Smiling Surgeons

The nondescript chambers, the mystical signs and that unassuming calm. Meet the Chinese dentists who’ve made Kolkata smile, decade after decade 

He loves his job, but Dr Christopher Hsue rues the fact that they don’t ask for gold teeth anymore. Christopher is a dentist – but not an ordinary one. He is a Chinese dentist, the third generation in his family to be in the profession. And thereby hangs a tale. The story of the Chinese dentists in Kolkata goes back nearly 100 years and offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s cultural history.

Christopher greets us with a smile as he ushers us into his chamber on Bentinck Street. The door is embellished with a pa-kua sign or the Chinese symbol of balance of energies, Christopher’s grandfather had come to Kolkata way back in 1924, just ahead of the Northern Expedition in China, better known as the Chinese Revolution. The family has been in Kolkata ever since. “That is over 60 years old,” says Christopher, pointing to the patients’ chair. “But within a week, it will be replaced with a state-of-the-art one.”

Christopher ‘s grandfather was a farmer and left China when the Chinese revolution started and the country was shaken by famine. “My father had working knowledge of dentistry but did not have any formal qualification. I am the first qualified dentist in the family and my son Daniel is also into this profession. It all started as a form of livelihood – to get control over our lives. Nowadays people associate dentistry with a certain Chinese community.” The community Christopher refers to is the Hubei community, known for being dentists among the Chinese just as the Haka are known for their shoe shops and the Shandong for their food. And Christopher is among the few Hubei Chinese in Kolkata who’ve been into this line of medicine. “The numbers are decreasing,” says Christopher, adding, “Many are opting to go abroad for further studies.” Studies as in medicine? We ask. “Of course, we’re known for our skill with the teeth!” comes the reply.

Not far from Christopher’s chamber, near Central Metro Station, is the chamber of Dr Chi WeiMao, a fourth generation Chinese dentist. His chamber bears the signs of his community – Chinese paintings, inscriptions and a wall hanging depicting The Buddha. “My forefathers travelled to India on foot through Indonesia, Thailand and Burma during the First World War. They had no knowledge of the teeth or the human anatomy. Neither did they have the skills needed to perform tooth extractions! It’s something they imbibed during their travels,” says the doctor. “When my forefathers were crossing over to India, they asked the Hubei Chinese inIndonesia for help. The Hubei were practicing dentists there and they agreed to help, but only if my forefathers worked for them and assisted them in surgeries. Whatever money they earned, they saved up to be spent on the travel. Once they reached India, they sent the money back home so their families could join them.”

Dr Chang Tao Cheng is a dentist who carries ahead the legacy of dentistry in his family. “My father, the late Dr Chang Wang Fa, was also a dentist and so was his father. In fact all Chinese dentists in Kolkata have hailed from the central provinces in China, from where the Hubei community originates.” Brain drain is something that these doctors have got used to. “Every year at least 200 students pass out from dental colleges. Most of them are choosing to move toCanada and Australia. My son Melvin is a dentist too, but he’ll be moving out in a few months as well,” says Chi Wei. We asked the doctors if they’ve noticed anything changing over the years and generations. “A lot has changed,” says Christopher. “Earlier, patients would visit a dentist only if they had to have a tooth extracted. Nowadays, for every little reason people flock to dentists even if it is just a little chip-off. However, the procedure for making dentures has remained the same!” And, of course, they don’t ask for gold teeth anymore.

( First published in Times of India, dated 26 November, 2011)

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