‘A House for Mr Tata – An Old Shanghai Tale’ tells us something new about China and India

In 1904, Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, a distant cousin of the founders of the House of Tata, left India’s shores for Shanghai. He set himself up in the textile trade and displayed the legendary business acumen associated with his enterprising family name. His fortune allowed him to build a mansion named Avan Villa, portions of which still stand on No. 458 Wulumuqi North Road in China’s commercial capital.

But decades of tumult resulted in the family losing their home. Their struggle to reclaim possession of Avan Villa is the subject of A House for Mr Tata – An Old Shanghai Tale, by Mishi Saran, which forms part of an anthology titled Travelling In, Travelling Out – A book of Unexpected Journeys, edited by Namita Gokhale.  As she recounts the battle for the Tata mansion, Saran not only uncovers the forgotten history of the Parsi community in Shanghai, she also tells of the long-standing relationship between India and China.

Here are excerpts from an interview with her.

Inchin Closer: Your story focuses on the life, family and home of  Bejan Tata in Shanghai, China. Who is Bejan Tata and what is his relation with the present-day Tata Family, in Bombay?
Mishi Saran: It is the tale of an adventurous young Parsi man, Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, who sailed off from Bombay, a man who landed in whirling, cosmopolitan Shanghai in 1904 and made a life on China’s east coast, partly because he had the great, good luck to be born a distant cousin of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata.

I have not yet found the exact relational lineage; all we know is that BD and Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata were distantly related.  RD Tata as he is better known, was the first cousin of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the great House of Tata, which in its day also had an eye on the China market.

JN Tata sent his son to China as early as 1861, but the firm’s efforts there yielded only patchy success. RD, in his day, also decided to try his hand in Japan and China and enlisted his distant cousin B.D.  to help with the business of trade ‒ mainly exports of textiles. The enterprising young BD snatched the opportunity in both hands and forged his whole life on the fulcrum of that single decision.

Inchin Closer: Life couldn’t all have been easy for BD Tata. What were some of the triumphs and challenges the Tata family faced in Shanghai? How did they make China work for them?
Mishi Saran: By 1926, BD Tata was doing well enough in Shanghai to think about acquiring land and building a lavish estate ‒ a gracious villa, with four smaller, semi-detached houses at the back. The five buildings were completed in 1935. He named the big house Avan Villa, after his mother, and moved his wife and children there. The youngest two were a pair of boy-girl twins ‒ the Chinese say “dragon-phoenix” twins ‒ named Jehangir Bejan, and Aloo, born in Shanghai in 1919.

Nothing went as planned, however.

After a reasonably satisfactory run of business, RD Tata had to liquidate the firm’s concerns in China. BD in Shanghai, with a family to support, must have done rapid calculations.

He threw his lot in with China. He formed his own company, BD Tata and Co., and negotiated a direct agreement with Chinese textile mills.

I think it would have been hard for him to leave Shanghai; he had had sunk too many years into China and would have had few contacts left in India. His children had even less of a connection to India. Besides, given the Tata establishment in Shanghai, each of the five children stood to inherit a house in China.

In addition, life was good in Shanghai. The family could visit the Parsee Prayer Hall, the community had a cricket team, a recreation club and frequent gatherings. Zoroastrian priests shipped in from Bombay for services in Shanghai performed the requisite rites.

The Tata children were raised and schooled at British-run schools in Shanghai, in an international milieu. The parents spoke Gujarati at home, but their children replied in English. The youngsters had only been to India twice. At best, for them, India was an abstract concept, and Jehangir, certainly, was left with a lifelong regret that he never learned Gujarati.

Inchin Closer:  With World War II around the corner and China subsequently in the throes of a violent civil war, how did life pan out for the Tatas?
Mishi Saran: I suspect that staying on in Shanghai was a massive gamble on BD Tata’s part and soon enough, he found himself and his family caught up in the whirlwind of China’s turbulent modern history.

The rumbles of World War II started early in China, with Japan’s attacks in the north as early as 1931. Shanghai succumbed to Japanese military might in 1937, following a bloody summer battle, just as Jehangir was finishing school.

“I remember the Japanese barracks were right across [from] the school….my father was concerned that we maybe would be put into [Japanese internment] camps, because we all had British passports at the time,” Jehangir said. But the Japanese classed all Indians, including the Tatas, as “friendly enemies” and the family was spared the camps.

Even as World War II ended, China’s long-brewing civil war between the Communists led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek exploded.

As the Communists gained the upper hand in 1949, many wealthy industrialists ‒ both Chinese and foreign – fled the country. Huge numbers sought refuge in the nearest British territory ‒ the colony of Hong Kong, which had strong commercial and social links to Shanghai.

Hong Kong already housed a thriving, prosperous Parsi community. It was the most natural place for BD Tata and his wife to flee to, looking over their shoulder at all they had built, hoping they could return to China and their estates soon. India was too far away, there was little to be gained by returning to Bombay.

When Jehangir in turn left China with his new wife, the pair first sought their fortune in Brazil, but then they too, returned to Hong Kong, a natural base, and lived there for many years before they emigrated to the United States.

Jehangir spent the rest of his life wondering what happened to the Tata home in Shanghai. This is the quest outlined in my article in Travelling In, Travelling Out.

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