‘I choose to believe that a Deoli-like incident will not happen again’

Down To Earth speaks to Indian-Chinese actor and singer, Meiyang Chang on community, society and racism

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 30 June 2020

The othering of citizens with Mongoloid features is common in India. Unsurprisingly, those from communities in the North East have found limited representation in public discourse, even less in pop culture — even the mighty Danny Denzongpa couldn't really build himself superstardom despite considerable acting chops.

That makes Meiyang Chang — remember Badmash Company — a rather proverbial exception to the rule: Seriously, how many Indians of Chinese descent do you know in real life, let alone the movies?

The recent border fracas in Ladakh with China has turned the spotlight back on citizens such as Chang. He spoke to Down To Earth on community, society and racism. Edited excerpts: 

Rajat Ghai: What was your first response as an Indian of Chinese ancestry to the Galwan incident?

Meiyang Chang: My answer to such a question never changes, even as I discover more about my ancestry, heritage and identity. I consider myself a fascinating mix of cultures; proudly Indian and of Chinese lineage.

One of the most beautiful things in this world is the existence of mixed-race or migrant communities, which makes us one big, global village; hopefully co-existing in harmony. There’s so much to learn from each other, so much to imbibe. And the more I travel & experience life, I begin to further appreciate the diversity in this world; especially the foodie in me.

I remember praying feverishly for our soldiers during the Kargil war in 1999. During the Doklam standoff of 2017, I prayed that the situation would be defused peacefully and diplomatically.

This time too, the pacifist in me hopes for a peaceful resolution at Galwan and prays that my community is not targeted for the advances of a frenemy nation. War is ugly, and its repercussions are felt far beyond the battlefield.

RG: Did it bring back memories of Deoli, an incident that is seared into the memory of the Indian-Chinese community?

MC: In fact, the building of detention centres vis-a-vis the CAA-NRC movement first stirred those uncomfortable memories. Till a few years ago, I wasn’t even aware of the Deoli internment camps where around 3,000 Indian-Chinese were forcibly incarcerated after the 1962 Indo-China War on the mere suspicion of being Chinese spies or sympathisers; some for almost five years.

I learned more while researching for a project. If I, as a member of our small community didn’t know about it, there’s little hope that the rest of the country would. It’s possible my earlier lack of knowledge was because I’d spent most of my life away from home and family in boarding school.

Or it could be because most of the Indian-Chinese diaspora chooses not to speak about something that is obviously a painful memory. For many, there has been no closure. None from my family suffered the ignominy, but there are those from the community who did and still share the pain of humiliation and wasted years.

Some bounced back & made a life for themselves but many relocated to other countries, never to return. Can you blame them? The community subsequently dwindled in numbers and now we are a small, happy, hard-working people, hoping that something like Deoli never happens again.

When I discuss what I’ve learned of the aftermath of 1962 with my friends & peers, most of them are surprised that such a gross injustice ever took place and that it doesn’t even exist in public consciousness. The history books don’t mention it, even though the internet is littered with stray interviews and articles that shed light on it.

RG: Do you think a Deoli-type incident can happen again in today’s time?

MC: When I was researching Deoli, I felt a sense of sadness but not much more. Perhaps, I too, had moved on and wanted to live and work in peace like the rest of the community. I laud the current sentiment of wanting to be self-sufficient and reducing our dependence on other nations, something that if done practically can reap benefits over time.

Having said that, there is a lot of misplaced anger and propaganda being projected as veiled or outright racism in person, media or social media. The frustration and helplessness of the prolonged home-stay, pandemic and economic uncertainty is easily directed towards soft targets like the Indian-Chinese community, while taking away from the fact that we are Indian citizens suffering from the very same maladies.

It is unfortunate, ignorant and insensitive, but I choose to believe that a Deoli-like incident will not happen again. No community deserves punishment twice over for something they’re not culpable of, and the general populace and authorities have to ensure that such a travesty does not come to pass.

RG: Is the Sinophobia that has broken out this year due to coronavirus globally another example of 'Yellow Peril' racism of old?

MC: The Yellow Peril metaphor was born out of ignorance and a flawed perception of the ‘other,’ quite akin to the Indian perception of people of African or Caribbean origin.

The global Sinophobia right now is a product of many factors: China’s emerging economic clout, their apparent expansionist ambitions, an incompetant & racist American President, as well as a global resentment against China for the situation we find ourselves in.

It would be imprudent to compare the two since knowledge is more readily available in the modern world to make a more informed opinion. It’s up to the gatekeepers to disburse the right kind of information and lessons sans propaganda or prejudice and for us to consume responsibly so that such racism does not find the oxygen to thrive.

RG: Are Indians phobic of East Asian features given that we regularly discriminate against our citizens from the Northeast?

MC: Xenophobia is prejudice against people from other countries. I wonder if there is a matching term for prejudice against your own people? We have plenty of that in India for every race, religion, color or status.

Phobia by its very definition means fear or aversion of something. I wouldn’t go as far as to label what we have here as fear. We tend to appreciate people with East Asian features in popular culture like music, movies, fashion and cuisine but in real life there seems to be an unwillingness to understand the ‘other’ better.

The ‘other’ that looks, eats & prays differently and doesn’t fit your norms. And that is where the insensitive comments come from. Go beyond all of that and you’re bound to find many things in common. Peaceful coexistence is built on patience and mutual trust. It is when we fail to give time to either that differences arise.

My personal experience of the Northeast has been very beautiful. It’s simple, bountiful in nature and the people are talented and loving. I can’t wait to travel there again once it is safe enough to do so.

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