Chinese Indian or Indian Chinese?

Severin Kuok, PhD Scholar, Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi & Institute of Chinese Studies-Harvard-Yenching Institute Fellow

Few in India are aware of the 3,000 odd Chinese Indians – people of Chinese origin who reside in India – who were deported by the Indian authorities in the aftermath of the India-China border clash of 1962. This has resulted in the lack of understanding and/or information about what happened to this group of people after they were sent to China or about what are their conditions now.

Several that were impacted by this deportation had been incarcerated in Deoli in Rajasthan[1] from late 1962 to early 1963 and had been released subsequently on the condition that they would leave India at once. The Chinese government, aware of such deportation orders from Indian authorities, despatched a ship (Zhonghua) to bring such people back to China. In addition to those who were handed such marching orders, there was a small minority who voluntarily chose to return to China as they found conditions in India becoming increasingly hostile both economically and socially.

I met Lin Yuehao in Luliang Huaqiao Nongchang[2] (Luliang Overseas Chinese Farm) in Luliang County in Yunnan Province in southwest China. Her family is a close friend of my maternal uncle who is also a resident of this nongchang. Her grandfather had gone to India from Guangdong in the early 20th century. She is not sure what drove him to move to India or why he finally decided to settle down there. He married a local Assamese woman and had several children with her. One of these children is Lin Yuehao’s father Lin Caiming who grew up in India and had also married an Assamese woman.

In 1963, Lin Yuehao’s grandfather had been given deportation orders by the Indian authorities. He came to China on the Zhonghua along with his wife and children (several of whom including Yuehao’s father were already married by then). Lin Yuehao and her five five siblings were all born in China.

When one meets Lin Yuehao for the first time, one is a bit taken aback by her very Indian physical appearance in a very Chinese context. She speaks with you in Mandarin or the local Yunnanese dialect like a native and one tries to grasp at the incongruity between her physical appearance and her speech. This could, on second thoughts, be compared to the fluent Hindi and or local dialect that Chinese Indians speak and shock listeners with by their fluency in India. What is even more commendable is that despite her upbringing in China, she can still speak Hindi (of course with an Assamese intonation and dialectical inflection) and Assamese quite fluently. She said her mother forbade the children from using any Chinese that they learnt in school inside their home and would insist they speak the Indian languages. According to Yuehao, her mother wanted her children to retain some part of their Indian culture, however ‘hostile’ the environment. Not only she, but all her siblings are equally fluent in the Indian languages and love to watch old Bollywood movies and songs. It was hard to get hands on such prized items during earlier years and what they possess now, is courtesy of their relatives in Hong Kong.

Yuehao grew up in the nongchang and Luliang is her home. She is married to another Chinese Indian from Kolkata whose family also came to the nongchang. She studied in the local school run by the nongchang and the last job that she held before retiring last year[3] was working at the county toll booth. She has now settled into a comfortable life where she earns a decent retirement pension and her husband makes his living by running a small grocery shop in the village. They both own a handsome two-storey villa which was built a few years ago by them on land given to them by the Chinese government. The house has four bedrooms, a car garage and a backyard and is very well furnished. She said that although the government had given the residents some part of the construction cost, that was only enough for the basic structure. All other costs had to be borne by the owners themselves. Thus, each family has furnished their house according to their individual financial means, including savings that they had accumulated from working in their danwei before they retired.

Before Yuehao retired, she owned a small plot of land like all other residents from which she earned a small annual rent after having sub-contracted it to a cultivator labourer. But, on her retirement she had to return the ownership of this plot to the government in exchange for her life-long monthly pension. Financially, the family seemed to be quite comfortable.

When asked if she would like to go to India, Yuehao smiled with a touch of melancholy. She stated that she wanted to but since she had no contact with relatives from her mother’s family, she did not know whom to visit there. She felt that she could consider going there as a tourist but was concerned about her perceived lack of language skills (despite the fact she speaks Hindi fairly well) and her ability to manage by herself in a strange country as well as the financial costs of the trip which would be a considerable burden for her with her limited means. Even though she has a fixed comfortable pension, she would need to save for many months or even years to be able to afford a trip to India. So, she continues to hope that she can make it one day, if only to see her mother’s village and possibly buy some sarees and salwar kameez of the latest fashion for herself to wear on special occasions.


[1] Deoli: Deoli is a city and a municipality in Tonk district, 85kms from Kota.

[2] Luliang County (陆良县) is a county under the administration of the prefecture-level city of Qujing in Yunnan.

[3] Retirement age differs in China according to sex. Men generally retire at 60 but women have to retire at 50.

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