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Smokers' corner: coming full circle

Updated February 19, 2017

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At a state-owned college in Karachi where I was a student in the mid and late 1980s, there were about two dozen Chinese students. They spoke fluent Urdu and lived in the congested Saddar area of the city. Two such students (both brothers) became good friends of mine, but, right till our graduation in 1987, I someho never bothered to inquire about their origins.

You see, till about the mid-1980s, colleges and universities in Karachi and Lahore used to have quite a sizeable number of foreign students, mainly from Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Nigeria, Yemen, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and from the region which today is called the Palestinian Territories.

Sometimes the Chinese were clubbed together with foreign students, and sometimes they were seen as any other Pakistani. No one really bothered to ask who they were. However, one day just before we graduated from college, I accompanied one of my Chinese friends to his residence — a three-room apartment in a building (built in the 1970s) behind Saddar’s famous colonial Empress Market.


China’s growing economic investment and interest in Pakistan may regenerate the dwindling Chinese community in Pakistan


I had lunch at his place (some excellent Chinese food) and met his mother and father. The father owned a plumbing shop a few metres away from the apartment block. Interestingly, this was the first time I became aware of the fact that my friend was a Christian. Yes, even till the 1980s, one only rarely discussed a person’s faith.

Anyway, finally, I asked the question. Who were they? The father let out a hearty laugh: “Well, we are Pakistani!” With an embarrassed smile, I tried to rephrase my inquiry: “Of course, uncle … but what I meant to ask was, that since you speak fluent Chinese and equally fluent Urdu …”

He half-closed his eyes, smiled and sympathetically nodded his head: “No problem, no problem, young man, I understand.” And then he explained: “I was born in 1935 in Hubei, a place in China. My father was a cobbler. I was about 14 when the communist revolution erupted in China (1949). Many Chinese who did not agree with communist ideas migrated with the defeated nationalists to Taiwan. Some, like my family, migrated to the newly-formed country, Pakistan.”

According to a July 9, 2001, article in Dawn (‘The Melting Pot by the Sea’), a majority of the Chinese families who escaped the revolutionary upheaval in China and migrated to Pakistan came from areas such as Canton, Hopeh, Hakka and Beijing. Most of them were Buddhists but some were Christian and Muslim as well. A bulk of them settled in Karachi’s PECHS, Tariq Road and Saddar areas. Here they continued their family professions, mainly dentistry, acupuncture, shoemaking and the restaurant business.

Till even today, Chinese restaurants run by Pakistani-Chinese are some of the most famous in the country’s major urban areas, and so are Chinese dentists with clinics in Karachi’s congested areas such as Saddar, as well as across the city’s more ‘posh’ localities such as Clifton.

The Chinese migrants quickly picked up the Urdu language, and by the 1960s they had blended in, gaining the respect of the locals with their fluency in Urdu, down-to-earth attitude, and solid work ethic. Interestingly, even though most of the Chinese who settled in Pakistan had escaped the 1949 communist revolution in China, a December 26, 2007, article in The News International (‘The Chinese Diaspora’), quotes the owner of one of the first Chinese restaurants in Karachi, the now defunct ABC, saying that the famous Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai — during his first visit to Pakistan in 1956, came to the ABC and had dinner there.

Another batch of Chinese families arrived in Pakistan in the late 1960s. This batch was escaping the social and political turmoil in China whipped up by Mao Tse Tung’s stormy ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1967-76) in which numerous men and women died.

The News International article also mentions how the Chinese who had settled in Karachi began holding gatherings in which Chinese children were asked only to speak in their mother tongue. This was done because by the late 1970s, the children of Chinese migrants in Pakistan were largely speaking Urdu and English, and forgetting Chinese.


The Chinese migrants quickly picked up the Urdu language, and by the 1960s, they had blended in, gaining the respect of the locals with their fluency in Urdu, down-to-earth attitude, and solid work ethic.


By the 1980s the Chinese migrants (who had become Pakistani citizens) had become so engrained in their adopted country and its culture that they were eating the same blend of Chinese food which they had specially concocted in the 1950s to cater to South Asian tastes. The younger generation had also completely discarded the customary Chinese dress.

Even though marrying within their own community remained a constant, many younger Chinese men and women began to break with this tradition and marry Muslim Pakistanis. It is also during the late 1980s that some Chinese-Pakistanis converted to Islam, but a majority of them remained (and still remain) Christian or Buddhist.

Karachi always had the largest concentration of Pakistani-Chinese. But after the 1980s, many younger Chinese began moving northwards to set up restaurants and dental clinics in Lahore and Islamabad. The population of the Pakistani-Chinese community was expected to witness a two-fold increase in the 1990s, but the opposite happened.

Due to the economic liberalisation in China and the increasingly pragmatic stance of the ruling Communist Party there, many Chinese who had made Pakistan their home began to move back to their ancestral towns and cities in China. Their children who had grown up in Pakistan went for higher studies to universities in Europe and North America and did not return.

The Pakistani-Chinese community continued to shrink in the early 2000s, especially when extremist violence erupted in Pakistan. However, according to a feature in Asia Times, due to China’s growing economic investment and interest in Pakistan (CPEC), the Chinese community in Pakistan has begun to regenerate its dwindling numbers.

According to a report in Express Tribune (May 22, 2015), between 2013 and 2015 the community received 15,000 new Chinese men and women (mostly associated with CPEC). The number is expected to almost double by the end of 2017.

My college friend is an example of this revival. His father passed away in 1989 and was buried in Karachi’s largest Christian cemetery, the ‘Gora Kabristan.’ My friend flew out to the US in 1991, married an American and became a US citizen. His brother married a Muslim Pakistani girl in 1994, and became a Muslim. The very next year he accompanied his mother when she visited her ancestral village in China after a gap of almost 50 years. They decided to stay in China.

However, late last year, I received a sudden visit from a young Chinese lad. His name was Aron Li Stewart. He must be in his 20s and was an engineer. Li Stewart was also the surname of my Chinese friend at college.

And, indeed, Aron is his eldest son, who was born and grew up in the US.

Aron told me that in 2013, his father and uncle had planned to exhume the body of their father from the Karachi cemetery and rebury his remains in their ancestral village in China, where their mother was laid to rest. But they never did that because in 2015 they decided to return and resettle in Pakistan. Aron was expecting a job as an engineer in the CPEC project. He told me that the rest of his family will join him in Islamabad soon and so would his uncle and his (the uncle’s) wife and children. Then, while bidding goodbye, he smiled and said something in Chinese. I asked him what it meant. He smiled again and explained that the term was an ancient Taoist expression and it meant, ‘full circle.’ Indeed. Welcome back.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2017