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  • Jennifer Liang

Ah Leen's Story - Part 3

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Marrying a Scholar-Carpenter

It was 1952 and four years since we moved from Hamilton bazaar in the Darjeeling foothills to Cheenapada in Calcutta. We were managing to survive by selling soda, cigarettes and toffees in our small shop in the day time and tailoring clothes and knitting sweaters in the nights. My two younger brothers were attending a local school but also helping in the shop. I was almost 18 years old. A proposal for marriage came for me from someone who came from our district back in China. He worked as a fitter in sailing ships and my uncle (Tai Suk) thought that being a sailor, he must be earning well and so, fixed my match with him. My husband was 33years old then, 15 years my senior. It was 13 years since he reached Calcutta and he decided to settle down here.

Wu Family Archives, Kolkata , 1952

Wu Family Archives, Kolkata , 3rd January , 1952

My Husband’s Story

My husband did not have any skills in a craft when he decided to head for India from China. He was one of the last to leave China as late as 1939, when the Japanese took over their province. Coming from a well-known and rich trader family in the Cantonese village of Soi Thang in Soon Tak District, his grandfather and his uncles even had businesses which included a department store in Johannesburg in South Africa which was so big that it sold everything from 'a nail to a coffin'. But my husband and his brother were unable to go because even though they had money, yet it was not enough to pay to get papers for settling down there. Moreover, with a big stationary shop in the city of Kwangchow just four hours away from his village, and another shop selling painted ceramics, the family was doing well enough for themselves. But it was getting more and more unsafe. When the Japanese took over Kwangchow in 1938, their shops were gutted in a bomb attack and it was too unsafe to remain in the city. So, he headed back to his village where he tried his hands in other kinds of trade, but none of it worked.

Once, my husband and his cousin went all the way to Hong Kong to buy Western allopathic medicine so that they could sell it for a profit when they got back. The journey took a full month of walking through very rough terrain. The roads and paths had all been dug (to slow down the Japanese in the eventuality of an attack), but it also meant that no vehicles could move. They had to walk most of the way. After narrowly escaping many bombings and paying their way through the innumerable gangs of bandits that ruled the different parts of their return journey, they barely made a hundred yuan in profit. This business was again was just too dangerous and not worth the risk. Moreover, his mother refused to allow him to get into it again.

But yet he had to do something to survive. When a cousin suggested that they go to India to try their luck, my husband was reluctant as he was not sure what he was capable of doing there. He was 20 years old but then, there was not much to do in China and it was too unsafe to stay. His mother also urged him to leave China rather than endanger his life. It made sense to get away for some time and try his luck elsewhere till things settled down. India was a place where a number of his village people had settled and he was sure that they would help him. So, he came to India in 1939 when the Japanese took control of most of China. His cousin and him took a ship and they paid Rs. 60 each for their fares. My husband had enough money then to even pay for his cousin's fare whereas many others who sailed with them did not have money for their passage. They had to work in the ship till they had repaid their fare amount and only then were they allowed to disembark from the ship. A year later after he arrived in India, the route through Hong Kong closed down and he was one of the last to leave or go back to China for a long, long time.

A Carpenter Apprentice in Calcutta

When he set off from China, the young man that my husband was, had planned that he would take shelter in India, work for some time, make some money and then go back to China to marry and start a family. His grandmother had pressed him to marry before leaving, but he wanted to first be able to stand on his feet. But when he landed in Calcutta he found he had no saleable skills and hence no one was willing to employ him. It was the age old ‘yen ching’ system, the web of social debts and repayments so intrinsic to Chinese social life that came to his rescue. The cousin who had come along with him to India had family in China and my husband’s family was helping them out there. This cousin in turn became his guardian angel in Calcutta as repayment for favours to his family back in China. A skilled carpenter with a job, the cousin found him work as a carpenter’s apprentice (albeit at a measly sum of 50 paise a day) and even lent him money when money ran short. Having been a businessman and that too from a rich family, my newly- landed-in-India husband found himself quite lost having to work his hands as a carpenter. But with the help of friends, he slowly learnt and soon, started getting a rupee a day. In those days, the Chinese master carpenters - people from their own village here in Cheenapada in Calcutta - were willing to teach them the skill. It was also easier to get jobs back then and most importantly, one could afford to make mistakes while learning. So, he along with other newcomers could learn on the job, helped by a little fact that the British for whom they worked did not know better.

At that time, my husband’s uncles in Africa were doing very well and they were sending money to the family in China, So, at least he did not have to worry on that account and focused on his survival in this new country. But as soon as he started earning a bit more, he started sending money home. Paying Rs.2 per month as fees, he attended English tuition in the night from an “English Miss” to pick up some basic English to communicate with the English bosses. Like most Chinese bachelors of his time, he lived for years in the dormitory rented out by the huiguan or club. There were very few families and very few women in these club houses and these families had their separate rooms. But most of the bachelors lived together and you were charged depending on the type of bed one chose to sleep. Bunks were cheaper than single beds. Some could not even afford to rent a bunk bed and so, they would sleep on folding canvas beds in the passageway. For food, he ate in a nearby Chinese eatery which was again owned by a person from his district and so, he could get a few more days of credit when money was short. The meals were very cheap then - two meals of breakfast and dinner used to cost only six rupees a month. So, the newcomer, my husband, survived almost ten years in Calcutta.

After honing up his carpentry skills for nine years in Calcutta, my husband then starting sailing as a carpenter (called “fitter”) in ships which went all over the world. All along, he kept waiting for the World War II to end and for things to get better 'back home in China' to return. But then China became communist and drawing an iron curtain, it closed itself to the outside world. My husband realized that there was no going back. Settling in Calcutta was the only option and he married in 1952, thirteen years after landing in Calcutta.

His name was Yee Tung but I was shy of calling him by his name since he was elder to me by 15 years. My uncle (Tae Suk) taught me to call him Saamko (third brother) since he was number three among his siblings. After we had our first child, I used to call him Yim Cheong Papa (Yim Cheong's father) or after our second son, Fai Chai Papa (fat boy's father).

I was married to him since he was from my district and my uncle thought a sailor would have some money in his pockets. But it was a huge struggle as he had to keep sending money to China to support his sisters and brothers there. I used to get only twenty rupees a month for expenses. But since my uncle stayed with us and he was a bachelor with a full-time job and we also helped him make money from the soda shop, he would give Rs.200 for the household expenses and we managed.

My husband kept sailing for another five years. He was earning Rs. 360 a month but with a wife and growing family, he decided to stop sailing. In 1957, he started working in the “Hoogly Docks” outside Calcutta city. A Chinese contractor had got the contract for building small wooden boats to be used in war and for repair of ships who came to dock there. There were at least a hundred Chinese carpenters and two hundred Indians employed there at that time. Since my husband could read and write, this contractor asked my husband to run the operations, promising to make him a junior partner and give him a share of the profits. My husband worked really hard but his senior partner cheated him and did not pay him any money for six months. When my husband threatened to quit and go back sailing, the man got scared and bought him a small flat in Hong Kong to placate him. He did not get a share of any other money but started getting a salary of Rs. 600-700 a month. He managed the family well even though he also kept sending money to help his folks survive in China.

He would have continued working in the docks but for the border problem which happened with China in 1962. Restriction on movements were placed on the Calcutta Chinese and along with the other Chinese carpenters, my husband’s work permit was taken away. They were given only weekly permits after that which was really difficult to manage. Hence, all the Chinese carpenters lost their jobs. Many started migrating to Canada. My husband started taking up small contract jobs in the city and his former employer-partner had migrated to Canada and promised that he would take him across once he was settled there. But that never happened. It was a struggle to make ends meet. His employer-partner gave him a small shed to use while he was in Canada and my husband started his own firm in 1965. I sold 50 gold souvenirs which I had with much difficulty saved over the years. My husband started the business with the 8000 rupees I got for the gold souvenirs as working capital. Though he promised to pay me back when he had the money, he could never manage.

It was quite tough as we had five children by then. The children were all so small and studying and they had to be provided for. With the minimum of language and communication skills, it was not easy for my husband to get contract work. Each day was a struggle and it was tough to even have enough money to pay the salaries of the workers. Every Saturday, from early morning he would go around trying to collect enough money from his customers to pay the salaries of the workers. Finally, when there was not enough, he would come home and borrow from my mother who had some money saved up. And then give it back when he got the money. It was the same story week after week.

Wu Family Archives, Behala, 1965

A lucky break came when my husband got a fairly large contract for making furniture for the jute factory near Calcutta. For eight thousand rupees, he had to prepare a truck full of furniture every week. At that time, a few hundred rupees of furniture order was considered a large piece of work and so, this was indeed a large contract that he had got. Things were looking up but unfortunately, this soon attracted the attention of his former employer-partner who had rented him the workshop space. He got jealous that his subordinate was suddenly doing well. This man had already migrated to Hong Kong by then but yet he filed a court case against my husband and got him thrown out of the workshop. I remember it was 23rd February 1972, the police came and started throwing out all our things from the workshop and then sealed it with a big lock. It kept raining and we were running helter-skelter. But the neighborhood people were very good. There were Anglo-Indians, Punjabis, Bengalis, Biharis. They felt very sorry for us and after the police left, helped us gather all the things from the road and piled it together. This also marked a long drawn and very expensive eight year long legal battle which drained us of all our savings and resources. The children were all school-going then and could not help.

It was a long and lonely battle for us, but we were lucky. One of the most well-known lawyers in Calcutta took pity on my husband and decided to take up his case at a minimal cost. The lawyer Siddhartha Shankar Ray (who later became the Chief Minister of West Bengal) fought his case with no fees and we are eternally grateful to him. My husband won the battle after eight years and slowly built up the business again. Our sons also joined him and later took over the business when he finally retired when he was almost 80 years old.

A Scholar Carpenter

When hand held cameras were as rare as the rarest gems, my husband was one of the few in Calcutta Chinatown who owned a Leica camera and enjoyed photography. A tireless record keeper, he kept a big drawer full of old black and white photos meticulously. A teetotaler, non-smoker, non-gambler, he loved books and was perhaps more a scholar than a carpenter. He was a disciplinarian and every morning we would wake up to the sounds of him exercising. He did this till he was in his late 70's. He would also read a lot and not a word of the newspaper would escape him by. We used to tease him about his habit of writing his daily diary for rarely he would go to bed without recording the happenings of his day.

And when only the rich in Calcutta could own cars, with the little money he had, he bought a second-hand car at 5000 rupees. It was of Hillman company and he enjoyed taking the children and their small friends out every Sunday for joy rides and to watch ships in the harbor. He was really particular about this and would refuse to work on a Sunday even if his bosses requested and offered more money. That was the day of outing for his children and he was particular about not missing that.

from the Wu Family Archives

My husband was also respected as a community elder taking up responsibilities of our district club house in cheenapada and managing their affairs as an office bearer till a very late age. We both went to China in 1985, fifty years since my husband left his village. After his death in Calcutta in 2003, I found two sacks full of his diaries which he had maintained from the day he landed in India. Since the old books were being destroyed by white ants, I threw it away as trash. Some which were in good condition, I gave away to the egg-seller who made paper bags out of them to sell eggs in. It was also quite a task getting rid of many files of his letters – he had enjoyed writing letters immensely and wrote long, long letters to his siblings and family spread across China, Hong Kong and other parts of the world. The letters he received he would file meticulously, date-wise. After his death, it was quite a task disposing of so many files and cupboards of letters and diaries which my scholar-carpenter husband had collected over 60 years of his life in India.

Circa 2020

Ah Leen has been in India for 87 years now. She is one amongst a small handful of surviving senior citizens of the community and lives in Kolkata with her two sons and daughters-in-law. Though she has applied for Indian Citizenship a number of times, she is yet to get it. She is considered a British subject and like any foreigner living in India, continues to pay a yearly fee to remain here. This is becoming more difficult to manage as two years ago the foreigner fees got hiked suddenly and she ends up paying almost 10,000 rupees annually. Ah Leen now has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in different parts of the world and has fading memories of coming from China as a two year old child.

To go back to Ah Leen's Story Part 1, click here To go back to Ah Leen's Story Part 2 click here

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