Ma Yau Chung, 79, settles on a bench at Vanfa Dental Clinic on Evening Bazaar Road after attending to his patient. When asked about how the members of the Hupeh community, to which he belongs, migrated to Chennai from China, he replies, “Teriyadhu. Very sketchy.” Probably the oldest living person in his community, he says that most people who belonged to his generation are no more.
Walk down Evening Bazaar Road, and it is hard to overlook the curious case of boards with Chinese letters and names like Say Maw Seng Clinic. The row of dental clinics on the road was started by members of the Hupeh community who migrated from China in the 1930s and came by ship via Burma. Three generations later, they continue to be dentists and more ‘Madrasi' than you can fathom.
“Until a few years ago, people were curious when they saw us, and wanted to know where we were from. But not anymore. When people hear us speak Tamil, they are astounded,” says Dr. Albert Sheih. He and his family, however continue to speak Hupeh at home.
“Sheih is our family name. My children have traditional Chinese names, but since people here find it hard to pronounce them, we go by our Christian names,” he adds. Though traditionally Buddhists, most have converted to Christianity. Dr. Sen, who runs another clinic, also prefers to be called Dr. Sen rather than by his full name Shieh Thou Sen.
Most not just speak the language, but also know to read and write Tamil. “I was born and brought up here and speak Tamil better than I speak Hupeh. I can even read and write Tamil. The only Chinese festival we celebrate is Chinese New Year. We make Chinese delicacies during festivals, but otherwise we eat regular rice and curries,” says Dr. Mayu Teh.
They say that there are around 10 families belonging to the community still living in the city, and they get together on festivals and social gatherings like birthdays and weddings. Though they traditionally married within the community, most say that the practise is changing.
“Earlier most of our parents and grandparents settled in Park Town and Chintadripet, but now we are all spread out and live in different parts of the city,” says Dr. Teh.
Dr. Shieh reminisces about how his father initially set up the practice. “My father, like most others, practiced traditional Chinese dentistry as there were no professional dental colleges back then, and he taught some of these methods to the next generation as well.”
Dr. Sen says that the stretch became popular for its Chinese dental clinics, probably because there were not many dentists in this part of town. When he and his family visited his ancestral village in China in 2000, he realised that he felt more at home in Chennai than in China. “In the millennium year, my father who was 87 then, wanted to visit our ancestral village and our ancestral house. Though it was an emotional experience, and we were able to converse with them in Hupeh, I realised that I felt more at home here than there,” he says.
Dr. Sen says that there are people from the Hakka and Cantonese community as well, but a lot of them have migrated over the years. The restaurants Chung King and Southern Chinese Restaurant, he says, were run by people from the Hakka community. “But they closed shop and migrated.” The Hupeh community however, continues to be a community where almost everyone is still a Ya ye. Ya means teeth and Ye is someone who heals, explains Dr. Sen.
Be it watching Kamal Hassan movies as a family, cooking Indian curries, or joining their friends for festivals like Diwali, they all say that their way of life is not very different from that of their neighbours. Almost.