Chronicler of the Indians

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 June, 1994, 12:00am

BARBARA-Sue White has just had the education of a lifetime - but the American author and musician said there was still so much to learn and so much to write on the subject that has fascinated her for years.

A Californian-born visiting scholar with the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong and a professional violinist with a string quartet in the US, Mrs White seems an unlikely candidate as writer of the first book to be published on the Indian community in Hong Kong.

Turbans and Traders: Hong Kong's Indian Communities, published by Oxford University Press and on bookshelves as of next week, is the only comprehensive publication on one of the territory's oldest ethnic communities, an anthology of its historical place in society and its modern-day cultural, social and religious bearings.

Mrs White made the decision five years ago to produce a book that was respectful without being propagandist, honest without being critical and light-hearted without being flippant.

Hundreds of interviews and thousands of hours of research later, she's pretty well satisfied with the results.

Apart from the excitement and satisfaction of seeing her name on what has been a labour of love - all profits generated from the sale of the book will go to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta - Mrs White is especially thrilled that through the project, she and her husband Lynn, a professor of Chinese politics at Princeton University, have made some of their closest friends.

''It's been an undergraduate course in Indian studies. But in the process I have become an adopted part of the community. The book is over, and anything I learn now is because it fascinates me. It has become a part of my life,'' she said.

The project also proved great entertainment value, particularly the anecdotes that highlighted the stereotypes prevalent within the 20,000-strong community.

One of Mrs White's favourites only goes to reconfirm the image Sikh men have been typecasted with as being guards and doormen: Mr Jot Kapoor, a well-to-do businessman in Hong Kong, was outside the Hilton Hotel with his wife Pamela and about to get into ataxi when a Chinese couple assumed he was holding the door open for them - and jumped in.

But perhaps more enlightening are the tales she tells of the dichotomies that identify Indians - Bohra Muslims who fast stringently for a month and are regularly veiled from head-to-toe and yet are able to switch to sophisticated, contemporary clothing and glide easily into any social situation.

She makes gentle reference to the harshly defined roles of men and women in most sectors of the community, suggesting that if married women achieved more independence - financial and emotional - their lives and marriages might be enhanced, and that perhaps it is time to see more equality between the sexes.

Mrs White agreed she may draw criticism from some quarters for implying that the sub-communities within the larger ethnic group ''has serious problems'', both among themselves and with each other.

''It's not a PR job,'' she insisted. ''The idea is to show that there are so many stereotypes of Indians which no longer apply, but also to teach everyone, especially Indians, about other groups to which they don't belong.'' Mrs White has been collecting facts and absorbing information on Indians in Hong Kong for more than 20 years - ever since she and her husband rented a leave flat from a Parsi couple, Homi and Dina Shroff, whom they quickly befriended.

''We became lasting friends and I became aware of the variety of Indians in Hong Kong and curious about their lives and place in Hong Kong history.

''Years later, and after several trips to India, I started learning about Indians in Hong Kong - religions, regional groups and the many organisations. I attended many events, weddings, small religious group meetings in flats. I even became a member of the Indian Women's Club.'' The diversity and complexities of the sub-communities are issues that are explored: people outside the Parsi community are unable to understand why they would be excluded from a Parsi funeral until it is explained to them - as it is in the book - that there are valid reasons.

''In order to protect Parsis from the death spirits they believe are at every funeral, they wear a special belt and vest called a 'sudreh' and 'kusti'. Non-Parsis don't have these garments, and are seen as unprotected. So if they're not allowed in, it's for their own protection,'' she said.

The more Mrs White got into the project, the more she discovered the vastness of the subject. ''I didn't realise how gigantic it was going to be.'' Her research included poring over volumes of religious books - she has read the Muslim Koran, the 18th-century document of the Sikh religion the Guru Granth Sahib and English versions of ancient Hindu writings like the Vedas and the Mahabaratha.

In the name of research, her legwork took her from lavish weddings to visiting dormitories in Wan Chai inhabited by Sikh guards and drivers who sleep in shifts; from getting caught up in lively discussions on whether or not arranged marriages are an anachronism to grappling with the intricacies of the joint family; from charting the history of the first Indian families who've made Hong Kong home to discovering the significant economic contributions they have made to the territory.

''I would like to think that if Indians learn about other Indians, they learn about themselves.

''The question many people have been asking me is 'why should a non-Indian do this'. I am an outsider, but I have an overview of the community which I have built up over so many years. I may not be an Indian, but I am an Indian-friend.'' Mrs White no longer has to justify her reasons for writing the book - perhaps as an outsider looking in she is able to use a level of objectivity in the project that might be lacking in someone more intimate with the politics inherent in the different groups, or with a vested interest in the community.

The book is peppered with intriguing cultural references - a South Indian woman was a strict vegetarian and had an arranged marriage with a Sindhi businessman who asked her to start eating meat because it would help his business entertaining. She refusedunless he stopped smoking - which he did.

Or a Bohra Muslim wedding reception where no alcohol was served - not even the customary bottle of champagne - because of the austere religious beliefs of the host; or the Jain women who refuse to wear silk because it comes from a silkworm seeing they preserve all insect and animal life; or the sophistication and shrewd business sense of the Sindhi community which still maintains centuries-old conventions.

''People in the business community could not believe I was not doing this to make money. They couldn't believe it was something I was just interested in. One man I spoke to thought I should be his mouthpiece, but when I told him that was not what the book was about he eventually came around and helped me anyway.'' She discovered how 95 per cent of the friends of English-speaking Indians are other Indians - often from the same community - and how many chose not to integrate with groups of other nationalities and cultures.

''It always takes a generation or two for immigrants to settle in, to get an education and become more Westernised. What was especially interesting was witnessing what happens when Indian culture meets Hong Kong culture. Despite the problems, I've never met an Indian who's not proud of being an Indian, and I could see their pride in belonging to one of the most beautiful cultures in history. I'm grateful for the many life-long friends I've made.'' Mrs White's not just paying lip-service, either: Indians who buy the book directly from Oxford University Press get a 25 per cent discount.