AS THE ONLY CHINESE STUDENT in Chennai’s St Bedes Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School in the late 1980s, Albert Yen’s lunchbox drew much attention. Albert devoured his homemade noodles amidst gawking peers who suspected him to be eating snakes. This barely a few years before Maggie Noodles became the staple lunch snack in schools. Albert can’t remember a time when he felt less Indian than his peers in his 42 years in Chennai.
Albert’s attachment to India is a legacy from his father, Yen Miesin, now 69, whose most vivid childhood memories are of trams chugging along the roads of a much older and emptier Madras.
Their family is a part of the small Chinese community in Chennai, many of whose members fled China at the onset of Communist rule in the 1950s. The Yen family’s Chennai story, however, goes back even further.
Yen Miesin’s father, Minsen, an amateur dentist, left China immediately after the Civil War broke out in the late 1920s. “They were drafting people for the army, says Yen Miesin. “But my father was unwilling to end up in military service and left for Burma, where he learnt the dental practice from a friend and assisted him for a couple of years.”
India had always beckoned Albert’s grandfather Minsen, and in the mid-1930s Minsen arrived in Madras with the dream of setting up a dental clinic. “In the Hubei province in Central China, where we come from,” Albert says, “most of us are dentists.”
Although a daring pursuit for a Chinese migrant in a conservative South Indian city, he inaugurated his clinic in Parrys Corner in 1940. “He believed Madras stood out like a haven among other cities,” says Yen Miesen. “He believed this city to be immensely god-fearing, as he could see from its numerous temples and the crowds that thronged them. That, to him was a good sign to pitch tent here.”
Through years of hard work, Minsen earned himself love from the locals and respect among his colleagues, but he remained a foreigner all along. “What he couldn’t get till the end was Indian citizenship. He had applied twice,” says Yen Miesin.
For his son, Minsen planned a more secure life. Yen Miesin was sent to R Ahmed Dental College in Calcutta in 1966, and later set up his clinic on Wallajah Road in 1976. Yen Miesin dedicated his life to his profession—his clinic regarded among the most successful in the city.
As a teenager, Albert Yen wanted to fly planes, and not following his father’s footsteps. “But dental science was passed on to me like a legacy.” Albert joined his father’s clinic after his studies at a dental college. He doesn’t hold it against his family, however, because it was in college that he met his love, and now wife, Vidya, a Tamil Brahmin girl. “She is now an Associate Professor at the Government Dental College. And the best part is, she never misses out an important moment with the kids,” says Albert.
Albert Yen has decided that he would never stop his kids—Allen, 13, and Andrea, 9—if they were to break out of the dental profession. “They will decide what they wish to do and we will help them get there,” he asserts.
The number of immigrant Chinese families in Chennai has diminished in the past two decades, with many of them heading for greener pastures like the US and Canada. There are fewer than 25 Chinese immigrant families living in Chennai at present, and most of them practice dentistry. “My younger sisters left Chennai with my father, who retired in 1980 and went to the US. But my father never ceased to remind me that there was no better home than India,” says Yen Miesen.
Nobody from the family had ever gone back to China—until Albert was invited to attend a dental conference there a couple of years ago. “I found it hard to cope with because no one speaks English there,” he said. “It is certainly a beautiful country, with excellent infrastructure and lifestyle. But it is not home—India is.”