaspora; that they viewed themselves as being separate, distinct, Chinese [if not “Chinese” then at least Overseas Chinese]. The uses of such disassociating words as ‘they’ and ‘them’ showed that there was a distinct dichotomy between the Overseas Chinese and the rest of India. I could also tell that they were not a part of “Indian” India. From the way that they conversed, what they told me of how they lived, their particular conception of ‘face’ politics, how they laughed, their humor, mannerisms, friendliness, all seemed to be very Chinese to me. If I did not previously know that they were third generation immigrants, I would have thought that they hopped off the boat yesterday. I also found that I code shifted to fit the situation, and I was speaking to them as I would to Chinese people in China- (*).

After the news of the rape situation, Lawrence’s mood changed drastically and he became less talkative and quite serious. This did not happen immediately after the phone call, as we carried on for a while as we were previously, but took around ten minutes to develop. Soon the conversation began to wan, and our lunch ended with me attempting to make one last philosophical point, which completely fell flat. Tony then told me that Lawrence was busy and that we had to go- (*).

Lawrence gave me his phone number on an old bakery receipt and Tony made sure that I still had his. We drove back to the street that the South Asia Center was on, shook hands, I thanked them for the meal, said goodbye, and I jumped out of the van and waved them away with mixed feelings- (*).

I subsequently left this meeting with Lawrence Liang and Tony Leong unsure of my success as a field researcher and even as a potential companion. Our conversation ended abruptly, and I kind of got the impression that they were tired of talking to me. But I did come away with a good deal more ethnographic data about Chinese communities in India; which, when it comes down to it, was my main intent. All for all, I must say that, although I did so in an eschewed manner, I ultimately achieved my research goals from this encounter.

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Filed under: Anthropology, India, Journalism

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 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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