Assistant Professor,Department of English,
Migration is an important event in the history of human beings. Several factors are responsible for migration such as unemployment, population growth, political oppression, racism etc. Migration depends on the social circumstances faced by individuals. However, with the rise of the colonies of the Western world there has been a subsequent increase in migration and most of these migrations were either forced such as slavery, exile etc. or voluntary as in case of indentured labours, soldiers etc. Whatever may be the cause of migration whether it is within the country or outside the state it often brings a feeling of being rootless and a sense of alienation. Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days was published in 2018. It presents the heart touching story of the Chinese people in Assam during the Indo-China war of 1962. The first part of the novel presents a picture of the early nineteenth century Assam, the discovery of tea by Robert Bruce and the steps taken by the British to establish tea gardens in Upper Assam with the help of Chinese labourers brought from mainland China. The second part of the novel presents post independent Assam with its flourishing tea gardens and the assimilation of the Chinese workers and labourers into the cultural mosaic of Assam after staying here for three or four generations and the arrest and deportation of the Indian Chinese (Chinese migrants apart from Assam who settled in different parts of India particularly West Bengal) to Maoist China. The third part of the novel presents the hardships of these people in their own homeland which had become for them strangely foreign. The novel presents a picture of the marginalization of a group of people who are presented with a dilemma of identities. The aim of this paper is to present how identities of the Chinese migrants are twisted, turned and changed from time to time to meet the demand of the hour and the political authority.
Keywords: migration, diaspora, alienation, rootlessness, assimilation, identity
Stuart Hall in his seminal essay “Cultural identity and Diaspora” proposes that cultural identity is not a fixed essence but a matter of positioning which responds to specific historical contexts and at the same time it is not an accomplished product but a production which is always in a process (Pines 222). Critics like Chris Weedon too believe that identity is not a fixed entity but an ever changing phenomenon and will change according to the context in which it is used (Weedon 6). In a post colonial era identity is not fixed, it is always in a state of flux and ambivalent. For Homi Bhabha identity is not something fixed, rooted or binary rather it is a process of negotiation and of articulation. But Bhabha ignores or forgets the fact that identity is also socially sanctioned and validated as proposed by Nair (Nair 205).
Identity of a migrant community is dependent upon the historical relationship between the guest and the host countries. Migrants often carry a fractured identity among themselves where the adopted culture treats them as marginals and their own cultural identity is almost lost. Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days deals with a group of Chinese migrants in India particularly in a small town called Makum in Upper Assam. Chowdhury begins her novel with the history of the discovery of tea in the Singpho kingdom of Upper Assam and its subsequent cultivation and the coming of the Chinese people in Assam.
Until the mid-nineteenth century China enjoyed the monopoly in the cultivation and trading of tea. Tea was a popular drink throughout Europe but the British in no way could capture the trade from China as well as the secret behind the cultivation of tea. The European traders were mostly at the mercy of the Chinese who kept a tight grip on the business. Foreigners were not allowed inside China. As Rita Chowdhury writes, “The Europeans were at severe disadvantage, as the Chinese were not willing to exchange tea for anything but silver.” (17)
In order to get back its silvers that the British East India Company spent on tea it devised a notorious plan of flooding the Chinese market with opium produced in India. As more and more Chinese people got addicted to opium the British managed to get back a sizeable percentage of silver that they paid for tea. Thereafter, as the ruling Chinese Empereror put a ban on the import of opium it became pertinent for the British to explore the possibility of tea cultivation within their colonies. Finally their dream of cultivating tea outside China became true when in the 1830s Robert Bruce, an explorer and employee of the British East India company discovered tea in the Singpho kingdom. The Singphos drank a type of beverage that tasted just like tea and it was called “Phalap”. In 1836, the East India Company’s Tea Committee formally authenticated this tea discovery. Even after its formal authentication the tea experts believed that the Assam variety might be too wild to be drunk. Under such circumstances the British East India Company needed expert Chinese tea growers who could nurture the China plant in Assam. While on one hand the British were in urgent need of the Chinese who could teach them the techniques of tea cultivation the Chinese were also in need of proper livelihood as the Southern part of China were under severe flood and famines. China was going through a period called Daoguang Depression. The Yellow River floods of 1824-1826 precipitated famines in both northern and southern China leading to severe peasant unrest and urban food riots. Chinatown Days also presents instances of slavery being practiced in many parts of the country during the reign of the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty. A particular town in the Chinese Province served as a slave market where starving people sold off their offsprings. Such was the socio-economic condition of the common man in China which compelled them to become easy prey for the British agents who were looking for such Chinese people who could teach the techniques of tea cultivation in Assam. This situation served as the base for the coming of the Chinese community in India.
Through the character of Ho Han, Chowdhury tries to show that on one hand the common Chinese people who more or less became slaves of comparatively wealthy merchants wanted their freedom back and wished to live a better life – the life of human beings not beasts and the British were in urgent need of such China men who could teach the locals of Assam the method of tea cultivation so that the British could cultivate tea in Assam and end the monopoly of China over tea cultivation and trading. Accordingly many Chinese men lured by the British agents with prospects of a comfortable life in a golden country outside China arrived in India. Chowdhury in her seminal text describes the route the Chinese agents employed by the British followed. The Chinese migrants were first housed in Penang. “Penang was a major distribution centre for the coolie trade”. (55). Ho Han and Ho Yen worked in a tin mine for some years before arriving at Calcutta. A new agreement was made by a Chinese agent Yi Kan with them and the owner of the tin mine in Penang. It was only after arriving in Calcutta they came to know that they were to move to Assam to work in the tea gardens. But a few of the Chinese coolies stayed back in Calcutta. Before moving to Assam Lum Kwa, a Chinese agent of the British employed in coolie trade told Ho Han that there were four hundred Chinese families in Calcutta. According to Lum Kwa, “…a Chinese called Yong Atchew first came here to live. He set up a sugar mill. He brought with him a hundred Chinese men who knew how to make sugar. But the mill was a failure and a few years later, Yong Atchew passed away. However the workers stayed on. Some Chinese sailors who ran away from their ships also stayed on here and in this way a lot of people from China, especially from Kwangtung, came to be residents in this city.” (58)
Once Ho Han and his companion Ho Yen arrived in Assam they were employed in the tea gardens along with other labourers brought from other parts of India particularly Bilaspur in Chattisgarh. As Nair says that identity is socially sanctioned and validated so Ho Han and other Chinese men like him abandoned their old identity as slaves and became Chinese coolies of the tea gardens of Assam. Apart from being coolies these Chinese people also served as expert carpenters who built wooden bungalows of the managers of the tea gardens. Again as has already been mentioned earlier that identity is not a fixed or an accomplished product but always in a state of progression so in post independent India the identity of these Chinese labourers or coolies changed from labourers or coolies to Chinese-Assamese, a small community that developed through intermarriage and became an integral part of the Assamese society till 1962 when the catastrophic Indo-China war changed the entire scenario.
When the second part of the novel opens in January, 1962 at a place called Makum in Upper Assam the descendants of Ho Han, Ho Yen and many more Chinese had been living in harmony for almost a century. They were third or fourth generation Chinese living in Assam. Way back in 1962 the Chinese community did not remain centered at the tea gardens only but spread across the entire region. One such area was the Cheenapatti of Makum, the biggest Chinatown in Assam. The descendants of these Chinese migrants had already assimilated into the cultural life of Assam where it seemed impossible to believe that a situation might arise when their loyalty and identity would be questioned. Unfortunately, it happened and the political scenario of the War demanded the deportation of these third or fourth generation Chinese back to their long forgotten homeland. The political agencies considered them as threats to the integrity and security of the country. As a result these Chinese migrants both from Assam and other parts of the country especially Calcutta and Darjeeling were sent overnight to a detention camp in Rajasthan under inhuman condition packed in a train which stopped only at isolated places to provide food and water to the people. In the detention camp too they were treated as enemies of the country. The character of Mei Lin presents the inhuman condition in which she was taken away by the police from the home of her in-laws without giving her a single opportunity to meet her husband Pulok Barua. Most of the events related to the war, the journey to the detention camp, deportation and the aftermath of the deportation are presented through the eyes of Mei Lin. It is in the detention camp she learns that she is carrying Pulok’s child in her womb. Despite that she never receives any mercy from the authorities and is being deported to Communist China.
The identity of these Chinese people was shaped by the historical and the political context in which they were placed. The irony was that even after staying for more than hundred years and showing concern, love and loyalty for the country which became their home centuries ago they were considered by the Indian Government as enemies of the country who threatened the security of the nation. Since fate and identity of a migrant depends a lot on the historical here, the Indo-China War broke the trust and faith of the people as well as the government that the Chinese migrants had created by their hard work, diligence and loyalty.
When they reached their main homeland China, they were called Returned Overseas Chinese by the Chinese officials but the local public treated them with anger and disgust and regarded them as shameless foreign devils thrown out people from India. They refused to give them due recognition as their own people but called them as usurpers of their land and food. Even they considered themselves as “valueless returnees, thrown out by the enemy country”. (327)
In Chinatown Days Rita Chowdhury presents the story of the Chinese migrants in Assam, their gradual assimilation in the society and transformation of their identities from time to time. In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of the triple disruption that a full migrant suffers viz. losing of place, facing an alien language and being surrounded by beings whose social behavior and codes are very unlikely (Rushdie 277). Now, in order to define a human being roots, language and social norms occupy an important place and when a migrant is denied all these elements he is bound to find new ways to define himself as a human being. As such when migrants move from their own cultural background to another they must know to navigate between two or more cultures and try to find a balance between them so that they may adapt well to the new cultural circumstances of which they have become a part of. According to Bhabha under such circumstances migrants often end up in an in-between stage and develop a hybrid identity or often a fractured identity (Bhabha 75). When the Chinese first arrived in Assam they had lost their land but believed that one day they would return back to their homeland, they had come to a land where the language and customs of the people were very different from their own. But after a few years assimilation of the Chinese within the Assamese society took place. From being labourers of the tea gardens these Chinese people became the inhabitants of a Chinese settlement area called Cheenapatti, the biggest Chinatown in North East India. When the Sino-China War took place in 1962, they were prosperous businessman, carpenters, mechanics etc. But they had no ties with their homeland; even many of them had forgotten their own language and spoke Assamese. They were the Sino- Assamese community of Assam.
When Bhabha says that identity is not fixed we see that the identity of the Chinese too was not fixed as coolies but travelled from being coolies of Chinese descent to Sino- Assamese or in broader sense Indian Chinese as Assam is a state of India and the Assamese are Indian citizens. Even though the term Indian was affixed to their Chinese identity and they considered themselves as Indian citizens the Indian Government refused to accept them as Indians and labeled them as foreigners who could harm the country. As a result many of them were deported to China and the Chinese Government readily accepted them as its own people along with a few Indians who were the family members. However, once again their identity changed, the local people of their homeland refused to acknowledge them as pure Chinese like themselves but as thrown away foreign devils. Even they did not know which side of the McMohan Line was their home. They were neither pure Chinese nor Indians. They were rootless people left at the mercy of the political authorities. They bore a fractured identity. Fractured means something that is broken. People like Mei Lin, Yunlin, Mei Fung and the others could neither become Indians nor could they consider themselves as Chinese. The country where they stayed for more than hundred years threw them out and the homeland of their forefathers regarded them as dirty half Chinese.
According to Rita Chowdhury the people still live with unhealed wounds still unable to comprehend why they were deported even though they were Indian citizens for generations. The dilemma of a migrant is very poignantly depicted in the novel. After staying for about hundred years the Indian Government refuses to recognize them as Indians and throws them out of the country. On the contrary the Maoist Government of China accepts them as its own people but the Chinese society and the local leaders of the Cultural Revolution suspect them as spies of a capitalist country and usurpers of their lands. On both sides of the Mc Mohan Line they are a marginalized community forcefully pushed to the margins by the people in power. The Indian Chinese keep on oscillating between their adopted homeland and the homeland of their forefathers.
According to a popular Hindu myth the great sage Vishwamitra created a new heaven for the mortal king Trishanku whom the sage sent to heaven alive but was denied entry. In order to keep his promise the sage created a space between heaven and earth along with a handful of heavenly bodies amidst which Trishanku ruled with his posture upside down. Thus, Trishanku’s location refers to an in-between space. Uma Parmeshwaran in Trishanku and Other Poems aptly uses the myth to describe the experience of rootlessness and search for identity for an immigrant. The term ‘Trishanku’ originates from the Hindu myth of king Trishanku’s suspension between heaven and earth (Bhat 113). In such a situation wishes for a better life are fulfilled but the desire to retain the cultural identity of the homeland fails. In the novel we come across Chinese people who have forgotten their native tongue, “We have forgotten our language” (124). The journey of more than a hundred years had taught the Chinese community in Assam to navigate between two cultures. They had adapted themselves to the new cultural circumstances that they were part of but the Indo-China War changed the complete social and political scenario associated with the Indian Chinese. Almost overnight the world of these people turned upside down and they were deported into a land from where their forefathers came but to them strange and unknown. They were left with a divided soul, “A part of their divided heart and divided identity! This was a foreign state now, an enemy of China. No doors were left open for return! No passage back to their dear ones! No gateway to their own society! (324) and in China they were valueless returnees. Their “Trishanku” position is clearly reflected as they failed to establish as to which country they belong.
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