Cultural heritage

Between heritage and home: Chinese-origin Pakistanis negotiate the recent growth of Sino-Pak ties

Chinese migration to Pakistan has increased with CPEC construction. But there is also a long established ethnic Sino community in the country.

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.

Identity question

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.