By Jigmie Dorji Yuthok
On the web, 17 September 2016
Mr Gyalo Thondup’s book, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong, has already been the subject of much criticism, and rightly so. Indeed, even his co-author, Anne Thurston, expresses grave doubts about the veracity of his story in the Introduction to the book, before you hear a word from Mr Thondup. Again, in the book’s uncommon “Afterword” section, she notes that some Tibetans who had read the manuscript — and her editors as well — were suspicious of the motivation behind Mr Thondup’s many allegations against fellow Tibetans and his portrayal of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s views on Tibet. And how does one excuse Mr Thondup’s deliberately arrogant disrespect toward the 10th Panchen Lama, who — once he began to see the real nature of China’s brutal occupation — spoke against it and paid a very heavy price in the form of many years of imprisonment and torture. Such gratuitous criticism coming from someone who kept himself safely out of harm’s way was shocking and embarrassing to most Tibetans.
So, before publication, the co-author and publisher were at the very least suspicious that Mr Thondup’s version of history was tainted with bias and the twin motivations of self-aggrandisement — a trait he has exhibited throughout his life — and clearing his name in a ﬁnancial scandal by casting stones at everyone else. Nonetheless they went ahead and published the book, defending Mr Thondup’s right to tell his story, and probably hoping that allegations that were known to be “controversial and provocative” would sell books.
So it is that I must join those who have stepped forward to set the record straight. Mr Thondup’s The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong calls the then Tibetan Government incompetent and ignorant, maligns the good name of many Tibetan patriots — including my late father, Kalon Yuthok Tashi Dhondup — and has inaccuracies which cannot be left to stand without correction.
This response is based on my personal experience and documents, and it will concentrate on the things I know from having been at several of the events that Mr Thondup has portrayed, as well as those documents in my possession which provide a more accurate and less egocentric account of this critical period of Tibetan history.
I will begin by addressing a general theme that pervades the book, the portrayal of Tibet’s government of the period prior to China’s invasion as “absolutely incompetent.” Mr Thondup proclaims himself “ashamed of my government” and further states “the people running Tibet were incompetent — not just ordinarily incompetent but absolutely incompetent.” The use of such harsh and cruel language not only maligns those who were in ofﬁce before and during the Chinese invasion of Tibet, it indicts a system of government that — in spite of its many ﬂaws when judged through the lens of modern democracy — had in fact been quite successful in assembling, managing and defending a nation for more centuries than most modern democracies have existed. His gratuitous dismissal of such accomplishments betrays an arrogance that might be justified if it came from someone with a stellar record of competence himself, but such is hardly the case. In Kundun, HH the Dalai Lama says of his elder brother, Mr Gyalo Thondup, “He did some good things, but he also made many mistakes. He is stubborn and he creates controversy wherever he goes.”
Now let’s get down to specifics.
Mr Thondup claims to have been in contact with many Indian government officials during the period between China’s invasion and His Holiness’ escape to India, when in fact, he was blissfully unaware of all the decisions that were taken by the Tibetan government. So when Mr Thondup claims that the Tibetan government “never asked the Indians or Americans for help,” he couldn’t be more mistaken.
The following are examples of the many occasions, before China’s invasion, when Tibetan delegations were sent abroad to bolster support for Tibet’s status as an independent nation. In 1946, the then Tibetan government sent a delegation to congratulate the Allied Nations for their victory in World War II.
In early 1947, a Tibetan Delegation was invited to participate in the Inter-Asian Relations Conference by India’s Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Tibetan delegation attended the conference as a sovereign nation carrying the Tibetan national flag. In 1948, a Tibetan Trade Mission was sent by the Tibetan Government to establish trade and diplomatic relations with India, China, the United States, and Great Britain. The delegation visited all countries with Tibetan passports.
Then in July 1949, the Chinese Mission in Lhasa was served by the Tibetan Government with an order for the immediate departure from Tibet of all its staff and all Chinese nationals residing in Tibet.
Clearly Tibet was ending its historic isolation, attempting to ward off China and gain international allies as the decade came to an end.
In 1950, I was called by the Tibetan government to serve as an English interpreter to the Tibetan Trade Mission. I was 18 years old and studying at St Joseph’s North Point, Darjeeling. The officials in the Trade Mission were Rimshi Surkhang Lhawang Tobgye and Kenchung Lobsang Tsewang. We met with India’s Prime Minister Nehru. This “Tibet Trade Mission” was in reality a secret mission to request military arms from India, a request that Prime Minister Nehru turned down. Later, Mr Thondup, while virtually running the Tibetan government in the 1960s, was equally unsuccessful in obtaining anything more than token outside support, so he should have known ﬁrst-hand that such support was hard to come by. Cold War political realities made intervention in a remote and inaccessible Tibet a very low priority on the world stage. But whether one is speaking of the 1960s, or the preceding decades, not achieving positive results does not constitute a lack of effort or a lack of competence.
In March 1959, when we received word that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had ﬂed Lhasa, my father, Kalon Yuthok, and I were in Kalimpong. Some Kalimpong Tibetans — Kalon Yuthok, Drunyik Chenmo, Alo Chongze, and myself among others — but not Mr Thondup — immediately went to Delhi to petition the Government of India to help Tibet and to ensure that His Holiness did not fall into the hands of the Chinese. The petition was submitted to Prime Minister Nehru, again to no avail. After waiting for a reply which was never to come, we returned to Kalimpong. Again no one had the appetite to get into a hot war with China on the Tibetan plateau, not a nascent India, nor more powerful and stable nations halfway around the world such as Great Britain and the United States.
Later in the book, Mr Thondup speaks about the April 1959 statement by His Holiness upon his arrival in Tezpur, India. In his zeal to portray everyone but himself as incompetent, Mr Thondup alleges that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s ﬁrst statement to the international news media, who had assembled there following His Holiness’ escape from the Chinese, was read to the press by an Indian ofﬁcial, implying Nehru’s people had even drafted it just as the Chinese Communist Government accused. He is mistaken on both counts. The English translation of the Tibetan-language Tezpur statement was read to the press corps by a Tibetan, namely me, not by a nameless “Indian ofﬁcial” as Mr Thondup alleges.
Upon His Holiness’ arrival, the Government of India arranged temporary residence for the Dalai Lama in Mussoorie. Khenchung Tara and I, as the English-speaking secretary, took care of the Tibetan Government documents and correspondence as well as His Holiness’ private correspondence. On 20 June 1959, His Holiness gave a statement to the media and held his first western-style “news conference.” I had prepared an English version of his statement which I then read to the media (A&E Biography 1997: “Dalai Lama: The Soul of Tibet” Part 3 of 5). During the questions and answers session of the press conference I was assisted by another English-speaking Tibetan official, Sandutsang Rinchen.
The next glaring inaccuracy of The Noodle Maker that I can correct concerns the vastly exaggerated loan request that Tibet was alleged to have made to India. To begin with, when Prime Minister Nehru came to see His Holiness in Mussoorie in April 1959, the subject of loans of any amount never came up. Mr Thondup’s suggestion that Kalons Surkhang Wangchen Gelek and Yuthok Tashi Dhondup had advised His Holiness to approach Prime Minister Nehru for a loan of 200 million Indian rupees is ludicrous on its face. As a matter of fact, Kalon Yuthok was not in Mussoorie at that time. Perhaps the subject of a loan for 200 million Indian rupees did come up during Mr Thondup’s private discussion with the Indian diplomat, PN Menon. That would explain why no one else ever heard of it.
Returning to reality, the Kashag, the executive body of the Tibetan government, with the approval of His Holiness, later did decide to approach the Government of India for a loan of just over 6.4 million rupees. Kalon Surkhang, Kalon Liushar — and myself as their interpreter — travelled to Delhi to ask India’s Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt for this loan, which was unfortunately refused by him. Mr Thondup, who did not occupy any ofﬁcial role, was allowed to accompany us only as an observer. And it is particularly important to note that at this time, Mr Thondup, who was educated in China and in the Chinese language, was not ﬂuent in English. I translated the discussions back and forth between English and Tibetan and I well know what the amount of the loan request was, and Mr Thondup was so informed on the spot.
When one talks about the inﬂuence of an elder brother of someone such as His Holiness, on government and politics or even in the realm of ﬁnancial matters, it is in a context that people everywhere probably understand. Add to the political power of the person in question the religious and spiritual significance of Tibet’s Dalai Lama and it is easy to understand how a family member might try to maneuver himself into a position of power. For this reason, during an incarnation of a Dalai Lama, it was Tibet’s tradition that family members — while well provided for — were usually kept out of the government, and their inﬂuence was limited. The Chinese invasion and His Holiness’ escape to India provided an opening for change, and Mr Thondup did not miss this opportunity to assert himself into Tibetan politics.
After the invasion, as the 1960s began to unfold, Mr Thondup, as His Holiness’ elder brother — and purporting to represent His Holiness’ wishes — began to control all aspects of the reconstruction of the Tibetan Government-in-exile. He even founded a political organisation called Chikdril Tsogpa (United Party) to support his political agenda. Few dared to criticize Mr Thondup because he was the elder brother of His Holiness, and those who did challenge or question Mr Thondup were ostracised. As a result, Kalons Surkhang and Yuthok, along with Dzasa Pangdatshang, were not included in the formation of the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Having no ofﬁcial responsibilities, the three decided to officially resign from government service and do what they could to advance Tibet’s interests as private citizens. Little could they have imagined that Mr Thondup, who whole-heartedly berates Tibet’s leaders for failing to develop relations with foreign nations that might have come to their aid when China invaded, would “do a one-eighty” and attack them for going out into the world and attempting to attract allies to the Tibetan cause. But that is exactly what Mr Thondup does.
But before returning to this subject, there is the little matter of the missing Tibetan gold and silver that Mr Thondup goes to such great lengths to blame on others, despite his responsibility as a trustee of these funds. I have some direct knowledge that touches on this important issue.
First let me say that I personally believe that the reason that Kalons Surkhang and Yuthok and Dzasa Pangdatshang have been targeted by Mr Thondup is because all of them were members of the Tibetan Government that, in the lead-up to the Chinese invasion of 1949, had expelled all Chinese nationals from Tibet: a decree that applied to Mr Thondup’s Chinese wife. And there were several other issues where Mr Thondup had clashed with the Tibetan government both before and after the Chinese invasion, beginning with the Kashag’s displeasure with Mr Thondup’s going to school in China instead of India. “At this time, sending one’s children to China to attend school was unheard of in the aristocracy. Those families who chose to send their children for a modern education (which was not possible to obtain in Tibet) all sent them to India. … China, which, it should be noted, was ostensibly Tibet’s enemy.” After His Holiness’ and Mr Thondup’s father died, the Kashag also appointed trustees to sort out the family’s finances, much to Mr Thondup’s displeasure.
So, in the midst of a number of intrigues that took place during the late 40s and early 50s, Mr Thondup returned to Tibet in 1952 full of ideas that were out of step with Tibet’s political leadership. His controversial education in China made many doubtful of his recommendations. Thinking that he knew more than them, and unhappy that his ideas were rejected as “more red than the Red Chinese themselves,” he left for India.
In other words, there was “bad blood” between the parties long before His Holiness ﬂed Tibet. Now add to that the fact that Surkhang, Yuthok, and Pangdatshang had knowledge of the gold and silver the Tibetan Government had sent to Sikkim in 1950.
The Kashag were responsible for shipping the gold and silver there via the Tibetan border town of Yatung (Dromo), where Pangdatshang was Governor. And there was a lot of gold and silver. In 1959, the arrival of this gold and silver in Kolkata (Calcutta) from Sikkim became such big news that Mr Desmond Doig, a journalist from The Statesman of Calcutta, interviewed Mr Thondup, who told him that the value of the gold and silver was worth 6.4 million Indian rupees. Yes, by a strange coincidence that is the actual amount of the Tibetan loan request made earlier to India, discussed above. How Mr Thondup pulled that number out of the air is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, or perhaps it was the ﬁrst number that popped into his head, having heard it before.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. Pangdatshang told Doig that the value of the gold and silver was very much greater than what had been reported in his The Statesmen article. When Doig went and asked Mr Thondup about this discrepancy, Mr Thondup — in a ﬁt of anger — told him that if he published any further news about the value of the Tibetan gold and silver, Mr Thondup would send thousands of Tibetans to demonstrate in front of The Statesman’s ofﬁces. How do I know this? I was the interpreter during Pangdatshang’s meeting with Doig, and Doig recounted Mr Thondup’s threat to me after he asked Mr Thondup about the huge discrepancy. Add to this the fact that one of Mr Thondup’s friends, Tashi Tsering, says that “literally millions of dollars worth of gold were loaded onto Dakota cargo planes and flown to Calcutta” and the mystery of what happened to the missing gold remains unsolved to this day. According to Tsering’s book, Mr Thondup seemed to be in charge of the disposition of these precious metals, and it was Mr Thondup who later charged Tsering with guarding the silver, which was put up in a merchant’s house for several weeks, melted down into ingots, and then taken away.
But returning to the earlier mystery of the non-existent 200 million rupee loan request, Mr Thondup says in his book that “Surkhang and Yuthok were so embarrassed when the Dalai Lama reported his conversation (about the failed loan request) to the Kashag that they ﬂed Mussoorie and — suffered an irreparable loss of face.” Mr Thondup’s notions of “loss of face,” like many other of his ideas, seem much more Chinese than Tibetan. In fact, in his book on page 115 you will notice that he refers to Tibet as “the motherland,” just as the Chinese do China; whereas Tibetans use the term “fatherland” exclusively. Seasoned and patriotic Tibetan cabinet ministers would not get “so embarrassed” that they would shirk their duty and flee. What actually happened is quite simple.
Kalons Surkhang and Yuthok did not “ﬂee” or “defect” to Taiwan as Mr Thondup portrays it. It was due to their exclusion from the new Thondup-controlled exile government and subsequent inability to serve His Holiness and work for Tibetan independence from inside India — along with what proved to be a very justified fear of danger for their families’ safety — that Surkhang and Yuthok left India. Thinking that they could continue to serve His Holiness and the Tibetan cause as private citizens, Surkhang and Yuthok went to Taiwan, largely because, in March of 1959, President Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China (Taiwan) had pledged his support for Tibetan self-determination. Upon their arrival in Taiwan, there were already about 30 Tibetans being trained in Taiwan as paratroopers to ﬁght the communists alongside Chiang Kai-shek’s troops.
In The Noodle Maker, Mr Thondup accuses Surkhang and Yuthok of “setting up what they called an Office of the Kashag,” going on to say they “had no right to portray themselves as representatives of the Tibetan Government.” Once again, the facts bear little resemblance to Mr Thondup’s rhetoric. Although the Government of Taiwan insisted that they open an Office of Tibet suggestive of a connection with the Tibetan exile government, Surkhang and Yuthok refused on the grounds that they could not and did not represent His Holiness’ government and the Tibetan people. They decided to open an ofﬁce called “The Kalon Bureau,” and I have copies of the letterhead which bears this innocuous title, which drew upon their prior government service without invoking the exile government’s name or authority.
Mr Thondup further claims that Surkhang and Yuthok had no contact with His Holiness after leaving Dharamshala. This too is not factual. My late father kept letters from His Holiness, and from his Private Secretary and Security Chief Taklha Phuntsog Tashi, written during the 1970s. In one of His Holiness’ letters to Kalon Yuthok, he mentions that while touring Europe, he had met Surkhang, who had explained everything in detail about the two former Kalons’ situation and work in Taiwan. His Holiness assured Kalon Yuthok that he understood.
Secretary Taklha even wrote my father, Yuthok Tashi Dhondup, stating that His Holiness was quite pleased with their efforts, and that the Tibetan Government-in-exile was contemplating establishing relations with the Government of Taiwan and that, in this connection Secretary Taklha would come to meet with Surkhang and Yuthok in Taiwan. The originals of these letters and others are in my possession.
Later, when the Government of Taiwan began showing less of an appetite for liberating even mainland China, Surkhang and Yuthok saw no reason to remain in Taiwan. Surkhang, who was ill, could not travel and passed away in Taiwan. After the death of Surkhang “The Kalon Bureau” was closed. Yuthok immigrated to Canada and broke off all relations with the Government of Taiwan.
Kalon Yuthok later had the privilege of being granted a private audience with His Holiness during his ﬁrst visit to the US in 1979, and again in 1980 during His Holiness’ visit to Vancouver, Canada. In fact, His Holiness appears in a photo taken with the extended Yuthok family during the 1979 visit to Seattle. So the notion that Kalon Yuthok was persona non grata, and even banished from His Holiness’ sight, does not hold up to the light of day, even if Mr Thondup may have wished it to be so.
It is especially ironic to note the disdain Mr Thondup still bears with respect to Dzasa Pangdatshang Yarphel. Pangdatshang, the governor of Yatung from 1943 to 1955, was a successful businessperson who had the honour to host His Holiness’ mother, Gyalyum Chenmo, and her family, at his home in Kalimpong in the early 1950s. In fact, and this is where the irony is most acute, Pangdatshang was the one who stepped forward in 1949 to extend a personal loan to Mr Thondup when he found himself stranded in India, after leaving China, when Tibetan government trustees in Lhasa declined to send him money. But there’s more. You would think — having known Pangdatshang so well that he had stayed in his home and had even borrowed money from him — that the caption to the photo on page 71 of The Noodle Maker would correctly identify “Reting Regent’s trade representative” for who he was, namely Dzasa Pangdatshang Yarphel.
Another example of the extent of Mr Thondup’s influence in the Tibetan community in the early days of exile, and his disdain for anyone who thwarted his will, took place in 1966 when my wife and our two daughters went to Darjeeling and Kalimpong where Mr Thondup’s Chikdril Tsogpa (United Party) turned his personal vendetta against the Pangdatshang and Yuthok families into organising a demonstration against my wife, Pangdatshang Rinchen Omo, and our two daughters, who were only nine and seven years old. The demonstrators chanted that Pangdatshangs are not Tibetans and they should be eliminated from the Tibetan race and put in jail. Local police found the mob so hostile that they took my family into police protection and escorted them to Siliguri airport for their flight home to Kolkata. The Indian authorities in Kolkata wanted to investigate the incidents, however we considered the events — which took place in Darjeeling and Kalimpong — to be a Tibetan matter and told them that we preferred to take our case to the Tibetan Government in Dharamshala.
And that is what we did. In Dharamshala, we encountered a new element of “mob” behaviour, but that was also where Mr Thondup learned that he had, once again, overplayed his hand. On the evening after having an audience with His Holiness, my wife and I were surrounded by a hostile crowd. Tibetan Government officials came and dispersed the crowd and local police arrived intending to arrest the persons who had surrounded us, but we again declined to press charges since they were just pawns being manipulated by the leaders of Chikdril Tsogpa for their own political ends.
Another Chikdril Tsogpa crowd called for the dismissal of Private Office Secretary Khenchung Tara because he had arranged an audience with His Holiness for my wife and me. After the audience, we informed the exile government that we were prepared to answer any questions that the government may have about the Yuthok family and Pangdatshang family. The investigation commission said I was excused since I was a Yuthok and they only wanted to question my wife about the Pangdatshang family. Her inquisitors did not have a clear agenda as to the line of questioning. So they began with what Americans call “a fishing expedition.” They ended the investigation sessions with a statement that the commission was fully satisfied with all the answers given by Omo Pangdatshang, whom they concluded to be a patriotic Tibetan.
Following these and other similar incidents the Chikdril Tsogpa gradually became unpopular among the exile Tibetan community. Others who had been similarly mistreated came forward and told their stories and the organisation faded into obscurity.
Hopefully that is the fate that awaits Mr Thondup’s purported biography. Although it pretends to be historically accurate, The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong is clearly a blend of fact and fancy. I have only addressed a small portion of its contents, addressing inaccuracies and falsehoods about which I have some personal knowledge. And, while these alone would justify the co-author’s warnings about The Noodle Maker‘s authenticity, I am not the ﬁrst to offer such corrections, and I probably will not be the last. They say you must “suspend your disbelief” in order to enjoy a work of ﬁction; but The Noodle Maker pretends to be factual, so I advise the reader not to give in to the natural human desire to be told a good story and instead to understand that non-ﬁction should be held to a much higher standard.