While a record number of Indo-Canadians were elected to Canada’s House of Commons in the elections this October, one name invariably did not figure in any list of MPs from the community.
Shaun Chen was elected from the new riding, as Parliamentary constituencies are called in Canada, of Scarborough North in the Toronto region.
The 35-year-old Toronto-born MP belongs to a minuscule minority, that of the Chinese-origin diaspora that migrated to Canada from India.
Chen occupies a very rare hyphenated space in the country, as he said, “I find myself in a very unique position as someone who was born in Canada of Chinese descent and with an Indian heritage through my parents.”
His parents, mother Yueh Ming and father Kuo Tsai Chen, were both born and raised in India, before they emigrated to Canada in the 1970s as their family business in Kolkata faltered. “My parents speak Hindi. When I was younger, they would speak Hindi to one another and I would not understand a single word,” Chen said.
In fact, that also provided a sort of linguistic advantage during the campaign leading up to the October federal elections in Canada.
As Chen said, “Certainly, my Dad, who speaks Hindi, had a great way to talk to people. He was my best canvasser, he went door-to-door and talked to many residents in Hindi and it was very fascinating for a lot of them.Residents that had read about my background didn’t talk about the election or any issues on the national stage, they were asking me about my background and how that came about. It was a conversation piece.”
There are estimates of nearly 20,000 of those of Hakka (guest people in the original dialect) Chinese origin in Canada, with the vast majority from India and living in the Greater Toronto Area or GTA, especially in townships like Scarborough or Markham. Among them is another who has succeeded politically, Markham regional councillor Joe Li.
Li said, “I cannot deny I’m Indian by birth, neither can I deny I am Chinese by descent. And I’m Canadian by choice.” Li attended the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas in Jaipur in 2012 where he met the then Gujarat CM and current PM Narendra Modi and introduced himself, saying, “Mera dil Hindustani hai.”
His mother-in-law’s family ran the Double Happiness restaurant in Kolkata and that tradition has been maintained in Toronto where his brother, Simon Li, established what may be the first Indo-Chinese restaurant in Canada, Federick’s, a quarter-century back in Scarborough. Somewhat fittingly, the second branch of that eatery is located on New Delhi Drive in Markham.
At one point, the peak population of Hakka Chinese in India was approximately 30,000.
That number has dwindled to a few thousand now and part of the reason for the large-scale migration from India was due to alienation as the 1962 war before India and China led to the internment of nearly 3,000 of them in a camp in Deoli, Rajasthan.
Even in Canada, as representatives of the Chinese government reached out to the community, Indian officialdom was mostly aloof. That changed recently.
“The first one to call me Joebhai was Akhilesh Mishra,” Li said, referring to India’s current consul general in Toronto. That process of rapprochement may take another step forward as Li, joined by about another 100 members of the community, go to Kolkata in February next year to celebrate the Chinese New Year there.
And Scarborough-native Chen, who says he is “first and foremost a Canadian”, is proof that this tiny minority isn’t shy about its roots.