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Post  Sirop14 on Sat Dec 04, 2010 5:14 pm

by Paul Chow,%202007/The-Chow-family-in-1959.jpg
The Chow family photo taken in 1959

When my father arrived in Seychelles in the early twenties, it took him one month to get here from China by slow steamer. There was no direct shipping route between Seychelles and China then as now. The boat journey took him to Calcutta, then 3 day train ride to Bombay and a six day boat ride to Mahe. This week the President of China, Mr Hu Jintao, if he had flown directly from Beijing, would have made the journey in about 12 hours.

When my father left Guangzhou (then Canton) in the twenties to seek his fortunes abroad, China was in turmoil – according to the history books. After 260 years under the Manchu dynasty, China became a Republic on January 1, 1912. But like Iraq today, and Seychelles in 1976, a declaration does not necessarily make a united country. By the time my father left his home town of Shunde (Suntac), the China he left behind was in virtual civil war led by various warlords.

What passed for central authority in China was in the hands of a general – the army chief Yuan Shih-kai, who declared himself the legal President of China and took over the reign of government in Peking. Sun Yat-sen, generally regarded as the founder of modern China, was in Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of the southern province of Guangdong trying to build a political coalition and marshalling forces to overthrow the general who had usurped power in Peking (Beijing). Sun Yat-sun was the founder of the Nationalist Party (also known as the Kuomingtang or KMT). According to the author Jung Chang in her book Mao, the Unknown Story, even Mao Tse Tung was a member of the KMT at that time.

Mao Tse Tung, came to power in 1949 after his communist forces defeated the Nationalist under General Chiang Kai Shek, who had taken over the leadership of the Nationalist Party after the death of Sun Yat Sen. Chiang Kai Shek and a remnant of the Nationalist army escaped to Taiwan, where they vowed to return to the mainland and “liberate” China from communists. The Government in Taipei – then a one-party dictatorship - was formally known as the Republic of China and represented the whole of China as a permanent member of the United Nations from the end of the Second World War until 1972 when America shifted its recognition to Beijing under President Richard Nixon. Chiang Kai Shek’s ambition to “liberate” mainland China from communism proved to be wishful thinking. Instead after he died in the eighties, his successor, and son Chiang Ching Kuo embarked on unprecedented economic and political reforms that saw Taiwan become an economic powerhouse with one of the world’s largest foreign currency reserves. Mainland China, which is officially known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the other hand, got mired in political turmoil, starvation and poverty until Mao died in 1976. Deng Tsao Ping, who took over the regime started the process of economic change, which is responsible for the current success, under the slogan “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”.

It is not clear if my father knew Seychelles existed when he left China. According to our understanding he had a brother who had settled in San Francisco and another one in Madagascar and he only arrived in Seychelles because the steamer was diverted to Seychelles following an outbreak of some serious disease on board, while on its way to Madagascar. All the passengers, including my father, were apparently quarantined on Long Island while the steamer was cleared to carryon its journey.

My father’s first job in his accidental home away from home, according to our understanding, was as a skilled craftsman in the preparation of dried sea cucumber on one of the outlying islands. He was recruited by Mr Felix Hoareau, the father of Captain Edmond Hoareau. To date I have no idea which island it was. By the time he took the job, my father had fallen in love with a local girl called Helene Camille from Beau Vallon. According to one of my aunts, the family of 4 girls and two boys would sometimes go on strolls at the Long Pier chaperoned by their mother, to watch people arrive from the passenger steamers which visited Seychelles once a month. It was on one of those strolls that my father met my mother. It would be interesting to know just how they struck a conversation given the language barrier.

Getting married, however, was not a simple matter. My father was Buddhist by birth while mother was Catholic. The Catholic Church did not allow mixed marriages in those days. So when my father got the job on the outlying island, my aunt told me, she went to see the parish priest – Father Aloyse - and made the case that her sister would be living in sin if they were not married, as he intended to take her with him. Permission was quickly sought from the bishop who approved. My mother though, my aunt told me, had no intention of moving to the outlying islands.

My father must have made a relative success of his skills in preparing dried sea cucumbers, for in 1947 he could afford to take his Seychellois wife and all the members of his new family back to China, to his birth in Guangdong Province. By then the family had increased to 7 – three boys and three girls (I was to come later, after the family had returned to Seychelles). But China was still in relative turmoil at the time. In 1949 following the victory of the communist forces over the Nationalist Army, my father fled to Hong Kong with his young family and found his way back to Seychelles via the slow boat again, minus his two elder sons who were 14 and 15. They stayed behind in Hong Kong. The eldest never came home – and died in California while the second eldest saw his homeland again only after 40 years.

Back in Seychelles my father set up a shop and a bakery on our mother’s family property. And that is how I remembered him – the village shop keeper and baker. At the early age of five or six, he used to take me with him to Victoria on his regular visits to other Chinese immigrants who were all merchants like him. I remember him meeting frequently with Mr Sham Peng Tong, Mr Kim Koon , Mr Lai Lam or Mr Lau Tee. Father was one of the few immigrant Chinese who could read and write. On his trips to town he would spend time reading letters and crafting replies for other Chinese immigrants who could not write.

My father was also a prominent member of the Chinese Association. During Chinese New Year festivals he would spend days at the Pagoda preparing lunch and dinner and playing majong with other Chinese from all over Seychelles. In those days too, it would not be Chinese New Year if there were no fire crackers and he was one of those who imported them. My father was, according to me, one of the best Cantonese cuisine cooks that ever existed in Seychelles. One day my cousins and I caught an eel in the local stream. We were of course all scared of it but my father was beaming. Soon the eel became a sumptuous Cantonese delicacy. No one, though, had the stomach to eat it except me and my father, of course. That meant, apart from learning to write the Chinese characters I also had to attend Chinese cooking lessons, which meant less time to play marbles with my cousins.

My father was baptised as a Catholic when Father Tu visited Seychelles from Hong Kong. I remember the occasion because we had a big feast and my job was to help wring the necks of tons of chickens and ducks for a sumptuous Chinese feast. I don’t know how many other immigrant Chinese were baptised while Father Tu was in Seychelles. My father had no hesitation for all of us to be baptised in the Catholic faith even before he himself formally joined the faith. And he made sure we all woke up in good time to make it to mass at Bel Ombre every Sunday morning. As a Christian he had to have a Christian name too and Francois, evidently after St Francis of Asisi, was added to his other Chinese names Wai Seng. He was generally known as Ah-Seng.

The Chinese language bible was the few books I saw my father read apart from a book on Confucius and the Peking Review. My mother, for her part, could not read or write but she could understand perfectly almost everything my father said in Chinese, although she could not speak one word of Chinese – a feat I still cannot fathom. Sometimes when my father was angry and would shout at me in Chinese, I relied on my mother for the translation.

Because of his scholarly attributes, my father became the official agent for the communist government’s propaganda literature in Seychelles. Two publications which I remember well were China Pictorial and Peking Review and they came in three languages – Chinese, English and French. As a result we were always visited by the postman on his daily tour and I remember vividly Mr Elizabeth, the father of Bernard Elizabeth, who came to deliver the parcels. Mr Elizabeth used the occasion for a “refuelling” stop at the shop for lemonades and cakes but also for long conversations with my father before going back to Victoria.

The different language versions of China Pictorial or Peking Review would not always arrive together. Invariably the English or French version would arrive first. When that happened it was my job, though I was still in primary school, to “translate” to him, in Creole, the captions under of the various photos. I did not attempt the long versions of English text in the Peking Review although I did try to read some of it because there was always a copy lying around. When the Chinese language version arrived, my father would remember my translations and would make sure I was corrected in his passable Creole. It became a sort of challenge to ensure that I got all of them correct the next time.. This is the single most important influence in my life which I think created in me a passion for reading.

As the distributor of Chinese communist literature, my father was sometimes identified as a communist sympathiser and budding local politicians would pay him a visit. The one who came most often was Mr Harry Hockaday Payet, who launched a party called the Seychelles Archipelago Action Group, and became a good friend of my father. Once, Mr Payet brought a young lawyer to meet my father. His name was Albert Rene. James Mancham too came to talk with my father. The “china connection” caused some security concerns in the British Army too which one of my older brothers had joined in the early sixties.

I don’t think my father had any affinity with communism. After all he ran away from it. It was more, in my view, nostalgia for the land of his birth. He used to tell me that under communism “everybody worked while only one man only ate.” I don’t know how much he knew about the starvation of tens of millions of Chinese in China as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy. He had little regard for Mao Tse Tung – at least that’s what he told me. But his Chinese hero was definitely Chou En Lai, the long suffering Chinese Prime Minister during Mao’s rule. He had such reverence for Chou En Lai that he named his last son (me) after him. My father used to tell me that Chou En Lai was a good man and that our surname was similar. Chou was the mandarin way of pronouncing Chow, which was the Cantonese dialect pronunciation, he said. My Chinese name – Yen Lune – is Cantonese for En Lai, he would tell me.

My father died after a long illness the year I was admitted to Seychelles College. He was too ill to accompany me there on my first day, as he did when I went to attend St John Bosco Primary six years before.

I don’t know how he would have reacted to the visit of the first Chinese communist leader to Seychelles. But I have no doubt that he would have been a proud man today to see what the China he loved had become.



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