January 26, 2008 2:50 AM   Subscribe

He's probably the first person you'll see if you've ever been to an Indian Train Station. Not as dramatic as has been immortalized on screen, but certainly no less forgettable either. He is one of many who waits for his turn to carry your luggage on his head, or his shoulders, and maybe even around his neck. He has dreams and ambitions too, and just wants to earn a decent enough living. But it can get tedious at times, especially with the odds stacked against him.

Personal life of a Chinese Coolie

I was a lonesome, inquisitive kid at that time but ingenious enough to practically become a Chinaman myself during that summer. You may wonder that I did it but I got myself named "Wah Lee Melcium Boy" and nearly every Chinaman there knew me by that name. Under the guise of this "transmutation" I was able to penetrate parts of their secret private lives and sacred religious beliefs. Mostly their religion was a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. I got to know many of them by their first names, one or two of which now comes to mind as Wong Foo and Chinaboy Ken Tee. There were a number among them I called "my very best friends". All these Chinamen were "coolies" who had been shipped to America to work hard for the "Central Pacific" as railroad section - hands for just a few years out of their lives and they had crossed the Pacific ocean with the fond hope of exchange for a great deal more Chinese money so that after a certain few years in America they would return to China as "money lords" instead of living out their lives as just plain old "coolies". Many of them never did return to China for various reasons. Some got jobs killed while others preferred to stay in the U.S. in special occupations such as cooks, laundrymen or gardeners.

BBC: Coolies--How Britian reinvented Slavery [google video]
posted by hadjiboy (14 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks to sk381 for suggesting that I put in a little more legwork in my FPPs. (Sorry about the snark though.)
posted by hadjiboy at 2:53 AM on January 26, 2008

It's more real without the quotation marks.
posted by Mblue at 3:28 AM on January 26, 2008

That's a very interesting pdf download from link at 'tedious'. Manual on Delhi's Licenced Railway porters.
Though I know now that they overcharge anyway above the official rate, I still wish I had been more generous when I was there in India and using their services. A very interesting social study.

Thanks, hadjiboy .
And a happy Independence Day to you.!
posted by kryptos at 4:54 AM on January 26, 2008

After carrying the enormous baggage of train passengers for over three decades, a dusky coolie now aspires carting the hopes of 3.5 lakh voters of his native district of Deoria.

Can you get away with calling people 'dusky' outside of India any more? I suspect if I found myself referring to somebody as 'that dusky chap over there', my face would be on the other end of a large dusky fist.

Also: hurf durf sweater puppies. (Not hurf-durfist!)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:13 AM on January 26, 2008

happy Independence Day to you

oops, my mistake.
its Republic Day !
posted by kryptos at 5:28 AM on January 26, 2008

Great post. I often feel that most of the links in multilink posts are filler, but not here. I really liked the "Personal life of a Chinese Coolie" link; it's amazing to read the reminiscences of an anglo American (of my grandfather's generation) who was so well acquainted with Chinese people and their culture back in the days when to almost all Americans they were simply an undifferentiated mass of "heathen Chinee." And I love the ending:
P.S.; This writer and another boy from Tacoma, named Jesse Jackson, went two days later out to the hill where the Chinese graveyard was located and there we saw two little red foxes out of the caves in the limestone ledges above who were eating some of the food which was supposed to be reserved for the deceased journey to paradise. However, it looked like was plenty left over for the journey away.
Hobson-Jobson (1886, 2nd ed. 1902) has a long and interesting entry on the word (which they spell cooly).

And yes, happy Republic Day!
posted by languagehat at 6:42 AM on January 26, 2008

Awww, you guys remembered. Well, Sarkozy was the Chief Guest, and Bruni was supposed to fly in to be with him at the Taj (but didn't show up), and there seems to have been no concessions made on the Turban ban. However, we did have our first ever Madam President inaugarate the ceremony. [pictures]
posted by hadjiboy at 8:58 AM on January 26, 2008

Oh wow hadjiboy, this is a masterpiece of a post. Loved the Hindi word for coolie as a post title. Devanagari is such a beautiful script. I can see I'll spend the rest of the afternoon studying your links and listening to the brilliant documentary of your BBC: Coolies--How Britain reinvented Slavery link.

Just learned about California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862.

It's delightful seeing a for-coolies-by-coolies website in your "forgettable" and "him" links, like that great one you posted about in your superb Bombay tiffin carrier post. YAY internet for offering a way to create greater constructive political/social changes at a grassroots level.

Honestly, I could cry with pride reading about Amiruddin Bhai, of your "dreams and ambitions" link, becoming a political candidate, moving on up from the Coolie's Waiting Room of Varanasi railway station. Inspiring and, oh dear, bad pun, uplifting.

That Varansi train station has to be one of the granddaddies of all train stations in India, along with Bombay's Victoria and Calcutta's Howrah.

Indians need to find a way to help themselves at that grassroots level.

Am in the middle of watching the documentary, feeling deep bile about how the British government supposedly abolished slavery with one face and went into the slave business with the other. What gigantic hypocrisy! And they were so good at their moral superiority. Sadly, vying for two-faced corruption, in the last century America worked on also supposedly abolishing slavery with one face and then went on to start countless sweat shops or create banana republics in Central America or the Caribbean (which when they fail end up being part of the drug trade, partly destroying America from the inside out).

The coolies in India always astounded me. As do India's working poor, making a living out of such a meager capital base. While living in truly humble circumstances, they still were able to find a way to be so strong. They seem to be part Hercules (especially their necks! My God, I can only imagine what an X-ray of a coolie's neck must look like after a decade), while being whisper thin, bony in fact, often elderly, and part ninja at balancing incredible loads. Surprised there aren't dozens of YouTube videos on this mundane but amazing feat. Since I didn't own a car and Indians don't make/sell shopping carts, I employed coolies countless times while traveling around the sub-continent. Up in the Himalayas, when I arrived there coolies took my tin trunks straight up the mountainside a thousand feet steep, up the goat paths, incredibly nimble, while I huffed and puffed behind them with nothing in my hands.

For years I've thought of doing a book of photographs of New Yorkers carrying their stuff around. No coolies here to negotiate 5 storey walk up tenement buildings. One has to schlep (Yiddish for lug around) one's own bags of laundry, groceries, dry cleaning, household items, whatever. Unless one's well off and can pay handsomely to delivery people. Surprised also there aren't better designed compact folding carts for this.

On Holi, in 1978, New Delhi, I spent the afternoon with Mulk Raj Anand, author of the book, Coolie. He was an incredible man of tremendous accomplishment (among them founding his beautiful magazine, Marg, about the arts in India). Coolie recounts the adventures of Munoo, a young boy forced to leave his village to fend for himself and discover a world of his own. As his journey takes him far from home, working as a servant, factory-worker and rickshaw driver, we see through the narrator's eyes many of the unspoken evils of the Raj--exploitation, police brutality, caste strife, and communal riots. Worth reading.

Another couple of aspects of your post interested me as well, learning about the Chinese laborers, often called coolies then, who worked on the Central and Canadian Pacific Railroad lines. Probably worth an FPP by itself.

And from the BBC documentary you linked, about how between 1845 and 1917 Indian slave laborers, technically called indentured servants,were tricked into coming to Jamaica, where I lived as a kid from 1959 to 1962 and always wondered about the Indian population there. The first ship [the SS Blundell] carrying workers from India landed at Old Harbour Bay in 1845. It bore 200 men, 28 women under 30 years old and 33 children under 12 years old from various towns and villages in Northern India. Indian workers were actually paid less than the former West African slaves.

I think being around the descendants of those Indians in Jamaica as a kid was partly the reason I fell in love with India on first sight, 16 years later.

Anyway, thanks for the excellent post.
posted by nickyskye at 11:53 AM on January 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

Blimey, nickyskye!

I was ready to favorite your "masterpiece of a post" comment, because you're so right.

Then I began scrolling...

What a tag team.

Thanks both of you.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:56 PM on January 26, 2008

Loved the Hindi word for coolie as a post title.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that. Me too!

Also what Jody Tresider said.
posted by languagehat at 2:16 PM on January 26, 2008

Tresidder, I mean. Sorry!
posted by languagehat at 2:17 PM on January 26, 2008

Then I began scrolling...

What a tag team.

Sorry, Jody Tresidder, I don't understand what you mean. Would you clarify please?
posted by nickyskye at 2:38 PM on January 26, 2008

I'm pretty sure he means that you and hadjiboy (playing on the same team, as it were) both made tremendous contributions to this thread. That's what I was agreeing with, anyway.
posted by languagehat at 4:59 PM on January 26, 2008

You're welcome, Jody:)

*high fives nickyskye*

posted by hadjiboy at 7:42 PM on January 26, 2008

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