A Chinese Centenarian From Tangra China-Town Reminisces His Life and Internment In India
Like the Chinese proverb says, it is not every day that one gets to meet and talk to a 100 years old person, one has to get lucky, I was able to do just that one day during the Chinese new year holiday at Calcutta ( now Kolkata) in 2013, my desire to meet him intensified when I was told that he too was interned for 5 years during 1962 when the border war broke out between India and China, this provided something in common for both of us to converse , this centenarian Mr. Yeh Ying-Xing is of my father generation that was born in the early 20th century, the most violent century in human history, but my father was not as lucky as living up to 100 to witness all the mind boggling global changes that are occurring around the world nowadays.Even at this age his mental faculty is still sharp and healthy, except that he needs assist to move around and relies on wheel-chair for mobility.
( Author with the Centenarian Yeh Ying-Xing, February, 2013)
Mr. Yeh was born in Moiyen (now Moizhou city) , Quongdong province of southern China In 1914, according to the old Chinese custom of age-keeping, a baby is one year old on the day the baby is born, because since conception the baby has actually grown 9 months in the mother’s womb. so Mr. Yeh is hundred years old in 2013 , no argument about that.
His lavish 100th birthday party was held on the terrace of his own building invited over 100 guests including the staff members of the Chinese Consulate in Kolkata, few of the guests that day could miss the significance of the event for honouring a remarkable man who scored a century in his life’s inning that was full of hard struggles, triumphs and turbulences, and it was only due to his unusual mental power and resilience that he could have survived this long.
At the age of 22 , after completing his High school ,(he was lucky to complete his high school education, because his family was living in the city, in those days China was in chaos, plagued by civil wars waged by various war-lords following the end of the last dynasty of Qing , in the country-side men of age between 15 to 55 were routinely picked up by warlords’ armies as conscripts to fight war ), he came to Decca which was part of British India then, (the present day Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh) to join as apprentice in a shoe-shop owned by his relative, after two years, he came over to Calcutta then a thriving commercial metropolis of the British Empire in the East, he joint the leather manufacture industry at Tangra, business was booming because leather production during WW1 and WW2 was considered a strategic production and got incentives. He was one of the pioneering Chinese generation who made Tangra a leading leather production center in Bengal.
Before that Tangra was a swamp used by the municipality as a refuges dumping ground , with the stench so bad few would want to go near it , they had to use the most primitive method to cure the stinking raw hikes and tanning with the minimum of machineries , life and occupation were considerably tough. But in spite of all these hardships and challenges they were able to survive and thrive.
He married a Tangram Born and bred Chinese girl name Liao Poa- lan in 1939, and have four sons and a daughter, he built his own leather factory and expanded his business considerably and went on to become the chairman of the Tangra Leather manufacturers Co-operative Society.
When India became Independent in 1947, he and his family members readily applied and got the Indian citizenship under the new Indian constitution, and like most of the members of the Chinese community living in India then , decided to assimilate into the India society and made India their home, as China was still in a terrible stage of bloody civil war, Like most of the India’s Chinese community then, he always voted for the Indian National Congress party in all the ensuing elections until 1962, ( incidentally Congress party never regain West Bengal after 1962, not that Chinese community in West Bengal has any swing vote to matter, but that was another story).
When the Chinese Communist party won the civil war in 1949 and established The People’s Republic of China in October 1949, India’s Chinese community, like the rest of the Chinese Diaspora all over the world quickly divided in two fractions, a pro-communist and other anti-communist , because a lot of the over-sea Chinese then were sceptical whether Communism will really work for China which has its own solid tradition and distinct culture stretching back to thousands of years.
When the first Chinese communist consulate was opened in early 1950s, Mr. Yeh used to get invited to the consulate functions and dinner parties, so did many local business and political leaders, it was a period of Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai era, then unfortunately, came the Dalai Lama after their failed armed revolt against the Chinese authorities in Tibet in 1959, Sino-Indian relationship deteriorated rapidly, the border demarcation disputes erupted into a short sharp war in October 1962, Mr. Yeh with many Tangra Chinese were arrested over night and put in jail, his properties and factory were taken over by The Custodian Of Enemy Properties. The entire India’s Chinese community was quickly demonized, and served a special Police Order stipulating that none of the ethnic Chinese that was living in India then could leave his/her registered address without the written permission of the concerned police station, some of the local Chinese who violated the aforesaid police order were sternly punished, Meanwhile, the arrest and deportation of the local Chinese were in full swing, in fact, the local Communist political leaders including Mr. Jyoty Basu were also put in Jail. Mr. Yeh also came to know through his wife, who used to bring his weekly rations from home to him, that a concentration camp for ethnic Chinese had been established in Rajasthan, and all arrested local Chinese were being sent there, by then every member of the India’s Chinese community had packed and kept the bags and beddings ready in anticipation of being picked up by the police in their nightly round-ups. For some un-explained reason Mr. Yeh was not sent to the Rajasthan camp, may be he was the Indian citizen card-holder, when asked what would he choose if given a choice, jail or internment camp? He thought for a moment and murmured that may be the internment camp which had thousands of internees would have reduced the soul-wrecking loneliness and anxiety of the jail, but in West Bengal jail he got to see his wife /family members once in a while, that would not have been possible in the concentration camp, his daughter interjected that he lost his freedom, his property and to lose the sight of his family could have been too much for him to bear, Mr. Yeh was jailed for more than five years without any charges, trial or conviction, when being released in 1967 he was required to sign an undertaking that he would not make any claim for compensation for being thus jailed. It took him over a year to recover his property and factory from The Custodian Of Enemy Properties. He and his family had to start all over again , focusing to rebuilding their shattered lives with all the strength and courage they could summon from within their battered body and soul, at that point of time, the biggest fear among all the ex-internees were they might become destitute for the rest of their lives, if they failed to rebuild their lives because of the financial and psychological blows they suffered. Mr. Yeh re-emphasizes that in this victimization episode of 1962 , his family suffered the most in financial and physical terms. His eyes brighten up when told that there is now a group of ex-internees and human-right advocate group contemplating and working on an appropriate plan to petition the Indian authorities for an appropriate expression of regret or apology for having inhumanly and unjustly treated the innocent India’s Chinese community during 1962. He said at this age and point of time, he has no grudge or animosity against his jailer or desire anything form the authority, but something ought to happen for closure of this very unfortunate episode, whereby the collective emotion and psychology of an entire minor community were so badly scarred. more than 90% of the Indian’s Chinese community population is gone now, but fear and insecurity still exist sometime among the rest.
His lavish 100th birthday party was held on the terrace of his three- storey building by his loving family , when I shook his hand and wished him many returns of the day, I could not help but bow my head in salutation to a man who managed to live to be a centenarian in spite of un-imaginable challenges and tragedies , through my moist eyes , I could see this is a man of extraordinary fortitude and resilience, a living paradigm for a tiny but unique community that used to live in India that has witnessed so much turmoil , many of them near fatal, but still bravely soldiering on,though in a very venerable stage. I hope I could attend his 101st birthday.