Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The King of the Northwest’s Exodus

on December 13, 2013

There were in the 1960’s, a few hundred Chinese families living mostly in Ta’if, a mountain town an hour’s drive from Makkah. They were originally from Northwest China and all followed the banner of the former “King of the Northwest”, General Ma,  BuFang.

ma bufang

Ever since the 1911 Revolution which toppled the last Qing Emperor and installed the new Republic, China had been incessantly embroiled in civil and international turmoil. Thus, as happens in very large realms, central authority breaks down and smaller local spheres of authority form themselves. In the Chinese arena, this occurred through the so-called “warlords”, military leaders who gradually morphed into governors or even kings.

Although formally titled the governor of QingHai province, Ma BuFang in reality reigned over the neighboring provinces of Gansu and NingXia as well, wielding the power of life and death over his men and the population. His authority stemmed not only from his military might but also from the extended Ma tribal system and the support of the Muslims of the Northwest of China.

However, with the Communist takeover of Mainland China in 1949-50, and the Nationalist forces’ retreat to Taiwan, Ma Bufang decided to flee his homeland. He packed 200 of his tribesmen, family and close officers onto a plane and took them across the Himalayas to India. Many of the descendants of those refugees still tell stories of the plane being too heavy and unable to clear the world’s tallest peaks. Ma gave the order: throw all unnecessary objects overboard! Thus many gold bullions were cast away into the eternal snows.

Once lightened, the plane gained altitude again and crossed into India. Once there, the decision was made to emigrate to a Muslim country, and what better country to choose than the source of Islam, Saudi Arabia. However, when they arrived in 1950 Saudi Arabia, they were shocked to find this desert even more backward and underdeveloped than their own desert in Northwest China. They moved again, to Egypt, which was then a thriving modern and westernized civilization under King Farouk, at least in the cities.

king farouk

The entire tribe settled in Cairo, buying real estate and opening bank accounts. No sooner had they started putting roots down than King Farouk was overthrown by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Egypt turned socialist. All the Ma assets were frozen. Ma BuFang told his men, “Have we fled the Communists only in order to settle in a Socialist country?” Consequently he decided to move the entire tribe back to Saudi Arabia, which however underdeveloped, at least was not socialist nor communist.

gamal abdel nasser

And so it was that the 200 or so families chose Ta’if, which most resembled home in climate, and finally settled down. Despite much loss of wealth to the new Egyptian government, they were still immensely rich and were able to purchase again real estate and businesses.

One of the Ma’s was Yaqoub Ma, Ma Yao-Zong, who took up a post at the Embassy in Jeddah. His four children all attended the Chinese Embassy school. The second daughter was born in Cairo, on a bridge, where the taxi her laboring mother rode was stuck in traffic. Whereby she was given the name Kobria, meaning “bridge” (kobri) in Arabic.

Another embassy clerk, Abdullah Chi, also a Northwesterner, married a woman from the Ma tribe, thus making him one of the clan. Their three children also attended the embassy school. I learned many years later that Mr. Chi had been schoolmate with both my parents-in-law at Fu Dan University in Shanghai. But now he resided in a two-room low building at the back of the embassy compound. It is a testimony to the resiliency of the Chinese people that they are able to re-create for themselves their surroundings and necessities wherever they might end up living. Mr. Chi built a wooden platform covered with fabric on their front patio, reminiscent of the “kang” of North China. A kang is a sort of platform or huge bed made of bricks, with an opening outside the building where you feed coal or wood, the smoke of which heats the kang surface. This being Jeddah, there was no need for heating, but the raised platform allowed air to flow under it, and kept people away from crawling cockroaches.

There were more rooms in the other back corner of the embassy compounds which housed the Sui family and old Ma Laoshi, who later took a wife from the Ma tribe as well. Yaqoub Ma was the only embassy employee well-to-do enough to live in his own villa and gardens, complete with an outer little building rented to a grocer.

As a matter of fact, Papa had visited Jeddah once before, in 1957, the year of my birth. He had joined the official Hajj (pilgrimage) group from Taiwan, and had been given a secret mission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was to check out Ma BuFang, who had applied for the post of Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Ma acted as an extremely hospitable and gracious host to the entire pilgrimage group, feasting and boarding them. Papa was duly impressed. Upon his return, he reported, “I have only four words to say, A Kind Generous Elder (Ci Xiang Lao Ren)!”

hajj, 1953

But soon, the Ministry found it was a mistake. Once anointed ambassador, Ma BuFang regarded himself once again as a ruler with power of life and death over his subjects. Scandal after scandal emerged, resulting in his finally losing his post. Infuriated, he set himself up as an enemy of the embassy. Soon, yet another scandal took place. A woman accused him of having kidnapped her against her will to make her his second wife. She fled to the embassy for protection. Although she herself was from the Ma tribe, yet the entire clan closed ranks behind their leader. Ma led his men to lay siege to the embassy, demanding the return of his wife. I don’t have the details of how it finally occurred, but the Charge d’Affaires was finally able to smuggle the lady onto a plane bound for Taiwan.

It was into this situation that Papa landed. The only Muslim diplomat, with just a Charge d’Affaires to supervise him, and three Muslim clerks who were more or less affiliated to the Ma clan.

One Response to “The King of the Northwest’s Exodus”

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