Kolkata has always had a rich history. Now the culture capital, it was once the hub of opium trade. The British East India Company bought opium from farmers in India and auctioned it in Kolkata, then Calcutta. From there much of it was smuggled to China. It’s here that Simon Choa-Johnston got the idea for his first novel.
Whenever, he asked his mother about his ancestors beyond his grandparents, he got a sternly reply, “Your great grandfather was a Jewish opium merchant from Calcutta named Emanuel Belilios.” It’s a completely different thing that his great-grandfather, Emanuel Raphael Belilios was “the foremost opium merchant in Hong Kong” in the 1880s. In the 2000s, when his mother was in her mid-90s and had moved into a senior’s residence, he discovered among her papers, letters, diary entries, photos and other papers about her life that he had never known about. There was, however, nothing about Emanuel. But he found bits of her story that instilled a need to know more. And his quest began.
This led to the novel, The House of Wives. In the novel, two women compete for the affections of their opium merchant husband in colonial Hong Kong. Needless to say, that a major portion of the book is inspired from the life of his great grandfather, who had two wives — Semah from Kolkata and later Pearl, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong. Simon, a playwright and a director and who is currently the Artistic Director Emeritus of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, had to travel to India, China and Hong Kong several times to trace his family history. He speaks to HT on the book and his trips to Kolkata.
How much of this book is your family’s history and how much is fiction?
It is a work of fiction inspired by true events. Births, marriages, deaths and social events printed in newspapers of the day, prices of opium and real estate purchases as well as known historical events are accurate as far as I know. What’s inside the characters’ heads, their hearts and private desires are the work of an over-active imagination.
How long did it take to research for the book? Was your family supportive of this endeavour?
My serious research diving into museum archives and public records took about 10 years. Remember, I had a full time job as executive director of the Gateway Theatre, a major theatre company on the West Coast. I did not tell my family that I was working on a novel firstly because I don’t talk about my current projects. I have a theory that if you’re talking about it you’re not doing it. For me, I need silence, focus and a space free of distractions. But when a publication date was set, I did announce it to my family all of whom were excited and impatient to get their hands on my book to see if they were in it.
Have you visited India, specifically Kolkata, for this book?
I visited twice. Once in 2010 and again in 2013. The first time on a special research grant awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts to verify my research into the Belilios family and the Jewish presence in Kolkata. Rabbi Musleah, who was, I believe one of the last Rabbis in Kokata wrote a comprehensive reference on all the Jewish families in the city. His work was seminal in my search for family roots. On the second visit, I was fortunate to have Rig David, executive director of the Cathedral Relief Services (St. Paul’s) as my local facilitator. Rig recruited a small team of local history enthusiasts and together we toured Howrah and found Belilios Road, the old guard house, the remains of the stable and the footprint of the old mansion, all of which are located in Belilios Park near the Howrah railway station. Portraits of the family also exist and the Jewish cemetery was a great help in verifying dates of distant relatives.
Kolkata once had a thriving Jewish community. But now a handful of them remain. Also a large part of the history about Calcutta’s Jews has not been document. How did you find out Emanuel’s details in Kolkata?
Fortunately, my interest began with the birth of the internet. That’s where I found Rabbi Musleah’s tome. With that, plus archival records at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong as well as museum records at the HK Museum, I could trace the family’s movements back to the 1700s in Venice, then to Iraq, eventually to Mumbai and finally to Kolkata where the Sephardic family of Baghdadi Jews finally settled. Emanuel Raphael Belilios was born in Kolkata, which at the time was the capital of British India. I visited Venice twice in search of material. For obvious reasons I have not been to Iraq. I’ve also returned to my birth city of Hong Kong several times to trace Emanuel’s considerable presence there. Finally, I went to London to see his final resting place at Golder’s Green cemetery. His wife, Semah (also born in Kolkata to the Ezra family), remained in Hong Kong and is interred at the Jewish Cemetery there.
You are a playwright, did that make penning this novel easy?
It’s like driving a car and driving a boat. There are both conveyances but used for different purposes and require different skills.
How long did you take to write the book?
In a way, I’ve been writing this all my life.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just come off a six-week book tour and a pile of interviews so I’m taking the summer off and will spend time at the cottage with my family.
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy also talks about the opium trade. Have you read it?
I’m a big fan of the great Ghosh and I have devoured all his work. His magnificent trilogy ends where my story begins. I am indebted to the master storyteller for paving the way for neophyte authors like me.
Though a man is the protagonist, it’s the women who fuel your plot. Comment.
I find women infinitely more interesting and complex than the men in their lives. While Emanuel sets things in motion, it is the women who must deal with the consequences.