THE PALM LEAF FAN AND OTHER STORIESby Kwai-Yun Li. TSAR Publications, P.O. Box 6996, Station A, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1X7, Canada. 108 pages. $18.95.
Kwai-Yun Li’s parents (of Hakka Chinese descent) emigrated to a small alley in Calcutta called Chattawalla Gali. These collected short stories (and the short ones are truly concise, six to eight pages), reflect on the marginalized Chinese community that Kwai-Yun Li grew up in, without a trace of over-sentimentality or learned helplessness. Li has now settled in Canada, and these stories reveal her early years in India.
The Hakka (“guest people”) Chinese in Calcutta have been immigrating to Kolkata from Southern China since the 1920s. They developed enterprises that the Indians in Kolkata shunned. “The Chinese went into businesses which the Hindus found polluting: leather-tanning, hairdressing, shoe-making, carpentry, and restaurant-keeping.”
Eventually Chinese immigrants to India, (whether Hakka, or Cantonese from Guangzhou, Fukkianese from the coastal area, or Toi-sanese from the fertile Sai-yup lowlands) became prosperous by the time India gained independence from the British in 1947. By the 21st century however, conflicts between India and China, and India-Pakistan conflicts pushed out Chinese businesses. “… the Chinese returned to China or emigrated to Taiwan, Hong Kong, North America, Australia and Europe.”
Political conflicts, as we are witnessing all over the world, take a huge toll on vulnerable communities. As Mao comes to power in mainland China, we hear intense responses for or against Chairman Mao or General Chiang Kai Shek, who led Chinese populations to Taiwan.
The short story entitled “Last Dragon Dance in Chinatown” addresses divisive conflicts. The young narrator in the story fights with her friend Raindrop, whose father admires Chairman Mao. Raindrop exclaims, “Of course he (Mao) is nice. He is nicer than Chiang Kai Shek. Father said Chairman Mao is a good man.”
“My brother says they are both wicked men,” I said. “Lots and lots and lots of people died because Mao and Chiang fought and fought and fought.”
While children are trying to sort out these realities for themselves, the Indian government imprisons Maoist sympathizers, as tensions between the Maoist regime and India escalate.
The light-hearted, humorous stories are equally evocative. In the delightful story “Uncle Worry,” we meet Uncle Chien, who “… worries when his eldest daughter, Pi Moi, forgets to call him. He worries that she and her husband, Mohamed, have had a falling out. He worries when Pi Moi calls …” And we are drawn more fully into extended family life.
Kwai-Yun Li revisits Kolkata’s Chinatown called Tangra, in the 1920s, a square mile that sits on “reclaimed swamp land, the whole area dotted with ponds, fish farms, and garbage dumps, and … open sewers.” These stories are a far cry from India, Inc., and India’s continuous economic growth in the 21st century. Even as we grow, we could learn from the past, and attempt to integrate marginalized immigrants more fully into mainstream Indian life.