Xin nian kuai le!
That's how you say Happy New Year in Mandarin. It's Chinese New Year today. As is the case with Indians in China, even India boasts of a small-yet-thriving community of Chinese who have made India their home for nearly four generations. The community has not only carved a niche for themselves but is also regarded as the best in their respective professions. Dhara Vora spoke to two Mumbai residents who belong to the Chinese community whose professional choices reflect the lives of several generations of Chinese living in India
Teresa Chen, owner of Glory Salon, Waterfield Road, Bandra (W)
"My grandparents first came to Calcutta in the 1920s," recalls Teresa Chen. Chen elaborates saying that Chinese immigrants in India are mainly from Hu-pei, Hakka, Hunan, Shanghai or Canton. "It's like the Punjabis or South Indians. We also come from different provinces. My family belongs to Hu-pei," she says.
Cantonese were mainly carpenters and later turned into restaurateurs while the Hakkas were initially into shoe-making. "Many people from my community were dentists. But all of them were quacks. The next generations too are doctors and dentists, but they are all qualified now," she smiles.
Chen's family shifted to Delhi, where her mother, Shen Chen Lee started her parlour and that's how she and her three siblings got into the business. "Not everyone from my mum's generation was a qualified beautician. But they were inherently artistically inclined," she says adding "that is also why they made great dentists.
One of my uncles made such great dentures that they needed no further fittings; this, despite being a quack!"
Chen's parlour in Punjabi Baug in Delhi was burnt down during the 1984 riots. After a stint in Gorakhpur, Chen finally had her place in Bandra in 1993.
"I met my husband (Choun Min Chen) in Delhi. And he handles all the management part of our parlours," says Chen who now has outlets on Linking Road and another in Pune.
Chen's Chinese name is Tsai Chen Chen (pronounced as Tchen Tchun), "In English you can't really help the pronunciation," she says. Chen's daughter Nan Yin Chen, who just finished her MBBS, plans to go for dermatology and be join the family business in the future, while her son Shao Lin has other career plans for career.
For New Year Chen too follows the tradition of eating leftover food as they make a minimum of ten dishes for the family re-union. New Year's is the time when they meet people from their community at the temple near Dockyard Road railway station.
"My kids can hardly speak our language, just a few words and my husband compulsorily needs dal everyday. He even thinks conservatively like Indians. We love Indian food. But, when it comes to Chinese cuisine, we stick to the authentic. We have happily moulded ourselves in the Indian society," says Chen.
Baba Ling, owner of Ling's Pavilion, Colaba
"What I can't eat no one can eat," says 62-year-old Baba Ling. Ling who has been managing Ling's Pavilion in Colaba since 1968, is very particular about his food and the authenticity of what is served in his restaurant.
Ling along with his wife Mandy (who originally belongs to the Chinese community in Kolkata), brother Nini Ling and sister-in-law Nancy Ling who is Vietnamese) has been running the restaurant that was founded by his father Yick Sen Ling. Ling's father had first come to the city in 1938 and used to run a Chinese museum in the city.
But after Communist issues troubled countries the world over, the place had to shut down. Ling says, "My father foresaw the good market for Chinese cuisine," and Nanking was born in 1945.
After the success of Nanking, the family opened Ling. "We couldn't run two restaurants so we shut Nanking in 1994 and continued with Ling's. Ling's is the oldest running Chinese eatery in the country," he claims.
Ling constantly travels around the world and keeps updating his culinary knowledge, but sticks to serving authentic Chinese cuisine in the restaurant.
"People don't realise the difference between fresh and authentic. If you give them a fish cooked in its natural juices they won't like it but give them a heavily spiced stale fish they won't recognise it," rues Ling about people's perception of the Chinese cuisine.
"I feel that freshness is international and taste is individual. If someone doesn't like authentic Chinese it's his personal choice. But I will only serve what is true," he adds. Ling gives a million-Yuan statement when you ask him about Indian-Chinese food, "It's all Kothmir, Pudina, Mirchi!"
Ling has often had Chinese consuls come to the restaurant and ask him to cook whatever he feels like, "That is a challenge when customers have such deep faith in you." Ling who himself doesn't prefer spicy and fried Indian dishes says the only Indian food he prefers is home-cooked.
Ling's son Jason Ling, runs their Delhi outlet that still goes with the name Nanking. "My daughter in-law is Korean and we now plan to start a Korean-Chinese specialty restaurant," he says.
"We cook a big meal for a family re-union on New Year's Eve and follow the tradition of eating the leftover food the next day. We also go to the temple in Dockyard Road. As for the restaurant, it is shut on New Year and that is the only time we can take care of the renovations," he says.
"When customers wipe everything off their dishes, that's what makes me happy," concludes Ling.