Mixed, but matched

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Chindians are people of mixed Chinese and Indian heritage. A minority within a minority, little is known about this community. The Chindian Diaries exhibition showcases a collection of photos and videos, which document interesting stories of cultures, religions, families and mixed marriages

The Chindian Diaries project is not just about exploring the lives of people from different cultures, marrying and having a family. It goes beyond that. It is about knowing that two different cultures, rich heritages and age-old traditions can come together to provide an enriched life. It is about accepting that you could belong to two cultures at the same time and appreciate them.

The Chindian Diaries exhibition, which was presented till 24 October at the Information and Cultural Exchange in Parramatta, was launched with the screening of The Legend of Fat Mama, a documentary by India-based filmmaker, Rafeeq Ellias.

Sydney-based actor-director Suzanne Pereira emceed the evening. This was followed by a Chinese Lion dance performance by Choy Lee Fut Pennant Hills Lion Dance team and a fascinating Bharatanatyam dance by Aruna Gandhi. Then came the screening of four Chindian Diaries stories from Francissca Peter, Hema Tan, Malar Balasubramaniam and Pushaparani Adeline Ho.

This project began in 2012, when Kevin Bathman, founder of The Chindian Diaries Project started exploring his own Chindian heritage to write his family story and invited others to share theirs. Through his journey, he also realised that there was a lack of documented Chindian stories. “The Chindian Diaries project was primarily to trace my own roots and explore my cross cultural identity. Two years ago, I attended a storytelling workshop run by Performance 4A. The purpose of the workshop was to delve into our stories, and it was here that I began the journey of discovering my own ancestry,” explains Kevin. “Reflecting on my own identity crises and cultural confusion when I was younger, I decided to embrace my mixed heritage and tell the world about it—by telling it, I hope to help another young person who may be confused about their identity,” he adds.

Kevin’s paternal grandfather, Mahalingam Pillay was a Tamilian from Thanjavur, Southern India, and his grandmother, Ang Ah Hee, was a Chinese-Nyonya from Southern China. They met in 1930 and overcame a number of hurdles in the name of love and marriage, in times when marrying outside the caste, let alone your community, was considered taboo.

“It was the story of my paternal grandfather and grandmother that inspired me to start the project,” says Kevin.

The Chindian Diaries exhibition has received an inspiring response from across communities in the city, encouraging Kevin to take it to the next level. Kevin speaks about what drives him and the Chindian Diaries

What inspired you to create the Chindian Diaries?

The Chindian Diaries project was primarily to trace my own roots and explore my cross cultural identity.While reflecting on my life, I was intrigued with my grandparents’ life story. My grandfather, Mahalingam Pillay, was nicknamed ‘Hak Kuai’ or Black Devil by my great grandfather. My grandmother, Ang Ah Hee, was disowned from her own family, when she married my grandfather. Without her family, grandmother Ang embraced the Indian culture by learning how to speak Tamil and cooking Indian food. She mastered it so well that she began cooking for her Indian neighbours. She even adopted an Indian name, Jeyah Ang. When I was growing up, my Dad often told us stories of my grandparents’ struggles in coming together. It was a difficult journey of cross-cultural integration for them, and an even more painful search for personal identity for my late father and myself.

What do you wish to achieve through this project?

In defining the essence of the project, I am reminded of this quote by Gandhi, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” Chindians are a minority within a minority. Being Chindian has made me look at the issue of race differently. I have always found it easy to find common ground with people from all different races. I believe this is a result of being Chindian.

I had chosen to paint the hardship as well the beautiful aspects of belonging to the Chindian culture. The main intention of the project is to collect stories and photos that showcase a subculture that is often overlooked and rarely ever written about.

By gathering these collective stories, it is hoped that they will form a greater, overarching cultural narrative. It will also act as a resource for future generations, and ensure they are never forgotten.

From my own observations, most Chindians experience an identity crisis in their lives as they have to straddle the two distinctly different cultures—Chinese and Indian. And by sharing these stories, I hope there will be less isolation and prejudice from other people on mixed children.

The project is focused primarily on the Chindian community but it is also open to stories from other mixed marriages.

Any interesting experiences that you had while working on this project that you could share with us?

Before embarking on this project, I only knew a handful of Chindian people. Two years on, it has brought the community together and given us a space to engage, share and get to know each other. When I embarked on this project, I never realised that I would be meeting other Chindians like myself, let alone helping them to write their stories. Getting to my own story was the hardest, but the most rewarding part.

As a Chindian, how have your experiences been in a multi-cultural city like Sydney?

For the most part, we get mistaken for Thai, Filipino, Latin, Mexican but never a Chindian. Having said that, some Sydney-siders are quite intrigued with the mix and have asked some questions about the inter-racial marriage and mix of cultures with Indian and Chinese cultures. Usually, Chindians get lumped into a generic “Asian” term as Australians have yet to learn the intricate connections and differences in ‘Asian culture’. In Asia, we know there is a wide spectrum and nationalities of people living there with their own culture and customs, yet, over here, we seem to get generalised as an Asian.

What are your future plans for the Chindian Diaries?

From an arts perspective, I’d like to turn it into a performing theatre piece, documentaries and videos to put the stories out there. There is a new term called the Chindia century, as both countries are regarded as growing countries and among the fastest growing major economies in the world. Together, they contain over one-third of the world’s population and have been named as countries with the highest potential for growth in the next 50 years. On a more ambitious level, I’d like to connect the Indian and Chinese world on all levels—politically, economically and socially.

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