As Xi meets Modi, Chennai’s Chinese community hope to witness the ‘Wuhan spirit’

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 10:00am, 12 October, 2019

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  • For the past seven decades, the southern Indian city has been home to some 15 ethnic Chinese families, whose forebears fled during China’s civil war

  • As the second informal Xi-Modi meeting takes place amid strained bilateral relations, the community is hopeful for an outcome that will help bridge cultural ties

A few members of Chennai’s ethnic Chinese community pictured at the home of David Ma, extreme right. Photo: Kunal Purohit

As a boy growing up in India, David Ma listened to stories about his grandmother braving a crackdown by communist militias and fleeing Wuhan, China. Reaching what was then called Burma, she walked for days to its shores, before taking a boat to the southern Indian city of Chennai.

 

For Ma, Wuhan has remained a place from where his family had to escape.

 

Which is why when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on Saturday to invoke the conciliatory “Wuhan spirit”, 50-year-old Ma will be watching closely.

 

He is among dozens of people in Chennai who trace their origins to Chinese lands, but have made Chennai – the city where the second informal Xi-Modi summit is taking place – their home for the past seven decades.

Despite being around for years, their existence remains a little-known secret in the bustling city of over seven million people.

 

While the Indian establishment has been showcasing the ancient Chinese links that Mamallapuram and Chennai share, these families have a more current link to China and Wuhan in particular.

 

The central Chinese city of Wuhan was where Modi and Xi last April held their first informal summit, in pursuit of smoother ties.

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping pictured in Wuhan last April. Photo: Xinhua

Early days 

Chennai’s Chinese community arrived just before World War II, escaping the civil war in China. 

There are no official figures but Ma estimates there are about 15 such families in the city – and they are now into their fifth generation.

Sitting in the living room of his house, the soft-spoken Ma reminisces on his childhood, frequently breaking into a smile, even when sombre.

 

“My grandmother had to flee because things were very tough for the poor in China then, during the civil war. If you didn’t support the Communists, you could be killed,” he says, speaking in fluent Hindi and Tamil.

"The police suspected one of my aunts and her family were Chinese spies. In one swoop,

they were all deported to Hong Kong."

DAVID MA

 

To arrive in Chennai, a city with barely any migrant population, was not easy. The community initially struggled with language, food and daily provisions.

But more than anything else, what affected the community was the fluctuations in India-China ties, David says.

India was among the first nations to establish diplomatic ties with China in 1950. But a decade later, the two sides found themselves in a murky boundary dispute which ended in a war in 1962.

Often, the community’s fortunes mirrored the ebb and flow in the ties. At their lowest point, during that war, the community too bore the brunt of anti-China animosity.

“There used to be a lot of misunderstandings in those days. The police suspected one of my aunts and her entire family – who like us, had fled from China – were Chinese spies. In one swoop, they were all deported to Hong Kong,” Ma says.

A Lunar New Year lion dance performance seen in India. Photo: Alamy

Alien tongues

As the years went by, things got better for Chennai’s tiny Chinese population.

Now, the community is facing a different kind of issue. Being born and raised in India has meant their links to Chinese culture and traditions have weakened.

Ma’s father, 83-year-old Ma Yau Chung, says the linguistic abilities erode with each new generation.

“Among the children, barely anyone can speak Chinese. They all want to speak English and maybe some other language too, but not Chinese,” says Ma Yau Chung.

"We speak English and Hindi at home, and we eat various Indian cuisines as much as we eat Chinese food."

DAVID MA

 

Ma says most people in the community do not make a conscious effort to keep Chinese traditions alive.

“I remember when growing up, during Lunar New Year, we used to all gather in a large group, exchange red envelopes and celebrate it together. Now, most families just have a quiet meal among themselves,” says Ma.

Much of it has also to do with how far the community has integrated into life in India.

“We speak English and Hindi at home, and we eat various Indian cuisines as much as we eat Chinese food,” says Ma, who works as a dentist.

In fact, when some of his family members visited Hong Kong and Macau recently, they felt homesick for Indian food, Ma’s wife Esther says. “They could not bear the Chinese food served there and missed having Indian dishes.”

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram. Photo: Twitter

The China-India equation

For a while now, relations between India and China have been frosty, with the two nations bickering over various issues.

For many observers, this trip is a chance for both sides to thaw the chill in ties, even though they are cautious about their expectations from the summit.

“Xi’s visit is a good development. If the summit means good things for the two countries, then we are happy as well,” Ma says. “But the way things have been between the two currently, I don’t expect anything substantial to emerge.”

Ma, who does not believe much of the media’s reporting on Beijing, hopes that cultural exchanges between the two countries will help to clear some misconceptions about China.

“People often create an image of something based on what they read and hear. That is not the right away to create one’s perception,” Ma says. “People-to-people ties are a must for this and I hope the two countries facilitate that.”

As the two leaders try and revive the Wuhan spirit and recover from chilly relations, Chennai’s Chinese community hopes its prayers will also be heard.

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