Tracing 19th Century Chinese connections in South India

A documentary shot across India, Hong Kong and Malaysia by an IIT-Madras professor, traces the Chinese connections of South India specific to the mid-19th Century

October 29, 2020 05:04 pm | Updated November 02, 2020 12:52 pm IST

A still from the film

A still from the film

Each time period bears many distinct strands of history. The mid-19th Century Tamil Nadu that saw a people who spoke a language unknown to the locals, is one such strand. When Joe Thomas Karackattu, assistant professor at IIT-Madras and faculty in-charge of the China Studies Centre there, went on a trail spanning three countries, namely India, Hong Kong and Malaysia, this particular strand is what he held on to: the Chinese inflow into the South of the Vindhyas. And the starting point of it all was tea.

The Nilgiris, now a major geographical indicator for tea, has an important connection with the Chinese. By visually documenting the lives of those Chinese who travelled to South India, and later made India their home for various reasons, Joe puts his academic research into a comprehensible format: a documentary titled Those 4 Years . The narration is initially built around the arrival of Robert Fortune (the Scottish botanist who is known for introducing plants from China and Japan into British gardens), who had brought with him eight workers from Shanghai to teach native farmers in East Garhwal to grow tea, owing to the high demand around the time. But, it later takes on a different course.

Remnants of the past

Some of those tea manufacturers are believed to have stayed back after their three-year contracts... Joe’s voice-over echoes to a montage of maps, tea plantations and pages from historical documents.

Joe Thomas Karackattu

Joe Thomas Karackattu

The documentary, which is interspersed with interviews and montages of yellowing, old documents, starts with the Ajoo family recounting tales about their forefathers, who had been involved in tea plantations in the South. However, that is not the only thread the researcher follows. A story that runs in parallel is that of the Chinese convicts who were brought to the Nilgiris from the Strait Settlements, as labourers.

“There were many other accounts relating to South India that were yet to be explored. While a lot of people have done work on the history of tea in general.. how it came to parts of northern Assam, and then to South India, and how coffee got wiped out… There was very little work tracing the Chinese connections we had,” says Joe. While the arrival of tea and the British movement of penal labour to different sites in India are points of interest, exploring the specifics of it, Joe thought, would be a valuable contribution. And for this, he had to “burrow deep into the archives”.

“People do have anecdotal references [to share],” says Joe. For instance, at one point in the movie, while debating whether the Chinese had a hand in the production of Lawrence School, Udhagamandalam, a faculty member mentions that when he was a student there, he was often given Chinese coins as pocket money to use in tuck shops. “But, I wanted to go threadbare into where these stories fit in the archives. That’s when I started this journey,” says Joe.

Conceptualising a research product into visual representation is what constituted the three years; the reading that went to it, took longer, adds Joe. “I think, as a researcher, especially as one based in South India, it is very important to tell the stories that have not been told.”

Negotiating tough terrains and unprecedented logistical difficulties — even stopping for food at a local tea shop and getting bits of unanticipated information — gives one life lessons to remain “levelled”. The contrast between the difficult mountain ways of the Nilgiris and the fanciful, opulent Hong Kong skyline, served this purpose.

The second half of the movie in which Joe sets off on a journey to dig out documentary evidence to show the inflow of Chinese convicts from the Strait Settlements, further solidifies all anecdotal references. “For any researcher, that is the thrill!” Whether or not he manages to locate it forms the rest of the latter half.

However, locating these convicts’ descendants and jogging their memory was a challenge. “It is unfair of us to expect them to give us any material information about their fourth or fifth generation ancestors,” says Joe. It is then a researcher’s task to make sense of their powerful oral history through concrete evidence.

The film will be screened at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2021. Visit the page Those4Years on Facebook to get updates on the official release of the film.

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