In search of heritage
You are never good enough a man for your father-in-law. And, if your father-in-law is Chinese when you are Indian, you could be nicknamed ‘The Black Devil’ like Mahalingam Pillay was in the 1930s. Pillay eventually married Ang Ah Kee, and she was disowned by her family. Their grandson, Kevin Bathman has been trying to heal the deep gash of racial segregation through his online art project — Chindian Diaries. It tells the stories of the children of interracial couples — of Chinese and Indian origin — and their identity crises and blows to self-esteem.
This is a photograph of Narayan Muthu (from Vathalagundu in Madurai) and his wife Lim Ah Chwa. During the early 1940s, Narayan was transferred to Malaya by the British government. Narayan’s family couldn’t accept the marriage and even got him married to a woman of their caste when he’d made a short trip home. Upset, he never spoke of that incident till the day he died. However, Narayan still missed the presence of his own family in his new life in Malaysia. To remind himself of his family, he decided to name all his 13 children after the names of his family members in India.
Bathman was born and raised in Malaysia in a part of the world that saw a large population of Chinese and Indian immigrant workers during colonial times. While workers from southern part of India worked in the fields, Han Chinese people were merchants. Following the British policy of divide and rule, this encouraged socio-economic, as well as racial segregation through political and administration policies. In Singapore, till as late as 2010, a child’s identity card mentioned the race of the father to avail of linked benefits and subsidies. In 2010, this was changed to mention the race of both parents. Malaysia’s government forms still have no boxes for mixed races — you have to fall into the categories of Malay, Chinese, Indian or others.
In 1930, Bathman’s grandmother Ang Ah Hee met Mahalingam Pillay. Their marriage infuriated Ang’s father who was against the idea of her marrying an Indian man with dark skin. Ang embraced Indian culture by learning how to speak Tamil and cooking Indian cuisine. She mastered it and soon began cooking for her Indian neighbours
In this environment, love flourished. Kevin’s paternal grandparents married and Kee embraced Indian culture, cooking Indian food and speaking Tamil. “I grew up listening to the story of my paternal grandparents, and how much hardship they went through to be together. It was their story of determination and love that I was interested to delve deeper in,” says 40-year-old Bathman, whose mother is Chinese. “Add to the fact, that I had never learnt much about my mother’s history too, made me decide to investigate further to find out more about my roots.”
Disownment by family is a common thread in most of these stories. Chindian children grew up mostly in one culture (either parents’) while society identified them with the race of the father. “The most common thread for a Chindian child growing up is identity crisis. Over and over, I hear the same story of bullying, not fitting in, not being Chinese nor Indian, and the identity confusion. The other recurring theme is racism — both cultures feel the other culture is too foreign.”
Sherlyn Yap’s parents met in Kuala Lumpur. The officer writing her birth certificate said: “Bapak Cina, mak India, anak Melayu la!” (The father is Chinese, the mother Indian, then the child is Malay!). It was after much argument, that he begrudgingly wrote ‘Cina’
To reach out to other Chindians, Bathman started requesting stories and pictures from his social circles in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in 2012 and put out the word upon social media. “Particularly, in Malaysia and Singapore, the Chindian community has never been documented and mostly been side-lined. It made me realise that we needed to build a community that could share its own stories, and to be proud of its heritage,” he says. The result is interviews of couples on YouTube, a page at www.cowbird.com and a photography exhibition in Australia next year.
During his research, Bathman also came across the assimilation of Chinese people into India. They came as workers with the East India company, settling in communities in Kolkata and Mazgaon in Mumbai. “Most Chindians are thankful for a place to share our stories and photos. In India, I have highlighted the story of the Chinese Indians in Kolkata and the effects of the China-India war in 1962, as well the Deoli camp incident. In China, there is a surge of interest of Chinese people wanting to learn the Bharatanatyam dance, and the Indian culture,” he says.