Indian Chinese in Chennai

Some take him for a Bengali, while others dismiss him as a foreigner. But Dr Sen is neither. He is the friendly neighbourhood dentist on Chennai‘s busy Evening Bazaar Road who effortlessly switches from speaking to patients in Madras Tamil to chat in a south central Chinese dialect to his wife Shieh Shih Yu.

Dr Sen, who is of Chinese origin, uses the last part of his name, Shieh Thou Sen, to make it easy for fellow Indians to remember him. “Chinese names are difficult to pronounce,” says the doctor, who studied in Madras Medical College. Like other Chinese dentists on the road, he is a second generation settler to whom Chennai is home.

“My father reached Madras in 1939 via Calcutta. He left Hubei province after he got married and sailed to India with others from his hometown because he wanted to see the world,” says Dr Sen. “Or it may have been due to political turmoil,” he says, leaving the details vague.

Fellow doctor Hubert Gerard Hu is more forthcoming. His grandfather came to Chennai in 1933 from the Andamans . “After the first world war, the Japanese were killing men and kidnapping women, so people fled,” says Dr Hu. A group landed in Cuddalore, which was a prominent port then, and came to Chennai. “It was a struggle but they settled down here,” he says.

As they were all dentists, the seven families remained a tight group, living in and around Park Town, close to their clinics. “It was one big, joint family till my grandmother was alive,” says Sen’s wife Shih Yu. They don’t remember much of the happenings during the 1962 Indo-China war. “Unlike Mumbai and Kolkata, we are a small, peace-loving group here. Only our grandparents had to report at the immigration office during curfew as they didn’t have Indian passports,” says Dr Hu.

The initial settlers did think about returning. “But they liked it here and stayed back. Many died here and the next generation took over the practice,” says Dr Sen.

The next wave of settlers came in the 1970s. “My father, who was from Hakka region, migrated to Calcutta in 1949,” says restaurant owner Liu Kou See. Kou See’s family worked in restaurants that specialised in ‘Chinese food’ that was all the rage. Kou See thought of making it big in the south as the Indo-Chinese cuisine, which modified Chinese dishes to suit the Indian palate, was catching up here.

“Business was booming then but now the competition has gone up,” says Kou See, whose restaurant is near IIT-Madras . His family has also diversified into the beauty business, running parlours across the city. “We like it here. I realised that I can never settle in China after visiting it,” says Kou See, who is 60 years old and loves curries, biriyanis and the occasional ‘sappadu’ (traditional feast).

Though their ties to Chennai are still strong, the next generation wants to make their mark abroad. “Countries like the US and Australia are better for pursuing careers in medicine and dentistry ,” says Dr Hu. With youngsters moving out, the Evening Bazaar community is getting smaller. Dr Sen’s son and daughter are settled abroad.

But the older generation feels that change is inevitable . “My son is married to a Malayali and my daughter’s husband is an Indian Muslim. We are now more multi-cultural ,” laughs Dr Sen.

Source: Times of India – Chennai