The Chinese Connection: Memory and Loss in The Legend of Fat Mama

Curator's Note

Rafeeq Ellias’ 2005 documentary The Legend of Fat Mama explores the work of memory in relation to cultural identity and trauma. Though the title of the film might not immediately suggest this, the film’s core subject is the trauma of Chinese-Indians during the 1962 Indo-China conflict. Ellias chooses an interesting method—he interviews Chinese-Indians living in the city of Kolkata and asks them specifically about a woman named “Fat Mama,” a street-food seller whose rice-noodle soup was supposedly the rage among the Chinese population before the war. Everyone in the film recalls Fat Mama, the taste of her food, and the comfort of her warm meals in the open-air eatery. But the audience never sees her or anything about her. Like the “Fat Mama” of the film’s title, there are several things about pre-1962 Chinese-Indian experience that cannot be fully recovered.

In this clip for instance, Fat Mama becomes a stand-in for loss and nostalgia. Note how Ellias moves from a nostalgic remembrance of Fat Mama, to an exploration of the dying Chinese newspaper industry in Kolkata. This is the story of disappearance and loss of an earlier way of life under the assault of the politics of the nation-state. In her post on My Father’s Emails yesterday, Jinhee Park notes how the representation of home “has a double impediment, the absence of character (subject) and the restricted space of home.” Something similar could be said about the kind of experience recounted in The Legend of Fat Mama, where the true subject of the documentary is the sense of loss that cannot be tapped without nostalgic remembrance.

The idea of “home” here, is defined negatively. In the Chinese-Indian experience, home is something that can only be mourned. In this experience, the “homeland” cannot be defined either in terms of the country of ethnic origin (China), nor in terms of the adopted land (India). The plight of Chinese-Indians—deportation, internment and excommunication is part of a familiar story in the arc of the modern nation-state. But experiences such as those of the Chinese-Indians, in some ways, defy the exclusionary logic of the nation-state, although they are predestined to doom because of it. Here, the idea of Asia becomes an invitation to move beyond this exclusionary logic of the nation and recognize that the idea of the modern nation can often do violence to more intimate ways of defining identity.

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