The Photographer's Diary 
Eighteen Years for Song and Dance
by Eugene Louie
Photo by Eugene LouieI remember hearing stories my mother told me about dangerous political times in China,  first during the Japanese occupation of China and World War II,  and then after the revolution led by Mao Tse-tung.  Her account seemed so oddly nonchalant (maybe she did not want to remember; maybe she did not want to burden me) that the stories felt as if they were about someone else. 
 It wasnít until I met Sonam Dekyi on the streets of New Delhi, India, did I learned the true nature of political oppression. Dekyi is the mother of imprisoned musician Ngawang Choephel, a Fulbright scholar who had journeyed back to his native Tibet to video-tape traditional Tibetan music and culture.  
Her son was reported missing in Tibet in August 1995.   Dekyi waited 14 months to discover he was still alive,  but that he had been jailed in a Chinese prison in Tibet on charges of espionage.  He is accused of spying on behalf of Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama and "a certain foreign country" -- apparently an allusion to the United States. 
Since then, the 62-year-old Dekyi has campaigned continuously for the right to see her son.  Her fight has attracted global attention; thousands of appeals have been forwarded to Chinese authorities.  Hunger strikes were begun in Ngawang Choephel's name. All are met with silence. 
Hansa Natola, an Italian  supporter of the hunger strikers,  introduced me to Dekyi, who was sitting alone on Parliament Street,  handing out petitions and leaflets in English and Hindi, flanked by a crude lean-to tent that faced the luxurious Park Hotel.  
Dekyi left her home in Mundgod, in southern India, last June and began living on the streets of the capital, appealing to anyone who would listen for her son's release. She pulled out an 8" x 10" color photograph of  him to show me, wrapped her arms around the frame, pressed against herself and began to cry, explaining the details of his arrest.  Natola and I soon began to call her "Mom," and paused daily to greet her in the traditional Tibetan way of putting your hands together as in prayer and saying, Tashi Deleg - good day. 

In many ways, Dekyi's facial features reminded me of my mother's. After I finished photographing her nightly candlelight vigil I put down my cameras, sat down with her and massaged her back.  Even though we had no common language, "Mom" held her hand up in front of her,  as if she were praying,  letting out a sigh of relief each time I loosened a particularly tight muscle. 
During her effort to find her son Dekyi contracted tuberculosis, but she discounts her health problems, saying she is an old woman who only wants to "meet my son one last time before I die". 
While researching the Tibetan hunger strike in the United States on the Internet I learned more:  Years ago, this mother had escaped Chinese brutality carrying two-year-old Ngawang on her back over the Himalayas to freedom in India.  Dekyi devoted her life to caring for and educating her only child in a Tibetan refugee camp.  Her efforts paid off;  Ngawang's passion for Tibetan arts surfaced in elementary school.  He taught music at the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts in Dharamsala.  Later, he earned the prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study ethnomusicology in the United States at Middlebury College in Vermont.  
Ngawang always felt a duty to preserve the cultural identity of  Tibet through its music and performing arts.  At 30, without telling his mother, he armed himself with a video camera and tape recorder and entered Tibet, knowing a returning Tibetan exile could be imprisoned on the slightest provocation. 
Before Ngawang's arrest he gave his video tapes from two months of travel to an American traveler, fearing they would be confiscated if they were found in his position.  The tapes show old men on mountain tops performing opera to the wind, little girls singing nursery rhymes and lamas doing wrathful dances to chase off demons. 
"In 16 hours of Mr. Choephel's video footage, not a single scene exists indicating that he was involved in any political activity whatsoever. His extensive photographic record shows he was solely engaged in cultural documentation," according to John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign For Tibet in Washington, D.C.  ( 

See the RealVideo of Sonam Dekyi, 
produced by Ruthie Ristich.
Click on the appropriate modem speed:
28.8K    56.6K    High-Band

After I left India, Notala and I conducted a long - distance interview of Dekyi:  Natola asked the questions of  Dekyi through a translator, then e-mailed the results to me in the United States. Here is our conversation.  Parliament Street,  New Delhi, India,  May 3, 1998 
Photo by Eugene LouieQ: Why did you decide to leave your home and come to Delhi to live on the street?  
A: The reason I came here to Delhi is that my son, who is a musician, was studying music in Tibet, and the Chinese caught him and imprisoned him, giving him a sentence of 18 years. Now I have totally decided to leave my home and protest here. I would like the Chinese to release him immediately.  If not, I would like them to allow me to visit him. The only thing I know is that I am now 62-years-old and I am suffering from tuberculosis and I know that I donít have many years to live.  I also know that my son is totally innocent, the only thing he was doing was Tibetan music, thatís all. 

Q: Why this specific spot? 
A: The reason I am here is that this is a place where all people from all over the world come. In this particular street I would like to appeal to every single person who comes here to help me to get the Chinese to release him, or for me to meet him. I would like permission from the Chinese government to meet my son who is innocent. 

Q: I read in your appeal that you actually went to the Chinese Embassy here to ask for a visa to enter Tibet, but they told you to wait. Have you received a reply? 
A: I went to the embassy in January 1996 and I met a tall looking person there and I asked him if he could give me permission to visit my son. What he said is that I would have to wait 4 or 5 months. After that he would give me the permission. Since then, I went back at least three times, and the last time I went was in August 1997, and again there was no word from them. 

Q: Did you visit the Embassy alone or did you go with someone? 
A: The first time I went to the Embassy there were three people helping me. The second time I went alone, and the last time I went with my brother. 

Q: What do you do with the petitions that people sign? 
A: I plan to offer them to the United Nations. 

Q: How many pages have you collected so far? 
A: About one thousand. 
Q: How long are you going to wait before you present them to the United Nations? 
A: I have been collecting these petitions for almost one year. I am now planning to wait one, or two months, and then present them to the U.N. 

Q: Do you know whom to approach at the United Nations? 
A: I donít know whom I should be presenting them to, but I plan to be taking the assistance of Indian, as well as Tibetan, well wishers here. 

Q: How long do you think you will live here on the pavement? 
A: I plan to stay here on the street until some fruit comes out of this effort I am making;. Until my son is released by the Chinese. 

Q: Would you accept some kind of promise from the Chinese government that your son will be released soon? 
A: I cannot trust them 100%, so until my son is really released I will not accept any promises. Only the day when he is really released will I leave this place. 

Q: There are many associations all over the world who are working on your case. Are you in touch with any of them? 
A:  So far, I have no real relation with any of these organizations. I am not able to know who is fighting for him or not. As far as I am concerned, I believe that human beings out of compassion will contact me and help a mother who has lost her son. From my side, I am illiterate and I donít know how this functions and which organization is working to release my son. I have no idea, not even how I should contact these people.  I am sure that people all over the world are willing to help me out of compassion, out of kindness, out of love, thatís why I am here on the street appealing to people. I believe there are organizations attempting to help,  but as far as I can see there is no organization anywhere in the world who can even tell me where my son is imprisoned, in which part of Tibet he is, or whether he is already dead. If an organization can at least pinpoint that much, then probably I would believe that there are organizations which are helping in this issue. Until then, I know that I am an individual who is trying to get my son released, thatís all. 

Q: How do you survive living in the streets in New Delhi? How do you get money? 
A: In the past, for many years when my son was alive and working, in India or in the United States, I lived off him because my health is bad.  I always lived on his earnings. Now that I have come on the street...things are a little difficult, and so I have gone to the Tibetan welfare officer in Majnu Ka Tilla in Old Delhi, and I have received aid from him twice in the last two years for a total of 1,700 rupees (about $42.50 US). With this money I actually can last for quite a long time if it was just a question of getting something to eat. I can live on 500 rupees a month (about $12.50 US). My expenditures are mainly for the paper for the petitions, which cost quite a lot of money.  I also receive money from well wishers, and as a result I am alive. I have enough money to eat and pay for the petition papers. The day I will not have enough money I will go again to the Tibetan welfare officer, but recently I have had no need to go back to him. Also I have received some money from an Italian girl.  She sent 1,500 rupees.   Money will come. That finance is difficult is just normal.  I donít consider that as an additional burden whatsoever. 

Q:  If you stay here much longer you might die and then never meet your son again.  How can we convince you that your son will be released one day and that you might have to practice a little more patience?  This could save your life and your son could also enjoy being with you again one day. 
A:  If all these organizations you have been talking about will really help me to get my son released soon, then I think I will be able to wait, whether here or anywhere else. But if it is going to take interminably long then there is nothing really that I can do.  And then I think that I will also think of some more severe desperate measures... When I lose faith completely that I don't think I will meet my son this life, then I will commit suicide. But as far as where I will do it, I will think about it and I will do it at the appropriate place. 

Q: Is there something specific you would like to say to anyone who reads your story? 
A: I appeal to the compassion of everyone all over the world to help a single mother to get her son released from the Chinese government.  I am sure that you know better than me whom to appeal to,  to your representatives, to your governments. These are things that myself, an uneducated, illiterate old Tibetan woman, has no idea of.  And I just pray that all of  you, people who have been so helpful, might live forever. 

Eugene Louie can be reached at: 
San Jose Mercury News, 408-271-3660

BACK PAGE 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 NEXT
 This site is sponsored and powered by Hewlett Packard