Josie Axelsen: Indo-Sino border war prompted odyssey to Canada
Josie Axelsen, Vancouver Sun
Published: Monday, July 07, 2008
The guns could be heard crackling at the McMahon demarcation line along the India-China border in the northern frontier mountain ranges which are part of the majestic Himalayan chain. The Indian and Chinese border guards were engaged in one of their many recurring armed skirmishes, opening fire at each other in an effort to assert their territorial domain as had been the case over the years.
This most recent border dispute and assault took place in October 1962, when China again flexed her muscle power and attacked India. It escalated into what was known as the Sino-Indian war, which resulted in China gaining 15,000 miles of territory. The invasion of India resulted in 7,000 dead, missing or captured troops. This border conflict became the catalyst that created a whole new turn of events in the lives of my family and myself.
I, Josie (nee Tham), an ethnic Chinese born in India, was in my mid-teens at the time and lived in an extended family household which at one point consisted of my maternal grandmother, my mother (Gladys), my uncle, my two aunts and six children that ranged in age from eight to 18. My ancestors hailed from China’s southeastern coastal province of Guangdong and spoke the Toishan (Saiyap) dialect.
The story goes as far back as my great-great-grandfather, whose name was Attoo. He had journeyed from China, taking the eastern sea route via the South China Sea. He hoped to reach the North American continent, specifically San Francisco, during the heady era of the gold rush of the mid-l800s, in his search for “come san” or “gold mountain” – “the land of opportunities.”
His seagoing vessel was obviously not very seaworthy and capsized in a typhoon. He hung on for dear life and managed to survive by floating on flotsam until he was washed ashore in the estuarial area near the northeastern coastline of India by the Bay of Bengal and from where he made his way into Calcutta (now known as Kolkata).
He thus settled and became a community leader in this Indian city situated on the delta of the Hoogly River, a tributary of the Ganges, spilling into the Bay of Bengal. The location was an ideal site for him to utilize his entrepreneurial spirit and skills to establish a ship repair business.
He achieved much success and parlayed his fortunes into opening a Chinese language school and acquiring other properties including a graveyard and gaming club.
He also operated a social club as a gathering place where new immigrants of Chinese origin could meet. The piece of flotsam that became his lifeline and resembled the face of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy is displayed in the club’s premises. In later years, the ship repair company was also involved in the manufacture of railroad ties and contributed to the Second World War effort.
I was a teenager when the war of October 1962 shattered the tranquility of our lives overnight. As a young girl, I had always dreamed of travelling to North America to make my home there, and was determined to realize this upon graduation and after gaining some work experience. Little did I know that this would be the turning point in my life, and that my fantasy was soon to become a reality, and much earlier than expected as a consequence of this border invasion.
The unsettling political climate that ensued after the unprovoked attack resulted in the transformation of a life that had been normal into one that was utterly chaotic.
The invasion decimated the lives of the many Chinese families who resided in Calcutta – we became casualties of the war. My own family was not in any immediate danger due to political connections, however, a good number of my mother’s friends and acquaintances were literally hauled out of their beds in the stealth of the night. The Indian police security forces came knocking on the doors in full strength, banging loudly on the metal frames with their sticks, jarring the stillness of the air. Without advance warning or time to pack any of their personal possessions, these families -fathers, mothers, young children and babies – were taken into temporary jail cells with only the clothes on their backs. They were subsequently shipped by train to internment camps to join other Chinese families from various parts of India who were also supposedly considered security risks to the country – several thousand people were interned in total.
The internment camps were set up in the Deoli area in the northern province of Rajasthan, several hundred kilometres northwest of Calcutta. This is where they stayed until they were expelled from the country.
Every so often, we would hear of families that we knew being paid late-night visits, courtesy of the police security forces: first the Leongs, then the Wongs or the Los falling prey to the whims of government bureaucracy and sent to join earlier victims of the war.
On numerous occasions, local Chinese were arrested on the streets in broad daylight. It appeared that many of the families who were handpicked and rounded up were suspected of being either anti-government, communist, having communist tendencies, or were subversive. These people were stateless, with no legal papers or documents proving their identity.
But there were also a number of Chinese with Indian citizenship that were treated as enemy aliens. Many of these families were innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire and happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Nobody was safe, and lived in fear and terror of being displaced.
The Chinese government, realizing the plight faced by those interned as a result of their actions, sent ships to India with the offer of free passage and asylum to China.
Traumatic as the entire situation was, the families all seemed to weather the storm and carve out meaningful lives for themselves. They were all the stronger for the experience, turning a negative into a positive. In most cases, the families that did go to China ended up overseas in search of freedom and a better standard of living.
To exacerbate the already catastrophic upheaval, the Indian government suspended civil liberties, restricted the movement of ethnic Chinese citizens and rescinded their passports and identity documents so that they could not travel.
The drastic measures enforced for political and security reasons were necessary and understandable, but they made life unbearable.
A significant policy change mandated work permits for people employed outside the city limits. My uncle’s employees, who worked in the shipping industry and the dockyards beyond the city limits were denied these permits as they no longer had identity papers, and therefore, could not earn an income. They were devastated, and were joined by the ranks of those who lost their jobs either in government or Indian-owned companies. They wrung their hands in despair as there were mouths to feed and bills to pay.
A cloud of fear gripped “Chinatown” and permeated the community. Everyday living was becoming fraught with major and minor inconveniences to the extent that young women and girls like ourselves were cautioned to always be accompanied by one or more male friends wherever we went, yet there was no assurance for our safety. My family and I will never forget the goodwill that our Indian friends and acquaintances displayed towards us during those extremely trying times.
My mother’s friends and their families were leaving Calcutta in droves, some to England to join relatives, others to Hong Kong, a few to Australia or the U.S. and fewer yet to Canada. The vast country which shared the same border north of the 49th parallel evoked visions of ice and snow.
My courageous mother and four of her daughters (Helen, the oldest, a second one, myself and the youngest sister) were destined to make this arctic ice land our home. We were more familiar with the U.S. than Canada due to the focus on the U.S. in school, the media, movies, books and magazines. Canada seemed remote, with freezing ice-cold temperatures.
The decision to emigrate to Canada was the good fortune that this beautiful country had increased the immigration quota for India during this timeframe. How lucky could we be with the impeccable timing? A close friend of my mother’s encouraged her to relocate to the wonderful country that we would soon call home. She and her husband and their six kids were excited to start a new life in their new country of choice, and generously offered us a place to stay on our arrival and until we found a place of our own.
It was a heart-wrenching process, the thought of leaving behind the good life we had in India, our extended families, family friends, school friends, friends from work, friends we had known for a long time, our home at 27 Weston Street, and our loyal servants who had been with us since we were young toddlers. Yet, many of the Chinese families we knew were in the same predicament, making choices to various destinations in cities and countries around the far-flung corners of the globe.
In the spring of 1965, rather than coming directly to the most beautiful city in Canada, my family and I made a six month stop-over in Hong Kong to visit our father, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who resided there. It was a foregone conclusion that chances were remote that we would ever see each other again since the distance spanning across the Pacific Ocean was so vast and unreachable, and the cost of air travel for five persons was exorbitantly expensive in those days.
The time had finally arrived, and my first plane trip on an aircraft from Calcutta to Hong Kong was exhilarating, and a very exciting experience. Yet when the plane became airborne, and the city receded from sight as we gained altitude, I was choked with emotion and the tears streaming down my face would not stop at the idea of leaving the entire l8 years of lifetime memories behind. Strangely though, arriving in Hong Kong felt like a homecoming for us as we were now in our ancestral homeland. Calcutta had been home, but we were considered the visible minority. While in Hong Kong, we lived with my mother’s younger sister and her family in the Kowloon Tong area, one of Hong Kong’s tonier districts and lapped up the sights and sounds of this “fragrant harbour,” as the isle of Hong Kong is called. Almost immediately, we were successful in landing jobs due to our qualifications and fluency in English, being educated by the Loreto order of Irish missionary nuns in the British Cambridge curriculum. I was extremely fortunate to be given a junior position in the office of the treasurer of one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious mega corporations, Butterfield & Swire. We were in Hong Kong from April to August and made the most of our short stay there. Without fail, we explored every nook and cranny of the island each and every single weekend accompanied by our cousins and a few of our teenage friends who had also relocated from Calcutta at about the same time as us. We took in the great sights, the beaches and coves, the famous, almost-vertical peak tram, the sampans at Aberdeen, the exotic Tiger Balm gardens, the ladder streets, the night markets with their open air stalls that sold everything from clothing to pots and pans, the neighbouring islands, etc. – there was never a dull moment. Much too soon, it was time to leave for the place we would call home – the best place on earth to live – beautiful Vancouver.
When we got off the plane after a long transatlantic flight, the first impression that is indelibly stamped in my mind, and still remains so vividly in my memory today, is the gorgeous setting of the North Shore mountains and coastline of blue-green water on a clear August afternoon – the scent and freshness of the crisp, cool air was charged with electrical excitement. We had arrived! The momentous occasion took place in August of 1965 – this was the America I had dreamed of all my life! Truly, a dream come true!
Mom’s close friend who had arrived only six months before us received us with open arms and gave us a warm welcome at Vancouver International Airport (then located at the south terminal) and we were driven by the family to their home in Chinatown where they lived in a three-storey house. We crossed the Oak Street bridge past the beautiful mansions and gardens of Shaughnessy and Queen Elizabeth Park, and I had to pinch myself again for the umpteenth time to ensure that this was real. We soon reached our destination, and I was enraptured by all the houses made of wood, each one painted a different colour – muted browns with sage trim, blonde-beige with rust trim, clear white with indigo-blue trim – in a kaleidoscope of colour. The floor plan of the house was very intriguing, and what impressed me was the practicality of the layout of their home, the tiny attic on the top floor, the three bedrooms below, the living areas on the main floor, and the downstairs basement/crawlspace, plus a backyard with its picket fence – it was like walking into the pages of the storybooks which I had so often pored over as a child.
The first week or two was filled with exploring this exciting and gorgeous city and its environs – going as far afield as Browning Lake in Murrin Provincial Park, which is a long, long distance of approximately 35 kilometres from the city, especially in the mid-l960’s when the highway was one lane and narrow. The hair-bend curves of the Sea to Sky Highway was just as intoxicating as the spectacular scenery of Howe Sound as we snaked up Highway 99 past picturesque, charming Horseshoe Bay and the ferry terminal. Browning Lake was an idyllic spot for a picnic on the first glorious Sunday afternoon, where we saw amateur fishermen casting their lines on the shore and boaters paddling their canoes on the lake. I couldn’t imagine being any closer to nature as I heard my heart pounding from the thrill of being warned of the possibility of bear sightings in the wild!
After the initial couple of weeks of fun in the sun, reality soon set in – we had to get jobs, and then came the difficult part of finding a suitable one. We attended the intake sessions at the immigration and manpower offices and were given recommendations and guidance in our search for employment. Though we had work experience having held jobs in Calcutta and Hong Kong, time and yet time again, we were told that with absolutely no Canadian experience, we could not expect the salary levels we were seeking. Our demands or expectations were not unreasonable, but it was disappointing to be negotiated down. Disillusion set in as it was discouraging to come home empty handed day in and day out after having spent the greater part travelling on two and three buses to get to our interviews – waiting at transfer points for the connecting buses was a trial on its own as the schedules never seemed to synchronize. One solution was to at least accept temporary assignments as a stepping stone to get the dream job I wanted. This stop-gap measure was short lived much to our delight and especially for me as I landed a job at Canada’s largest and most profitable bank, the Royal Bank of Canada, at their imposing main branch in a grand heritage art deco building on the corner of Hastings and Granville. The bank was a great employer and offered a salary and fringe benefits that exceeded my expectations. The biggest bonus was yet to come – the bank’s lunch room which was the envy of many as the perk of subsidized lunches was unbeatable. From Monday to Friday, a three course lunch menu was offered for only 25 cents! I was somewhat familiar with North American cuisine having enjoyed international menus at some of the upscale restaurants in Calcutta and Hong Kong, but to savour it five consecutive days in a row, I could hardly believe my good luck and was delighted to be introduced to true Canadian cuisine. We always started with a soup or salad and a fresh crusty bun, followed by the delectable entrees such as grilled steak, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, breaded pork chop, smoked ham, stuffed turkey with herb dressing, chicken pot pie, poached salmon, braised halibut, macaroni and cheese, cabbage rolls, scalloped potatoes, creamed cauliflower, etc. The desserts were a treat unto themselves along the lines of layered trifle cake, blueberry pie, apple crisps with ice cream, compote of stewed fruits… The best part too was getting to know how these delectable meals were prepared, as my colleagues at the lunch table who were generally older, and married, were all too keen to share their knowledge of cooking. Before too long, I had a fine repertoire of recipes, and was even more excited when I received my first Canadian cookbook from Purity Flour for which I eagerly wrote away in the mail. I will always treasure this dog-eared, sauce-and-gravy splattered, much-used recipe book.
At home, my family would buy blocks of the rich, creamy ice cream in the full assortment of flavours by the cartons from IGA – vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and neopolitan – which we managed to consume in a matter of days. Ice cream was a real treat because as kids in Calcutta, it was considered a summer season treat only – the ice cream man did not make his house-to-house rounds in the winter. The combination of the bank’s three-course meals during the day, and heaping scoopfuls of the high caloric dessert at night resulted in me packing on the pounds. In no time, I lost my 20-inch waistline, and was showing signs of a double chin. It took me a few months, with great effort, to return to a more normal size by eliminating rice at dinner time, but it was difficult to eat Chinese food without our staple rice – something was definitely missing!
Soon it was time to find a place of our own, and we moved into a rental apartment in an older three storied grey brick building in the Mount Pleasant area. This was the first time that we were settling down as an individual family with a place of our own. As mentioned earlier in my story, we lived in an extended household in Calcutta, and then stayed with my aunt in Hong Kong so there was no requirement for major purchases such as furniture on our part – besides we were just kids and young adults then. How exciting it was to shop for beds, night tables, bed linens, on to lamps, chesterfields and sofas, kitchenette table and chairs for our living room-cum-dining area, waiting in anticipation for their delivery, and then setting up house – along with tableware, china, cutlery and kitchen utensils. I was living at this address when I purchased my first silver serving tray which is still in use today. This treasured piece, etched with a coiled, ribbed pattern, started me on a life-long passion of acquiring serving dishes, vases, bowls, cutlery, tea/coffee sets that add to my ever-expanding silver collection.
I enjoyed my working life with an excellent department head manager as my boss and a super team of co-workers. My boss once asked me which TV program I enjoyed the most, and when I told him that we did not own a TV, he was flabbergasted and wondered how we spent our time in the evenings after supper. I can’t recall that we missed watching TV, because we would either enjoy each other’s company sharing the events of the day, listening to music on the radio or retiring early to bed with a good book as a companion Yet, I cannot imagine that we really did not own a TV, however, when we finally did purchase one. Our eyes and ears were glued to the set ’til all hours of the evening – we would go to bed late and struggled to rise early the next morning for work.
One of the things I loved most on receiving my first few pay cheques was shopping, especially for wearing apparel. In Calcutta, we mostly wore dresses which were tailor-made since buying clothes off the rack was not readily available. In my newly adopted country, I could walk into a store, choose an outfit from the racks or shelves, try it on, purchase it, and on occasion, even wear it out of the store right there and then. There were pantsuits, suits (skirts and jackets) to choose from, I could mix and match shirts, turtle necks, sweaters and blouses, complement with scarves, wear fashion jewellery and coordinate shoes with handbags for a total look. I enjoyed getting feedback from the sales ladies who were ever so friendly and helpful. I had a passion for winter fashions as we had no real need for this seasonal style in Calcutta or Hong Kong (having only spent spring and summer in Hong Kong, the winter stock had not yet hit the stores). When winter arrived, with it came the opportunity to justify the purchase of my first calf-length black leather boots, and did I look spiffy along with gloves, woolen scarf, winter coat and the ultimate fashion statement of wearing a cap – I felt I had stepped out of the cover of a fashion magazine. I also always looked forward to the now long lost tradition of Woodwards’ $l.49 Day held once a month on a Tuesday. Various items were sold for $l.49 and consisted usually of household goods such as kitchen utensils – rolling pins, baking sheets, flour sifters, notions, hangars, hosiery, underwear, detergents, cleaners, stationery, etc. These were a real bargain vis-à-vis the regular full price one had to pay, and the special promotional sales were always awaited with bated breath. I would sacrifice and forgo the three-course meals in the lunchroom, and instead order a sandwich, before dashing off to the sales three to four blocks east of Hastings Street, and again return after work before store closing, coming home laden down with shopping bags, much to mom’s delight. Who can forget the radio jingle advertising – “Dollar forty nine day, Woodward’s! Dollar forty nine day Tuesday!” – I can still hear the catchy tune in my head today.
Everywhere we went, we found the Canadians very amicable, pleasant and willing to provide assistance whether it be with directions to the theatres, or routes for the buses, which stores to shop at for buying various merchandise – and overall, very kind, friendly and helpful.
Whenever I was introduced to new friends, my one-liner was – “I was born in India of Chinese parentage, holding a British passport and am a recent immigrant to Canada.” As a new immigrant, I was unsure of where I belonged or where my affinity ought to be, however, my make-up and profile is the blueprint of the mosaic of what Canada is as a country, and all the more today.
With the onslaught of winter came the wet weather and the reason why Vancouver is often referred to as the “wet coast” rather than by its geographical location on the West Coast. The fall of l965 broke all records, as it rained for “40 days and 40 nights.” It was either showers, mist, rain, fog or overcast skies – but we never saw the sun – loneliness soon set in!
I dated young men I knew from my affiliation through family friends from Calcutta, which was fine, but when the newness and excitement of being a recent immigrant started to somewhat wear off, and I settled into a routine, I missed my peer group and closest friends. They were either still in Calcutta, or had relocated to Hong Kong, or London, England and I did not know anyone that I could bond and share new discoveries and experiences with in the same way. Technology such as e-mail, Facebook, BlackBerrys and text messaging were not even seeds implanted in any inventor’s brain to link me instantly to my best friends. Of course, the saving grace was that I had mom and my sisters, but they too were preoccupied with adjusting and adapting to a new life. I also wanted to “desinicize” in order to fit in and graduate to another step in my progression to assimilate into the fabric of Canadian society, so had a strong desire to date local Canadian young men. I therefore joined a community social club,and also went discoing to meet this gender species. As luck would have it, during the holiday season, through a mutual friend, a tall handsome Anglo-Saxon blond who was an engineering student doing post-graduate work at the University of British Columbia walked into my life to complete my world. He had the great looks of a Greek Adonis with a chiselled cleft in a strong jaw and baby blue eyes. He was intelligent, humorous and came with a readymade group of friends, and did we hit it off. I received my very first corsage from him when we attended a “farmer’s night” dance at the university – I still remember the unique “floral” arrangement made from carrots, broccoli, and radishes. My first Valentine card from a Canadian also came from him, so obviously I have very fond memories of my relationship with this fine young man…
As time progressed, Canada began to feel like home. Gradually, every few months or so, more and more of our friends that we knew in Calcutta would arrive to settle in Vancouver. We felt proud that we were able to “show them the ropes” being one of the earlier “Calcutta” immigrants to arrive here in the mid 1960’s. We were an industrious group and worked hard to contribute to the Canadian economy, enjoyed our careers, eventually got married and started families of our own, giving birth to a new generation of true Canadians. My wonderful son carries on Canada’s cultural diversity, being the offspring of an ethnic Chinese immigrant mother and Danish immigrant father.
This is written as a tribute to my late mother who passed away in 2006 with our heartfelt gratitude to her for her astuteness, great courage, independence, caring and risk taking in making the right choice in following her heart and the persuasive suggestion of her close friend to immigrant to Canada. We are also extremely grateful to mom’s friends and her family. Mom’s decision created an environment conducive to bringing her sister and brother and their children to Canada, and they in turn have created lives with their children. Dear great-great-grandfather Atto, we, as your descendants, have realized and are living your dream of having reached our own land of opportunities in Vancouver, a city 800 miles north of the coast of San Francisco, your “come san” – gold mountain, land of opportunities.
I have now lived in Canada for almost 43 years, and it has been eons since I have alluded to Calcutta as “back home” because home is truly here, where the heart is. It seems that the defining moment was in 1970 when we became Canadian citizens after awaiting completion of the mandatory five consecutive years of permanent residency. The drawn out odyssey was behind us and we were no longer the displaced diaspora refugees of the war, and could live in a truly great country that guaranteed freedom and liberty, and where we finally belonged.
Canada, thank you a million, billion times for opening your doors to the Chinese residents in India who were unwittingly caught in the political storm of the Indo-Sino border war. You afforded us the freedom that was once our birthright, and which was then suddenly denied us. You offered us endless opportunities regardless of race, colour, religion, and status. We all count our blessings that we live in a fantastic country which has been voted one of the top 10 countries in the world in which to live and raise our families, and as our national anthem sings – “the true north strong and free, God keep our land glorious and free, we stand on guard for thee!” and steadfastly always will.
We love you Canada.
Josie Axelsen, Tsawwassen
courtesy: The Vancouver Sun