Meet Chennai's Chinese dentists

They came by sea to India during World War II. Today, their descendants are dentists at Park Town. They celebrate Chinese New Year, speak Tamil and love sambar. This is their story

“Your father treated me years ago,” says a patient to Dr Peter Chen. He’s examining her tooth at his clinic in Park Town. Chen is probably used to his patients referring to his father, who was once popular in the area. Chinese by ancestral origin, Chen is among the eight dentists practising on Evening Bazaar Road. The dentists are spread across three generations — from the 69-year-old Thousen, to the 49-year-old David, all of them are from the Hubei province in China.

Chen was born in Chennai — he went to Don Bosco and did his BDS at Saveetha Dental College in the city. Dressed in a half-sleeved shirt, he rides a scooter to work, speaks fluent Hindi and Chennai Tamil, and is more Indian than a lot of us. “I can only speak a few words of Chinese,” he says. A few blocks away, his uncle Dr Shieh Thou Sen, who runs the Sen & Sen Clinic, is among the senior most of the Chinese dentists.

Meet Chennai's Chinese dentists

The 69-year-old has his nose inside a newspaper as old Hindi songs play in the background on a sultry afternoon. His assistant is preparing dental fillings at a counter behind him. “They sailed via Burma, Malaysia, and Singapore to reach India,” says Sen. He’s talking about his father and his fellow townspeople who took the journey in the late 1930s looking for greener pastures. “It was the time of World War II and they set up small shops in this part of the city and started practising dentistry,” he explains.

Although not registered dentists, the men provided service to the floating population who passed by the area. “They brought with them portable equipment from England, and treated people for as little as ₹10,” remembers Sen. “Back then, people didn’t have much awareness about dental hygiene.” The board outside his clinic indicates that his clinic has been around since 1944. It’s India that dominates every aspect of Sen’s life, from popular culture to food. “I have an Indian cook who makes excellent sambar,” he smiles.

Chen’s grandfather Ching Chang Huan was among the men who journeyed from China. Chen’s father is a dentist too. Both of Sen’s children are dentists in Canada. Next door, his nephew Ma You Chang David, has visited China just once. “I went in 2008 as a tourist,” he smiles. David took the typical touristy route — Beijing, Shanghai…he says that he didn’t feel connected enough to his ancestors’ hometown to go looking for it. Chennai is all he knows. “I’ve not seen any other home,” he says.

Meet Chennai's Chinese dentists

Sen’s father Say Maw Seng, however, wanted to go back to see his hometown ever since he came here. “These men worked so that they could earn enough to go back,” says Sen. “I took him there in 2000,” he says. “It was an emotional experience for him.” Sen was pleasantly surprised at how much had changed. “China is highly developed,” he says.

“As Chinese Indian dentists, we’ve been providing sincere treatment to people,” says David. Although he admits that some curious patients ask him of his identity, he says that the moment he speaks in Tamil, they take him to be one of them. “Language does it all; it breaks all barriers,” says the 49-year-old. Not just Chennai, Chinese dentists are spread across Tamil Nadu, including Coimbatore and Madurai, according to David. His clients are those that he’s been seeing for years, he explains. “Most of them are referred by family members,” he adds.

Chen is married to Chitra, an Indian. The 45-year-old is rather unemotional about his roots. “”I have no connect with China,” he says. “I’ve never visited my hometown; I’ve never felt the need to.” There are some Chinese superstitions that he follows, though. “We still observe some of our traditions, such as celebrating the Chinese New Year,” he says. “The little of what we hold on to will go with me.” He feels that he has everything here in Chennai. “All my friends and family are here,” explains Chen. “When you have so much of India in you, you become it.”


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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 6:57:45 PM |

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