Making of Wanton soup in Nilgiris

You pass the small board which says “Chinese Hill” on your way to Ooty from Gudulur.  The road is long and winding with spectacular views of the Deccan plateau.  It is a road taken by those who have the time.

Present day travelers passing this way would often wonder why the place is called Chinese Hill.  It all goes back a long time, to 1860s, when Chinese convicts were brought to these hills by the British.  These Chinese were from the Strait Settlements (Malacca, Dinding, Penang and Singapore) and would most likely have been pirates.

These Chinese prisoners were brought to Madras and were used in the construction and in laying the railway lines.  By 1822, John Sullivan had started constructing Stone House, his dream house in the Blue Mountains.  The house, which is presently the Government Arts College, overlooked the Ooty valley.  By 1860s, more Britishers had decided to move to the hills to plant tea, English vegetables and fruits.

The need for labor both on the plantations and in building construction was great.  Chinese prisoners were brought from Madras for this purpose.  Some of the prisoners were assigned to the building of Lawrence School, in Lovedale, where they were lodged in temporary sheds.  

One day in 1863, some of these men, tired, no doubt, of ceaseless drizzle, damp and cold, escaped.   Imagine how they planned their escape!  Did they talk to the men who transported the building material or wood and learn about the lay of the land?   How did they figure out the route?   Making their way through the thick sholas must have been slow; within no time, these men were caught and brought back.

Were they punished?  No record of that.  Whipped, most probably! The second attempt followed soon after in July, the next year. With heavy rain lashing the hills, another group escaped the temporary sheds and made their way through impenetrable forests towards the coast.  Many police search parties set off in chase.  The convicts were apprehended near Calicut.  The weapons carried by the police were found on the Chinese.   This, together with the fact that one of the search parties did not make it, made it all the more ominous.

Sure enough!  The search for the missing policemen continued.  Trackers found their bodies, in the middle of September, half way down the Sispara Ghats.   The decomposing bodies, or what was left of them after the birds and beasts had their fill,   were in a line with the chopped off heads neatly placed on the shoulders.
Some of the other Chinese prisoners who served out their sentence, married local Tamil women and settled down near the cinchona plantations, at Naduvattom.  These men made a living herding cows, cultivating coffee and vegetables.
A distinctively Chinese looking temple near Naduvatton , on the Mysore-Ooty Road.

Today, Naduvattom is a typical village in the hills with shops lining the road.  As you pass you wonder what happened to the Chinese Tamils who once lived here. 


  1. A great story, Nina, which needs wider circulation. I have been visiting the Nilgiris regularly the last 30 years, and never even realised there was a Chinese connection, especially that Lawrence's was built by these Chinese prisoners. In fact, I didn't even know that there had been Chinese prisoners in Madras. And like you I wonder whatever happened to those Chinese Tamils.
    K.N. Arun

  2. Thanks Arun. A second lot of Chinese prisoners were also brought to Nilgiris after the Opium Wars and made to plant tea. Many of the older tea estates have blocks called Jail division,Jail thottam and so on.

  3. Very interesting. As Arun said the story needs wider circulation. - S Anwar

  4. Nina , fascinating , the story of the nilgiri chinese !

  5. Hey this is history. Great reading...

  6. Nina,
    I would like to thank you for getting me started on a little study behind this story. I have posted an article on it, perhaps it will interest you

  7. Very interesting article. I visit the Nilgiris and Anamalais regularly but had no inkling of the China connection.

  8. Great article, crossed this place several times during my trip to factory inspectors office as part of routine being a manager of a tea factory in choladi during early 90's

  9. Thanks Praveen.. very encouraging..


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