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Playing Chinese checkers in Delhi

Kim Brothers, the sellers of ethnic Chinese custom-made shoes and leatherwear in Delhi's Jor Bagh Market, speak to Sidhartha Roy.

delhi Updated: Dec 28, 2007 00:56 IST
Sidhartha Roy

There is nothing that sets apart ‘Kim Brothers’ from the other shops in the sleepy Jor Bagh Market. Unless, of course, you know that the owners of this shop that sells custom-made shoes and leatherwear are ethnic Chinese.

The smell of old woodwork and good quality leather greet you at the door and the shop’s 75-year-old owner, Chun Sean Hugh, invites you inside with a warm, Confucian smile. Chinese calendars, posters, vases and artifacts are carefully strewn around the shop to give you that mainland feel.

Hugh was born in Punjab but the family — his parents, six brothers and two sisters — made Delhi their home in 1958. “I have grown up here and only known Indian friends, neighbours and landlords. I am just like you,” says Hugh as his nimble hands give shape to a fine piece of leather.

His elder brother, CC Hugh, enters the room and the shop assistant is immediately issued an order in a thick, gravelly voice — “Haan bhai Chaudhry, yeh plate toh yahan se hathale”. You are in a Delhiwallah’s shop all right. “Delhi is a mixture of so many cultures that everyone blends in,” said Jude Yep, owner of the shoe shop ‘John Brothers’ in Connaught Place, where he stays on the first floor.

“If you are born in Delhi like me, you adopt the city and its people adopt you,” he says. Yep studied at St. Columba’s (Shah Rukh Khan was a junior, he helpfully adds) and so did his children. “My friends in school never treated me as someone different,” he says.

However, peculiar situations do arise sometimes. “Earlier, people mistook me for a tourist, now they think I’m from the Northeast. When I talk to my suppliers over the phone, they believe I’m a North Indian and are surprised when they meet me,” says Yep.

Given their facial features, vegetable vendors and auto rickshaw drivers try to fleece them. “They demand Rs 15 for vegetables worth Rs 10. The autowallahs too ask for 50 per cent more fare,” Yep says. There are about 200 people of Chinese origin living in Delhi and the NCR area. “Our parents came to Kolkata in the 1930s, when immigration was easier. They moved to different parts of the country in search of a living,” says Hugh.

Most immigrants were from areas in southern China like Canton or Guangdong. “We are Hakkas from a place called Meihsin,” he explains. Most immigrants were poor farmers, who found work in tanneries or made shoes, which most Indians shunned. The later generations, however, have got the best education and many have moved away from the traditional businesses of shoemaking, dentistry, food or beauty parlours.

Hugh’s 26-year-old nephew, Derrick, for instance, is a cabin crew with an international airline. Born and brought up in Faridabad, he has never looked upon himself as being any different from his friends. The community doesn’t have a formal association and the members meet only during weddings and funerals, as most of them are distantly related.

Though most have converted to Christianity, they still celebrate the Chinese New Year and Moon Festival. Keeping traditions and their language alive is difficult as there are no Chinese schools in Delhi. The Hugh brothers speak Hindi at home and when it comes to food, they have Punjabi taste buds. “Anything that is spicy with lots of chilly. My favourites are pulao and chaat,” he says.

For the Yep family too, it is more of dal, chawal and rajma than rice and noodles. Finding a groom or a bride in Delhi’s small Chinese community is a problem. “Many people have left for the UK, the US or Canada. We visit Kolkata, where the Chinese community is huge, to find a match,” Yep says. However, interracial marriages are not uncommon. “My father wanted us to marry within the Chinese community, but for the younger generation, similar careers or interests matter more,” says Hugh.

Hugh has never been to China but wants to fulfill his father’s wish to visit and show what they have achieved here. “I want to see China at least once but I will be there as a curious Indian,” Yep says.