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  • Eugene Tham

Tham Choo Contractor of Assam

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Tham Choo (Source: The Tham Family Archives)

My grandfather, Tham Choo was all of 16 years old when he left his home in Phing Chow village in Naam Hoi District in China and arrived in Calcutta. It was 1928 and the internal political turmoil in China and the difficulties of survival was too much for even a 16-year-old to handle. His sister was already in Calcutta, married to someone who ran a small food stall in Chinatown (Cheenapada). Naturally, Tham Choo landing up in India went to stay with his sister. But he soon found himself to be somewhat of a burden on his sister’s family who themselves were poor and struggling to eke out a living.

Hearing there was a lot of work to be found in Assam, he joined a group of Chinese men from his province leaving for Assam to work. They all took a steamer from Calcutta, going down the Ganges first and then the Brahmaputra river. After many days of travelling, Tham Choo found himself in a place called Sadiya in the upper most part of Assam bordering NEFA (what we now know as Arunachal Pradesh).

(Representational Image from

In Sadiya, my grandfather did whatever odd jobs he could get to survive, one of them was collecting medicinal herbs from Sadiya and then taking them to Calcutta to sell.

After some 5-6 years in India, he had saved enough money to travel back to China to visit his parents and family. He was 22 years old then and his mother found him a bride and he got married. The couple even had a daughter. But with the Japanese War and civil strife in full force in China, Tham Choo could not find work. Now with a family to feed, he left for India again. This time too he landed in Calcutta first but slowly made his way back to Assam. He brought with him many more carpenters since he knew there was work here. He also brought his cousin back with him and they worked together for a long time.

Membership card in a Chinese Association of Calcutta

Tham Choo's brother also joined him in Assam but he soon died of malaria in Difloo Tea Estate near Bokakhat in Upper Assam. With the group of carpenters my grandfather brought with him to Assam, he started taking up small contracts in the tea gardens. He got a break when he got the contract to build the tea factory in Daflagarh tea estate, three hours from Tezpur. His home soon became an adda (gathering place) for not just the carpenters working with him and but for many Chinese carpenters five to six gardens around Daflagarh. In the garden, the carpenters were largely bachelors and Tham Choo and his team were given quarters near the doctor’s bungalow in the tea garden. One day, a few ducks belonging to the doctor went missing and the Chinese with their love for home reared poultry were immediately suspected. Tham Choo was furious for being wrongly accused and left the tea garden with his group. They bought some land in Kekorijan village next to the Daflagarh Tea Estate. Paying a royal price of Rs. 18 for their plot of land, Tham choo and his carpenters made Kekorijan their home.

He became a successful and renowned contractor in the area and was known as Tham Choo contractor.

The letterhead of Tham Choo’s firm in Dufflaghur in the 1950’s (from the Tham Family Archives)

The British running the tea gardens of those days liked the Chinese carpenters for their skills not just of carpentry, but also of masonry and machinery. Most importantly, they were liked for their extreme hard work and willingness to take up a challenge. My grandfather was doing well professionally in Assam but with World War II raging and the sea routes closed, he could not go back to China. He married a local Adivasi woman called Supkesi whose family was from Bokakhat near the famed rhino area of Kaziranga. Tham Choo had five sons and a daughter with my grandmother Supkesi . My father was their third son. Even till he died many decades later, my grandfather never could meet his wife and daughter left back in China.

Tham Choo’s wife & daughter left back in China (Tham Family Archives)

Tham Choo with his wife Supkesi & oldest son in Assam, 1946 (Source: Tham Family Archives)

Daflagarh was on the Southern bank whereas the only Chinese school of that time in Assam was in Makum near Tinsukia – which was on the North bank. With no bridge to connect the two banks, Tham Choo could not send his sons to study in Makam. So, he sent his older boys – the eldest and the third (my father) - to Maal Bazaar Chinese school (now in West Bengal across the Assam border). The other children were first tutored at home and then sent to the local Assamese medium school near by. The teachers could not pronounce their difficult Chinese names and so they were given Assamese names and till date they are known locally only by those names - Pradeep Tham, Pranab Tham and Leena Tham. My father went on from Maal Bazaar Chinese Primary school to the Jalpai Chinese High School in Kalimpong (near Darjeeling) where he was still studying when the war broke out in 1962.

Before the 1962 war, my grandfather Tham Choo was doing fairly well for himself as a carpentry contractor in Daflagarh. He owned an elephant and when a tea estate manager would get transferred out or change cars, he would sometimes buy one of them. So, over time, the family got to drive around in an Aston Martin or a Chevrolet or a Land Rover. With tea gardens also flourishing in Assam, Tham Choo had enough contract work. The family ate well and Tham Choo used to order his special provisions all the way from the Chinese stores in Chinatown in Calcutta. His sons who were fast growing up also joined him in his work and they formed a company called Tham Heng Brothers. He also set up a rice mill, the J Husking Mill which the second son ran. The rice mill proved to be a life saver when the 1962 Indo-China war broke out and Tham Choo was taken to jail.

A signed and acknowledged purchase order from Assam ordering Chinese provisions from Chinatown in Calcutta (Source : Tham Family Archives)

In 1962, my grandfather was 69 years old and had been in India for over five decades. His oldest son (who was 20 years old) was working alongside with him in Monabari Tea Estate when war broke out between India and China. Tham Choo and his son were rounded up and taken to Tezpur jail. But with war getting worse and the Chinese troops just 150 kms away, Tezpur town panicked and everyone started fleeing. The mental hospital and the jail were opened up. My grandfather and uncle suddenly found themselves out of jail. Not knowing what to do, they started walking home to Daflagarh, many hours away. But hardly had they reached Sooteah, people recognized them as Chinese and pounced on them and started beating them up. Luckily the police rescued them and took them back to Tezpur and from there, the father and son were sent to Nagaon jail. Many other Chinese families were already living there. For the next two and half years, Tham Choo and his son (my eldest uncle) were kept there. It was in Nagaon jail that my eldest uncle also met his wife and they married after they were released.

A wedding inside Nowgong Special Jail in Assam, 1963 (Tham Family Archive)

Photo of the groom-to-be Tham Wah Heng sent from Nowgong Jail.

The back of the photo passed and stamped by Nowgong Jail Supt. (1963, Tham Family Archives)

When the father and son were finally released, a police team escorted them back to Daflagarh. For many years, letters were scrutinized and they had to report to the local police thana whenever they travelled. But apart from that, my grandfather focused on rebuilding his life and that of his family. It had been a tough time for my grandmother Supkesi while he was in jail as most of the children were still young. But since she was not imprisoned, their property was saved and slowly, the family bounced back. In due course of time, the sons married and the family branched out and generations of the Tham family are now spread in various parts of Assam, India and other parts of the world.

Wedding of Tham Choo's eldest son Tham Wah Heng with Wong Mei Lan, a girl he met in Nowgong Special Jail

The couple with the bride's mother and aunt in 1966 in Keyhung Tea Estate (Wong Family Archives).

My grandmother Supkesi Tham with daughters-in-law and grandchildren (Tham Family Archives).

My grandfather Tham Choo passed away in 1982 when he was 89 years old. The family published his obituary in the Assam Tribune newspaper and he was buried in Daflagarh, a home he made in India when he came here as a young lad of 16.

The ancestral tablet in Dufflagurh, Assam in memory of my grandfather Tham Choo who died in 1982 (Source: Tham Family Archives)

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