It is early evening and Sally’s* beauty parlour in Rawalpindi is teeming with women undergoing their weekly or monthly beauty regimen.
Switching between Hakka and Urdu, with occasional interjections in Pothwari, the owner of the salon refers to herself as “local Chinese” or Pakistani-Chinese.
These terms point to the profound ambivalence of Chinese ethnic identity shaped by the political, economic and historical contexts of South Asia.
Being Chinese is understood on multiple levels in Pakistan. Since the advent of projects introduced by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2013, the visibility of the Chinese in public spaces has not gone unnoticed in the main cities of the country.
Migrants, engineers and entrepreneurs arriving from diverse provinces in China are often thought of as a monolithic group related to CPEC and have come to dominate – numerically as well as in perception – other endogamous ethnic Chinese communities already present in Pakistan.
What is often missing is a more nuanced understanding of the long established community grouped under the term ‘Chinese’ or ‘chini’, as well as their unique trajectories that have accompanied Pakistan’s formation.
As a Taiwanese anthropologist who has spent a significant portion of her life outside of the Sinosphere, I am interested in comparative cultural issues related to migration and identity, particularly that of the most extensive and complex one of our modern world: the Chinese diaspora.
Thus began a research project that took me across various cities in Pakistan, where a declining minority of ethnic Chinese families shared with me their lives and experiences that were intimately linked to the development of modern Pakistan.
It is not popularly known that some of the earliest Chinese in South Asia emigrated to Kolkata (then Calcutta) during the British era; in fact, as early as the 18th century.
While successive waves of migration from the provinces of Guangdong, Hubei and Shandong have been traced by contemporary historians, the subsequent trajectories of these migrants in Pakistani territories are rarely examined.
In the wake of the partitioning of India in 1947, the India-China War in 1962 and later the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, ethnic Chinese families found themselves dispersed in different parts of South Asia, gaining recognition and contributing to the economies of each of their localities through restaurants, dentist clinics and beauty parlours.
Moving with Pakistan
The events that unfolded after Partition were a constant home-making project for the ethnic Chinese of Pakistan. While doing field research, I befriend a small Pakistani-Chinese family that has grown up in Rawalpindi and specialises in manufacturing and selling leather shoes.
Much like the majority of Chinese migrant communities in India and Pakistan, they are Hakka – also known as Kejia in Mandarin Chinese – a distinct ethnic and linguistic group dispersed throughout southeastern China, and through their diasporas to Southeast Asia, South Asia and other parts of the world.
Considered to be members of the majority Han Chinese rather than members of an ethnic minority, they speak a Hakka dialect rather than Mandarin Chinese, the lingua franca of the Sinosphere.
For many other Chinese born in India-Pakistan, ‘home’ has several meanings within this family. Jason’s grandfather, for example, lived in Kolkata in the 1940s, moving to Lahore at the time of Partition.
After opening his first shoe store in Rawalpindi, the indomitable Indian-Chinese entrepreneur proceeded to opening another shop in Murree in 1949. More shops soon branched out through the growing family.
His grandson, whom I’ll call Jason, is part of a generation of young Pakistani-Chinese with a heterogeneous sense of belonging and distant ties to the Indian-Chinese in Kolkata.
Their family members are geographically mobile, sometimes to the extent of traversing across Indo-Pakistani borders in pursuit of marriage with Indian-Chinese, or joining the second and third generation of Pakistani-Chinese in Canada.
When I ask about ‘home’, individuals within the same family refer to different cities, but always within South Asia.
In Karachi, a dentist of Hubeinese descent narrates leaving his birthplace of Kolkata shortly after the India-China War in 1963. “Like many others [Chinese] who came after, we moved from India out of fear”, he says.
It was a time when persecutions of ethnic Chinese by the Indian state were authorised and many were deported or sent to internment camps.
After graduating in dentistry from Liaquat College of Medicine and Dentistry, he opened his own dental practice in Saddar, where his clinic stands alongside other formerly Chinese-owned clinics.
“Despite how others outside might view Pakistan as a result of instability and bombings, we are very happily settled here. This is our home”, he tells me.
In Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, a similar migration story and business acumen is echoed amongst restaurant owners of a distinct type of Chinese (Hakka) cuisine best typified by the term ‘desi chini khana’ that caters largely to South Asian tastes.
Several other of my interlocutors were born in East Pakistan to families that commonly ran tanneries and restaurants in both Dhaka (then Dacca) and Chittagong.
Many were witness to the armed conflict in the former Pakistani province. Stories of brutal repression are recounted solemnly to me by those seemingly at the fringes of South Asian history.
One individual born in Dhaka recalls the bombing of his restaurant by ‘freedom fighters’ and the fleeing of family members and friends en masse from East to West Pakistan.
The major events that led to the contemporary formation of Pakistan as lived by Pakistani-Chinese involve leaving their home and losing their businesses, properties and communities, to begin their lives anew in West Pakistan.
A Pakistani-Chinese born in Abbottabad, however, has a more optimistic take on the conflict. “It took us [Pakistan] to lose East Pakistan for me to find my wife”, he says to me.
As a result of the mass migration of Chinese from East Pakistan, he met his wife, also a Pakistani-Hakka, of 45 years, in Rawalpindi.
For a long period of time, a mixture of Urdu, English and Hakka was spoken in their Pakistani-Chinese household.
Preserving the Hakka language is not only useful for daily interactions between majority of the local Chinese, it also reflects their intimacy and identity with a particular place: Meixian, the ancestral village of their parents or grandparents in Guangdong province in China.
The influx of Chinese migrants after CPEC, however, has meant that the local Chinese have had to address what many see as a handicap – the inability to speak Mandarin Chinese.
The grandchildren of my Abbottabad-born interlocutor are now learning Mandarin Chinese in an effort to salvage what is deemed an important part of their identity other than being Pakistani.
This phenomenon, taking place among the Chinese diaspora in other parts of the world as well, is also related to the rise of China as a leading economic power.
Older Pakistani-Chinese families are now but a dwindling fraction of the larger Chinese population that has been ushered in by the increasing economic cooperation between Pakistan and China.
When I ask whether the Pakistani-Chinese feel Chinese, the answer is often conflicting. On one hand, some say that they called themselves Chinese as that was what Pakistanis explicitly refer to them as. On the other, a more Pakistani identity is embraced amid the younger generations.
In one incident, my interlocutor in Rawalpindi was driving his scooter back home one afternoon when confronted by two Pakistanis asking, “yeh Chinese idhar kyun goom raha hai?” (“Why is this Chinese roaming around here?”), to which his jocular response was, “kahan hai Chinese? Yahan par toh sab Pakistani hain” (“Where’s the Chinese? There are only Pakistanis here”).
These interactions, in fact, express the paradox of being ethnic Chinese in Pakistan, against the backdrop of CPEC and the rise in expatriates, migrants and labourers from China.
Reflecting on practices, heritage and understandings of home amongst minorities opens to redefining what counts as Chinese but also Pakistani today.
And even if it doesn’t, knowing these communities broadens an understanding of China-Pakistan relations, as one not only subsumed under CPEC and its developments, but revealing a much more connected history.
All interlocutors have been given pseudonyms to protect their identity
This article first appeared on Dawn.