Chindian marriages, between Han Chinese women and Tamil Indian men, have been taboo for almost a century. Now, the children of such couples are tracing their roots, writes Andy Park.
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6 Oct 2012 - 1:23 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

Kevin Bathman talks about when his Chinese grandmother secretly fell in love with a Tamil man in the face of stanch cultural opposition in Malaysia.

“Eventually, my great grandfather found out and he was infuriated, he even called my grandfather 'Hak Kuai', which means black devil,” he says.

But as with any Malaysian story, food provided the bridge over these strong cultural currents.

“Grandmother Ang embraced Indian culture by learning how to speak Tamil and cooking Indian cuisine for her neighbours,”

“At that time in the 1930s, a Chinese woman speaking Tamil in the markets was unheard of”.

Kevin's project, the Chindian Diaries, aims to capture other time-worn Chindian stories of taboo love, in a cross-cultural phenomenon unique to post-colonial southeast Asia.

See a slide show of Kevin's family photos.

Chindian marriages, predominantly between Han Chinese women and Tamil Indian men, are characteristic in Malaysia and Singapore, where large populations immigrated during the 19th century.

In Hong Kong, the some 25,000 Muslims are able to trace their roots back to modern day Pakistan, then part of British India.

The diaspora now spreads throughout former British colonies such as Australia, where it's a third generation, like Kevin, who are gathering their stories like pebbles.

In classification-obsessed Singapore, where identity cards record race for ethnically linked social policies, the government allowed parents to record both races on their children's cards in 2010.

Before that, children born to Chindian couples automatically took their father's race, a paternalistic remnant from older times.

In 2007, 16.4 per cent of about 24,000 marriages had a bride or groom from a different ethnic group, compared to 8.9 per cent a decade ago.

The same still applies in Malaysia, where the IC card requires parent to choose a box to denote ethnicity, leading most who identify as Chindian to be known as Indian.

“You couldn't run away from race, it was just how it was in Malaysia,” says Sherlyn Yap Chai Gek.

Now Australian, she and her husband Achu Nair are the perfect Chindians.

Whereas Acho's parents followed the Chindian formula of an Indian groom and Chinese bride, Sherlyn's parents were the reverse.

They met and fell in love, their wedding carrying on the hybrid traits of Chindian weddings: a Chinese tea ceremony and an Indian meal.

“Most of us, if not all of us, have an identity crisis,” she says.

“You can identify yourself as Chindian but what is the actual definition of Chindian, what is the culture of a Chindian person? It all depends on which side of the family is stronger.

"It doesn't matter how old you get, there is always feeling of what what am I?," she says.

Kevin hopes that by gathering these collective questions, the answers might form a greater, overarching cultural narrative.

"I think personally, it's a bit of a forgotten subculture,” he says.

“There's still isn't an understanding that you could belong to two cultures at the same time. I think that is one of the things I wanted to capture in the project,”

Visit the Chindian Diaries Facebook page.

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