Crouching Tigers and Invisible Dragons: Representation of Desi Chinese in Indian Popular Cinema
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
The most famous Indian Chinese in Indian cinema is ironically a half Burmese and half anglo-Indian dancer who announced her name Chin Chin Chu in a song in the film Howrah Bridge (Samanta 1959), ensuring that generations of Indian Chinese at some point of time would have the song sung to them by passerbys. And given how catchy the tune is, it was difficult not to sing along even if you often felt like screaming that my name is not Chin Chin Chu. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of European civilisation, he famously replied that he was yet to find it. One is tempted to respond in a similar fashion to the question of the representation of Indian-Chinese in Indian popular cinema.
One would be either hard-pressed to find it, or if one does then it is rarely beyond a set of cliched images of extras dancing in cheongsams or slant eyed villains with Fu Manchu moustaches played by Punjabis (Madan Puri as John Chang in the same film). For some strange reason that perhaps even he could not have fathomed, Madan Puri specialised in playing Chinese characters. After playing a Chang in Howrah Bridge, it was inevitable that he would follow up as a Wong in Chinatown (Samanta, 1962).
While words like whitewashing describe the relatively common Hollywood phenomenon of white actors playing brown characters or yellow facing (1) in the case of Asian characters, there isn’t quite a word for brown actors playing Chinese as is the case in Indian cinema (A trend that continued all the way to Deepa Mehta’s 1998 Fire where Avijit Mullick plays a Chinese character). If one were doing an ideological critique of the clearly stereotypical representations of Chinese in India cinema, one would not have much more than this to add. The more interesting question is whether despite their seriously problematic nature, these representations still reveal something interesting to us about Chinese lives in India?
Howrah Bridge (1959)
Consider for instance Howrah Bridge. This is a film made in 1959 which begins in media res with the theft of a family heirloom of a rich merchant's house in Rangoon. The heirloom is a Chinese dragon that allegedly belonged to Kings in China before making its way to King Sheng of Burma and finally finding its way into the family of the Indian businessman. At the start of the film it is discovered that the dragon has been stolen by the elder son of the businessman with the intention of selling it in Calcutta. His younger brother Prem Kumar (Ashok Kumar) is deputed by his father to travel to Calcutta to retrieve the heirloom. In the meantime, the older son attempts to sell the heirloom to a Chinese gangster John Chang (Madan Puri), but is kidnapped and killed by the gangsters associates, who steal the heirloom from him. John Chang’s Chineseness consists primarily of a strange, affected and unidentifiable Hindi accent, and in what must have been physically tiring histrionics, Madan Puri squints incessantly to sustain an arched eyebrow and slanted eyes. To give the appearance of his den an authentic Chinese look, the art director scatters various Chinese decorations including a laughing Buddha that doubles up as a knob which when turned opens up a secret door, unsubtle Chinese vases and even more unsubtle side characters who we know a Chinese by their excessive bowing. These characters are variously called Chinaman, John Chu, Mr. Lee etc. in case we had any doubt.
Prem Kumar leaves for Calcutta on a steamship where he meets a dancer Edna (Madhubala) who he eventually falls in love with and with her help, retrieves the family heirloom. One of the highlights in the film is the famous song “Mera Naam chin chin chu” which is set in John Chang’s den with Helen shimmying energetically around the club dressed in a traditional Chinese cheongsam (tight fitting dress particularly popular in Shanghai in the thirties). Edna, in a subsequent scene will also be seen in a Cheongsam.
Seen from a purely representational perspective, the film would appear to be a one-dimensional recycling of racist and stereotypical images, but if we shift our attention away from the question of individual representation to the larger historical world that serves as the setting of the film, we find an extremely rich account of a historical period which serves as a liminal zone between the colonial and postcolonial on the one hand, and the world of South Asia and Southeast Asia on the other. The historian Sunil Amrith in his account of the Bay of Bengal suggests that this was a region that was at the heart of global history but has been forgotten in the second half of the 20th century after the emergence of boundaries drawn by postcolonial nation states. The very division of South Asia and Southeast Asia, he argues was drawn by a line that ran through the middle of the Bengal. In his book “Crossing the Bay of Bengal”, Amrith tells the story of one of the largest movements of people in modern history. This movement was propelled by the twin logic of colonial capital seeking new frontiers, transporting people and natural resources between South and Southeast Asia and fuelled by steamships which had made the crossing oceans faster and cheaper than ever before. If we were therefore to read Howrah Bridge, not just as a literal account of the bridge in Calcutta, but as a bridge between South Asia and China as well as Southeast Asia, the significance of the film beginning in Rangoon strikes us. Colonial Burma was the crucial node that connected South Asia to the South China Sea through which migrant workers moved with relative ease and freedom in search of livelihood and fortune. The colonial period was simultaneously a period of extreme exploitation even as it engendered cosmopolitan encounters that were hitherto unimaginable. Unfettered by national boundaries policed by strict immigration laws and documents of national identity such as passports, this was a period that saw vast amounts of traffic and one where many people imagined the possibility of travelling across the seas for temporary employment.
In one of the accounts of the period, Amrith quotes an Ahmad Rijaluddin who travel from Penang to Calcutta in the early 19th century. Writing about Calcutta he says “Ships visit the capital without a break. There is no let- up day or night, thousands of ships arrive and depart and from the west to the east, from the north- west to the south- east.” Sailors from around the world took their plea sure in port. “In every street, you will find different sorts of street entertainers,” he told his readers. Most enticing was the “winding lane near the shipyards” where “the whores live, thousands of them . . . Pathans, Indians, Mughals, and Bengalis.” Their clientele was equally diverse: “people of different races— English, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese, Bengali, Burmese, Tamil and Malay— visit the place morning, noon and night.” Amrith says that the people he was describing were the peoples of the Bay’s rim: the imperial rulers and adventurers, the traders and merchants and sailors and laborers that made the Bay of Bengal “a far more tightly knit unit of interaction . . . than the Indian Ocean as a whole.”
If we move from the narrative space of Amrith’s history to the diegetic space of the film Howrah Bridge, we find various characters who could be seen as liminal figures - the merchant, the sailor, the smuggler, the opium dealer, the cabaret dancer etc. all of whom exceed the limitations that would be subsequently imposed on them through the ideals of legal citizenship and nationalism. Liminality, which comes from the Latin Limen - meaning a threshold - is a term that was used primarily in psychology. It was initially picked up by Arnold van Gennep (1960) who extended the term in anthropological theory to speak of rituals in communities which signified the transition in the passage of a person from one stage in time to another. This work which remained largely obscure and ignored was revived by Victor Turner in his book The Forest of Symbols (1963), in which he described the liminal as ‘Betwixt and Between’ where he argued that attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous. A liminal zone is thus the space of the transient and incipient, it is more than a state of exception, it is the horizon through which established states pass.
Howrah Bridge takes for granted the presence of Indian traders in Rangoon, of Chinese opium dealers and smugglers in Calcutta, Anglo-Indian dancers in Chinatown Bars and sailors alighting from ships in these port cities. It does not need to justify or explain how these people came to be in these cities. But if these cosmopolitan zones were taken for granted during the colonial period, Amrith argues that this world of Cosmopolitan belonging also rapidly collapsed in the middle of the 20th century. The onset of World War II and the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia brought the war into the Bay of Bengal interrupting for the first time the relative ease with which people had moved across the terrain. The subsequent emergence of postcolonial nations and along with it the gift of citizenship that came with a moat editorially enclosed understanding of ethnic and national belonging foreclose the possibility of movement that marked the earlier period. It was no longer possible to take for granted the presence of multiple nationalities and instead what would begin to emerge is the language of ethnic minorities subsumed within the larger logic of national boundaries.
Neel Aakasher Neeche (1959)
A year after Samanta’s Howrah bridge, a very different and unusual film with a Chinese as the central character was released -or to be more accurate- attempted to be released since it also suffers the infamy of being the first film to be banned in post-independence India because of its explicit political content. It is still unclear what the reason behind the ban was but given that this was just a matter of a few years before the India China war in 1962, the mere fact of the film having a Chinese protagonists and depicting aspects of political life in China cold have been a cause of concern. Mrinal Sen’s Neel Aakasher Neeche (Under the blue sky) has Kali Bannerjee playing Wang Lu, a silk seller from China and his friendship with Basanti, a well to do woman in Calcutta in the thirties. The film begins with shots of the city with a voice over that informs us that many things have been forgotten and erased from the city including the footprints of a Chinese migrant who walked the streets of Calcutta. It adds that while his may not have been a historic hero, it was one that was inextricably linked to the turbulent times and with that the film introduces us Wang Li as he walks the neighbourhoods of Calcutta- a bundle of cloth on his back- shouting “China Silk, China Silk” to attract the attention of potential buyers. On arriving in a neighborhood, Wang Lu is taunted by children who follow him screaming “Here comes the Chinaman, he will take you away, Chinaman, Chinaman”. A little girl intervenes and says that one must never call someone a chinaman since god will then our them into a Chinaman. She then addresses Wag Lu and says that he must have called someone a Chinaman which is why he was himself turned into a Chinaman. When the children continue to tease Wang Lu, they are stopped by a woman, who we subsequently learn is Basanti.
We subsequently learn of Basanti’s enthusiasm for Swadeshi politics and preference for Indian manufactured goods, a fact that often brings her in ideological conflict with her husband, a well to do advocate. Wang Lu follows Basanti to her house and lands up there the next day, attempting to sell her a piece of silk despite her protestations that she does not buy or use anything foreign. Wang Lu distinguishes himself from the foreigners that she seems to be so sceptical about. Pointing at his skin, he says see this is not light, I am not an Englishman. He then says that his eyes are not blue like those of the Englishman, and finally he points at his nose, stating I am a Chinaman. He informs her that what he is selling is not foreign but Chinese, auguring one of the central themes that runs through the film, how do we imagine the space of friendship and political solidarity across races which have historically been subjugated by Europeans?
While at her house, one of her servants tries to convince Wang Lu to procure opium for him (presumably because he is a Chinese from Chinatown and it is assumed that he will have relatively easy access). Wang Lu refuses and gets into an argument with the servant, at which Basanti intervenes, and in the process also uses the word Bhai while addressing him. This moves Wang Lu immensely as he walks away repeating that she had called him brother. We learn what it is about the word brother that affects him so much in a subsequent flashback in the film when Wan Lu remembers his life in rural China. Unable to pay rent to the landlord, his sister was forced to work at his house where she is raped by the landlord. She does not tell Wang Lu about what happened and instead hands him the money that the landlord threw at her. Misunderstanding what she did Wang Lu drives her out of the house and she commits suicide. This traumatic memory continues to haunt him in India and the use of the word Bhai by Basanti brings back memories of his sister to him.
This turn out to be a turning point of the relationship between Wang Lu and Basanti. On Chinese new year, Wang Lu dresses in his fanciest clothes and visits Basant with a gift for her. While she is initially annoyed with him presuming that he is there to sell her something again, her anger turns to affection as he realizes that it is his festival, and he has come to give her a gift. However when she goes into her house to bring back a return gift for him, Wang Lu is humiliated and is driven out of the house by Basanti's husband.
He just cannot understand how she, an educated and respectable woman from the Bhadralok can even maintain ay friendship with an untrustworthy foreigner. Her continued support of Wang Lu, along with her increasing radicalization begins to strain her relationship with her husband. Another incident that marks a transformation of her relationship with Wang Lu involves a political rally that Basant is participating in, which Wang Lu happens to pass through. He stops to listen to her delver a speech against the colonel government for imposing restrictions under Sec. 144 of the Criminal procedure code. This meeting is disrupted by the police who follow her as they suspect her of being in possession of secret documents. Just as the police are about to arrest her, Wang Lu helps her hide her documents. From here the film begins to move from the domain of informal and casual acquaintance into a more political space at the intersections of politics and friendship. At the end of the film, Basnti and Wang Lu are mutually transformed. Basanti is arrested for her involvement with anticolonial activism, while Lu returns to China to participate in the resistance against the Japanese invasion. A late self-realization for him emerges through a conversation with Basanti on the nature of morality and how sometimes morality may be a matter of political circumstances. This conversation makes him understand that he may have misjudged his sister, and his moral condemnation of her was the result of a political failure on his part to understand the name of feudal exploitation.
One of the key thematic that emerges in the film is about how think of the relationship between friendship, political education and solidarity? In what ways do Basanti and Wang Lu transform each other’s political subjectivity even as they learn to become friends across gender, class and race. A useful guide to reading the film is Leela Gandhi’s work on friendship and politics. In “Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-De-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship”, Gandhi turns away from the usual sites of postcolonial politics to look instead at the question of friendship and solidarity between Europeans and Indians. Her specific interest is in looking at Europeans who seem to betray their own self interest or forged a solidarity with Indians were part of the anticolonial movement on the basis of a common bond that they shared either in terms of sexual orientation, support for animal rights etc. Gandhi makes a compelling case for the political importance of friendship as an affective relationship p that emerges not from the classical conceptions of community such as race, linguistic identity or nationalism but instead emerges from a “non community” based on fraternal affection. Quoting Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Gandhi says argue that the current era of powerful global and supernational alliances marks the emergence of a new “empire” that places more and more onerous ethical and political burdens on the “citizen”: can one simultaneously condemn global terrorism and global “peacekeeping”? Sympathise simultaneously with the victims of both projects? Who is the friend or the enemy? Gandhi weaves together an account of unlikely friendships that enable the forging open new language of anticolonial solidarity. While Neel Aaaksher Neeche is situated in the 1930's in the context of the nationalist movement in India and the Japanese occupation of Chine, the fact-that it was made in the end of the 50's alerts us to some of the possible political context of the film. India and China had emerged as newly independent states-one as the largest socialist democracies in the world, and the other as the largest communist country. Border deputes between the two created by a legacy of colonial cartography were the inheritance of both these Asian grants and the question on the minds of many people were about the possibly of a sustained friendship between these two countries. If the official rhetoric of the Nehruvian era was Hindi Cheeni bhai bhai, the political realities were of an altogether different nature. In the same year that the film was released China invaded Tibet, forcing with the light armour to escape incognito and seek political asylum in India. India's eventual acceptance of Dalai Lama created a political chasm that remains till date. The 1962 war destroyed any possibly of a relationship between India and China based on civilizational and political friendship. One can therefore look back at the film as a document of a very different historical moment when mutual suspicion had not overtaken the relationship between the two countries and there was indeed a possibility that the shared political history of suffering and exploitation could be the basis for articulating a new kind of trans national and regional solidarity.
The other striking thing about the film of the attention that it pays to the spatial dynamics of the Chinese in India. Wang Lu identifies “Cheena Para” as the area that he lives in and there are specific references to lane such as Chattawala Gulli which for a long time was the heart of Chinatown in central Calcutta. Even today the area that we identify as the old Chinatown in Calcutta is centred around Phears lane, Blackburn Lane and Chattawala Gulli.
There is also a section in the film in which Mrinal Sen inserts documentary images short of the dragon dance during the Chinese New Year in Calcutta. these are arguably the only actual images of Chinatown that we can see in Indian cinema.
Finally the last film that we can look at is a 1962 noir thriller Chinatown, directed again by Shakti Samanta. This film was a massive box office hit and one of the most memorable movies which starred Shammi Kapoor. The film opens with an infamous gangster Mike who operates out of Chinatown and is associated with various smugglers working in Chinatown including Joseph Chang (Madan Puri) and his associate Ching Lee (who runs a shoe shop). Mike is arrested by the police but they are unable to get any information about the operation of the gang from him.
Through an uncanny coincidence another character Shekhar lands up in the police station and the police are startled to find that he bears absolute resemblance to Mike. They convince him to work for them as an undercover policeman infiltrating the gang and pretending to be Mike in order to get information about the gang and its operation. Later in the film we discover that Mike and Shekhar as is often the case in Hindi cinema, are actually long-lost brothers. But the core of the film is about the manner in which Shekhar pretending to be Mike succeeds in breaking up the gang. None of the gang members actually suspect Shekhar with the exception of Ching Lee. In one of the crucial scenes in the film Ching Lee lays out a trap for Shekhar when he gets to try on a pair of shoes that he had made for Mike. The show doesn't quite fit Shekhar properly, and he asks Shekhar whether his feet have grown while he was in jail. Shekhar response that his feet may not have grown in jail but it appears that Ching Lee’s nose has grown smaller.
Despite the film being located in Chinatown there is a predictable absence of any real Chinese characters in the film. Ching Lee is played by M.B. Shetty, an actor famous for playing the role of villains in many films in the 50s and 60s. There isn’t much that was required to make him into a Chinese character apart from giving arched eyebrows and a Chinese costume, and it is apparent from the images of the extras and the first song of the film that the filmmaker did not bother to even have a customised costume for Ching Lee as he seems to be wearing the exact same costume as the extras in the song. Again if we were to look at this film purely from a representational perspective, the Chinese characters appear as one-dimensional stock stereotypes. One could even describe this as the Chinese Lantern effect that Hindi cinema borrows from Chinese restaurants in India where authenticity is performed by using red lanterns regardless of what is actually on the menu. But if you were to turn away from the representational to the contextual setting of the film becomes a lot more interesting. As mentioned earlier this film was released in 1962, a crucial year for India China relations as well as for the Chinese living in India as 1962 changed everything. From being a community that was rather well assimilated within the Indian community to being perceived as foreigners who posed a potential threat to the country, the year 1962 marked a deep chasm, particularly for those who were unfortunate enough to have been sent to the Deoli internment camp in Rajasthan. If there had been a smattering of the presence of the Indian Chinese within the Indian popular culture, after 1962 there is an absolute vanishing of the Indian Chinese in cinema. In 1964, Chetan Anand made a jingoistic film about the 1962 war but that was a film which had Chinese soldiers but not any Indian Chinese, and it wouldn’t be until the Canadian Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s controversial film “Fire” about lesbianism in India that you have the appearance of an Indian Chinese character in Hindi cinema. I would suggest that what vanishes in 1962 from the space of Indian cinema is not merely in a Chinese characters, which in any case is not much of a loss to begin with, as much as the disappearance of a spatial imagination of Chinatown. The very fact that often could be titled Chinatown gestures to the significance of a spatial imaginary of something called Chinatown. In many of the colonial accounts of the Chinese quarters either in Calcutta or in Bombay, Chinatown emerges as a space of absolute alterity. From a regulatory perspective it stands for an exceptional zone marked by the presence of ordinary illegality in the form of gambling dens, opium houses and brothels. Given that the Chinese presence in India was never numerically significant to the way that the Chinese diasporic in other countries like the United States and the United Kingdom has been, what really stands out is how such a small ethnic community could carve out such a distinct cultural identity in terms of spatial inhabitation. One reason for this perhaps lies in the fact that in the domain of urban geography the very idea of a Chinatown is almost a recognisable global genre, moving from New York and Toronto in the West to Kuala Lumpur in the East. In the realm of Urban studies these spatially defined ethnic enclaves come to stand for markers of urban distinction that prevent cities from becoming what the architect Rem Koolhaas describes as the “generic city”. In cinematic terms spaces like Chinatown stand-in for an idea of a “noir urbanism” or what Ranjani Mazumdar terms as “the urban fringe of Bombay cinema”. Building on these formulations I would suggest that the specific space that Chinatown occupies within the imagination of urban modernity in India is akin to that of a “noir cosmopolitanism” and Shakti Samanta’s 1962 film is simultaneously the pinnacle of this imagination even as it inaugurates its death.
The word noir as is well known comes to us from an idea of darkness which in the cinematic imagination contrasted with the sharp light ideals of the modernist ideal in architecture and planning. Film Noir operated in the shadows of the modern city, transacting in the underbelly of capitalist dreams and aspirations, and in terms of an urban geography, it was always the by-lanes and alleyways that were central to the propelling of noir narrative. And just as every modern city is accompanied by darker version of itself which can never be unshackled, a cosmopolitan ideal manifest itself both in the daylight institutions of high culture and planning as it does in the cosmopolitan underbelly of the opium den and the gambling house. Thus when Shekhar finally kills Ching Lee, what he actually finishes off is a noir cosmopolitanism, and whose death announces the emergence of the generic city.
 For a history of Yellowfacing in Hollywood see https://www.teenvogue.com/story/yellowface-whitewashing-history
Coonoor Kripalani, Reading China in popular Hindi film – three points in time: 1946, 1964 and 2009, Asian Cinema Volume 23 Number 2
Payal Banerjee, Chinese Indians in Fire: Refractions of Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Citizenship in Post-Colonial India’s Memories of the Sino-Indian War, CHINA REPORT 43 : 4 (2007): 437–463