Pakistan League Banquet, NYC 1952

Pakistan League Banquet, NYC 1952


We need your help to identify the men, women, and children who appear in the photograph. Move your mouse over the image to view a numbered version. Click to view a larger image, which you can magnify to examine the photo in detail in a separate window.

In October 1952, The Pakistan League of America, an organization whose membership consisted predominantly of former seamen from East Bengal, along with their African American and Puerto Rican wives and their children, held a banquet at their Lower East Side clubhouse to honor a local Congressman. This photograph of the event has been provided by Laily Chowdry, the daughter of the Pakistan League’s president, Ibrahim Chowdry (number 78 in the photo).

If you recognize any of your relations or family friends, please send a comment using the comment box at the bottom of the page. Please include the identifying number for the person(s), their name(s), your connection to the person(s) you are identifying, and whatever information, stories, or memories you would like to share. If you would like others in the community to be able to contact you, please include an email address at the end of your post, where you can be reached. The (perhaps ambitious) goal is to identify everyone in the photograph.

The Bengali Lower East Side

The Bengali Lower East Side

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In November 2013, I spoke to Amina Ali Cymbala, whose father Mohamed Ali, was one of a group of Bengali ex-seamen who settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and married within the Puerto Rican community there. Part of our conversation follows below. She also shared the photo here to the left, which shows a number of the children of the Pakistan League of America at a league event in the late 1950s. If you recognize anyone in the photo, please comment at the bottom of this page.

Vivek Bald: In my research, there were a lot of arrows pointing to the Lower East Side, and a cluster of South Asian ex-seamen who had settled there, going back to the 1920s. So I’m curious to hear from you about your father’s and mother’s stories – and their respective families’ stories – and also just hear your memories of who all was on the lower east side and where they were – your memories of those families.

Amina Ali Cymbala: My father was a chef at Hotel Pierre years ago. This was back in the ‘60s. There was a special restaurant in the Hotel Pierre in Manhattan that was just Indian food and all the waiters and chefs, everybody would dress up in the Indian clothing and all the celebrities would go there because the Hotel Pierre was like the number one hotel that time in the city. I remember, for a magazine, my father was there, you’re too young to remember but there was a gentleman on T.V., on a game show, Password, his name was Bill Cullen, and in the magazine article they use Bill Cullen because he loved eating Indian curry and there was another gentleman in the picture, there was my father, next to Bill Cullen.

And [my father and his friends] would have the best meats and all, on weekends, like you said in your book. On Sundays my father would be cooking even though my mother learned how to make curry, my father on Sundays – because he brought home some of the meat they didn’t use at the hotel. He would bring home the best beef, the best chicken and we would have the curry that he cooked and it was a big thrill because this is the big chef from the Hotel Pierre cooking. And he was part of that union. When he retired, he was part of that union. Whatever the local is for the hotel workers union.

I remember when we were little – like now my nieces and nephews call me Aunt Amina. In those days you never used the name. You would just say Chacha [for all your father’s friends] – my Chacha, my Chacha. So I really don’t remember many of the names. But I can email you all the names and the wives and the children [that I grew up with], because I grew up with all the children where the wives were Puerto Rican and the husbands were from [East] Pakistan and they had children. I grew up with girls named Ayuba and Fatima and Seena and Evelyn and who else did I grow up with… I can’t remember but the father was Abdul Aziz, I remember Mauklis Miah, Riaj Miah – there are so many names in my album that my mother saved – I have pictures and it’s just so great.

A lot of them when I grew up, they were all living on the Lower East Side, these were the kids I grew up with and we were within walking distance of the Pakistan League of America. And those card games … it’s so funny because my father, I mean they’re supposed to be religious, right, but they would play card games. He would go there Saturday and that’s where my father would drink. He wouldn’t drink in the house. They’d bring those card games over there Saturday night, my mother knew, they would get together and whatever they played, poker or whatever they played. But that was at the League. Just like Knights of Columbus. It was the same type of thing, their little social club. And the New Year’s Eve I remember, oh was so much fun and the parties there, I mean it was a big deal, there were like hundreds of people. It was very big, this Pakistan League of America. I remember there was a top floor and down, the first floor, there was a big kitchen. I still … I can see it now.

How I found you is that I was trying to research myself. Because my kids – I’m a good Latin dancer and my kids only think I can do Salsa and I said you don’t understand, when I was little, I used to dance Bengali dances. They said no and this is why I went on the Internet [to search for proof]. Because, as a child, there was a dance instructor [in New York] – Siraj Choudhary. I’m not sure of the spelling of his name but he was my dance teacher. He was not married, he did not have any children, and my father, every Sunday – I didn’t want to do these dances but you know when you’re eight and nine years old, you do what you’re told. And since my father wanted me to represent the Pakistan League of America, I used to go to Siraj Choudhary’s house with these other children. He used to teach us these dances and I performed with other children in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. And there are films in the archives somewhere.

So these dances were filmed and when they would have their monthly meetings at the Pakistan League of America, they would show the films and I was 8-9 years old and the screener would say, “Presenting Amina Ali” and I got so excited because I was in a movie. And this is what I’m trying to locate – these films must be somewhere. When the Pakistan League of America disbanded, somebody must have these films and that’s all I remember. I remember going to Washington D.C. to this big auditorium and the same thing in Philadelphia, representing the Pakistan League of America along with other kids. That’s why I was searching on the Internet, and there I go, and there I see Pakistan League of America, I see my father’s picture. I said, “What is this!” And then I found out about your book.

Vivek Bald – What year would that have been, when you were 8 or 9?

Amina Ali Cymbala – Let’s see, I was 8 or 9, I was born in 1949, so I’m thinking 1957, 1958. Once I hit 10, I don’t think I did it anymore. It disbanded. Those two performances I remember. We went for the weekend. We went on a Friday and Saturday we finished rehearsing and the performances were on a Saturday. Then we came home on Sunday. Very exciting but I didn’t pay attention because this was something my father wanted me to do. I really didn’t want to do it but I did it. This was part of the heritage: we had to do the dances.

John Ali, Jr: Baltimore, Chester, and Beyond

John Ali, Jr: Baltimore, Chester, and Beyond

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In this interview, John Ali, Jr. describes some of his memories of growing up with his father, Mustafa “John” Ali, a seaman from Sylhet, in the 1930s. John, Sr. had jumped ship in Baltimore in the 1920s, married John, Jr’s mother, Mamie Chase, and for a time moved their family to Chester, PA, where there was a small community of Indian men working in the Sun Shipbuilding plant and other nearby factories.

Vivek Bald: So you said that people, before they jumped ship, they already knew… how did they know where to go and what to do?

John Ali: Well, you know, you’d be surprised that many of these fellows had contact with people at home so they would write back and forth… Or, if someone was coming here, maybe from the very beginning, they decided ‘okay I’ll be jumping ship there.’ Or maybe they [jumped ship] in New York and they thought they were coming down to Chester [but instead] they went to Buffalo or Detroit or some other place, you know.

VB: Before, we talked about the immigration authorities coming to your house looking for seamen who had jumped ship. Did you get a sense of, for example, if the men stood out when they first arrived, you know, were they wearing different kinds of clothes [work clothes from the ships]? What did they do to fit in over time?

JA: I’ll tell you something – not necessarily when they arrived – but … [like] you already said about people in New York and Harlem, [these] guys wore some nice clothes. Baltimore, Maryland had a reputation where all the [Indian] guys were dressed extremely nice. Chester too. Now Chester, Pennsylvania, my father and those people when those people went out, they always had on a complete suit, including a vest. … I grew up with guys always being well-dressed. We sort of picked up on things like that. I have a reputation now for being well-dressed, but it stemmed from that. And of course, they didn’t think they could compete unless they had the vest, you know. And by the way, hats too. They wore their hats and gloves in wintertime they wore their overcoats and things like that. You’d be surprised how well-dressed they were in Baltimore and Chester.

VB: So when they were working during the day they would be in whatever work clothes, but then when they were out at night, they would dress.

JA: Right. Or during daytime if you had to be out all of Saturday or something. When they went out to visit or something, they put their suits on.

VB: You said that your father moved around a lot for work: from Baltimore to Chester to Buffalo, then back to Chester, and then after moving the family back to Baltimore again, he went to Gary, Indiana, and finally Detroit. What work was he doing in these places?

JA: I know that in Detroit he was in the Chrysler Company. You know, Chrysler automobile company. He actually ended up retiring from there too. And, Chester he worked at several companies. I can’t remember just what they were, but he worked for several companies there in Chester too.

VB: You mentioned there was a Ford plant in Chester. In my research I’ve also found there was a big ship-building company, the Sun Ship Building Company.

JA: Yes. Oh yeah I remember that. And I’m trying to think of something else in there. Another big place down there [in what] they called Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania … It’s right out from Chester. And I’m trying to think of the company down there. I’ll never forget; it was a big tar-like, almost looked like a smoke stack, where fire was burning 24 hours a day … And I do remember that shipyard–you know I think [my father] may have worked for them too. I remember that. Chester was an usual kind of city there. Actually Chester was very segregated at that time. The Italians had complete control; they had segregated schools until they got to high school. [And in the movie theater, blacks] sat on the lefthand side and the whites sat in the center and the righthand side. [And when the white section] became full, they would move the minorities back from the lefthand side and let the whites come sit in front of them. So it was really a segregated city.

VB: And this was back in the thirties, was it?

JA: Yeah uh-huh.

VB: So the Indian men, where did they sit in that theater?

JA: Well they would’ve sat on the same side as the black people … Again, as far as white people were concerned, they were doing it based on color. Anyone who has a different color.

VB: Well I wanted to ask you a bit more about Chester … the neighborhood where you lived in Chester, what it looked like, and what your memories are of that town.

JA: Chester was definitely segregated … And I don’t think the whites were too much a majority, but the Italian people did control it. I remember speaking to a person I worked with here in Atlanta, a couple years back. His mother lived in I think it was Lee, and she taught in Chester; he was white and she was too. And he said he remembers his mother saying ‘gee you oughta see how those Italian people treat’ what they call ‘negroes’ in Chester.

VB: And what did Chester look like? The kinds of buildings– do you remember were you close to the factory?

JA: Well believe it or not at one time we lived not too far from the Ford plant. In fact there was a rather large expanse of land in front of the Ford plant they kept in really good shape and we used to go over there and play football with the older boys. And, we did a lot of things back there in the winter time we would ride sleds down the hills. Quite a few of us had sleds. That was something that we looked forward to. In the winter we could ride sleds down the street called Lord Street… Oh, and I think Chester at that time had a bad water supply, so a lot of us paid people to go to, I think it was Chester Park, to bring spring water to town and sell it to us. Because Chester was known for having bad water … [And] as far as going to school and things like that. One had to walk to school, no matter where school was, you know. They had one junior high here and one high school here. Like there was only one junior high for blacks at the time and there were several elementary schools, but no matter where you were, you had to walk there. And then the one high school was integrated. That was so strange … In later years, Chester became known as … the poorest city in the United States; you ever hear that?

VB: Another question that I have is about food. And about your father and his group of Indian friends. What did they–

JA: Always curry and rice. There was always curry and rice available after dinner, that pot of curry and rice would be on the back of the stove for any other friends who came around to eat later. And someone always came around. Even in later years, after I grew up, and I went up there, to see some of my father’s old friends and things, they still had that pot at the back of the stove, with that curry and rice. And of course you couldn’t have any pork in the house at any time. The wives who wanted pork would sneak it in at a time when the men weren’t there; you know you couldn’t cook it.

VB: So they would actually cook it when the men were away?

JA: Yeah, periodically. You know, but all the curry was made of beef and shrimp and fish, you know. And all the Indian guys were experts at cooking curry and rice. Even my brothers right now. I never learned to do it, but–

VB: So, how did they get their spices?

JA: Oh, from the regular stores. Regular stores … I would have to go to market and get things like vegetables, to bring back home, and curry powder and pepper. Two main ingredients in curry … Some of [my father’s friends] lived in West Chester … and some lived in Chestertown, Maryland. Those friends were always coming around to visit … They would come around our house sometimes in the evening and listen to the six o’clock news and [my father] was interpreter for them, you know.

VB: Yeah, you mentioned that – could you describe that scene? Did you have a sense of what it what they were interested in hearing on the news?

JA: During that time, India was on the news fairly often because [the British] were always doing something there.

VB: So your father, there’d be news coming on the radio, and your father would be translating it for his friends because they wanted to know what was going on back home.

JA: Uh-huh, right.

VB: After those new bulletins, would they get into discussions or —

JA: They would have some discussions and sometimes they might eat and from time to time they would play cards too, you know.

VB: Also I was interested to hear more about Baltimore because I know that you spent more of your childhood there in Baltimore—

JA: Well I told you that Baltimore, one of their main black [districts was] on Pennsylvania Avenue … West Baltimore. And it was a neighborhood where they had … the better type of nightclubs. And they also had all sorts of theaters, movie theaters up and down the street. The Regency, The Royal, The New Albert … all on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then there were bars and casinos, a strip club, a comedy club, you name it. On that same avenue, even in later years, that’s where they had The Royal Theater. They had all the top musical acts of that day: Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington … And you probably haven’t heard of people like Andy Kirk, Delta Rhythm Boys, Sammy Davis Trio, Will Mastin Trio. And then Miles … You know, when I was growing up, I used to go down there on Saturdays for 75 cents and see the movies and see the floorshow. Occasionally, my friends went. But my god, I can tell you, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, some all-girl–25 piece band– all girls up there from California.

VB: And this Indian restaurant you mentioned, run by another man who had jumped ship, it was right there on that part of that strip?

JA: Yeah.

Aladdin Ullah’s “Dishwasher Dreams”

Aladdin_IndioCapeCodIn his one-man show “Dishwasher Dreams,” actor and writer Aladdin Ullah draws on the story of his father, Habib (pictured in the suit and fedora in the upper corner of this page), a steamship worker from the region of Noahkali, East Bengal, who jumped ship and made his way to New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, settled in Harlem in the 1930s, worked for years as a dishwasher and line-cook in downtown restaurants, and for a time in the late 1940s ran one of the city’s earliest Indian restaurants just off Broadway in Manhattan’s theater district.

In his performance, Aladdin explores his father’s life and experiences in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as well as his own childhood in the 1970s and 80s, growing up with his family in East Harlem’s Washington Carver projects as his father’s generation of uptown Bengali immigrants died away and vanished from memory.

LISTEN: Aladdin talks about his father’s life and his own journey on NPR’s The Story

READ Aarti Virani’s article about Aladdin and his one-man show on the Wall Steet Journal‘s India Realtime.

Donate/Book a performance: “Dishwasher Dreams” was developed under the name “Indio” through the Joseph Papp Public Theaters’ Emerging Writers’ Program in 2010-11. Ullah is currently raising funds to produce the one-man show Off Broadway in New York City. Please help bring this important work to the public by making donation to the performance’s production fund or hosting a performance of “Dishwasher Dreams” in your city or on your campus. Contact: funnyaladdin[at]gmail[dot]com.

“I Measure Out Sadness in Coffee Spoons” by S. Nadia Hussain

A guest post from S. Nadia Hussain, about the recent loss of her great uncle, Masud Chowdhury, one of the early members of New York’s Bengali community, who came to the city in 1946. Reposted from the blog Nadia Won’t Shut Up (Read more about Nadia at the end of the post.)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My great-great grand uncle passed away two weeks ago. He seems like a distant relative and maybe blood wise he may have been, but heart-wise he was like my own grandfather. It’s been hard, after spending a whole day at his funeral service, Muslim prayer service and burial; I was mentally and physically exhausted (especially because I spend most of the day in the car shuttling between Long Island, Manhattan and the middle-of-nowhere, PA…all in all about 10 hours of driving).

My uncle was Masud Chowdhury, one of the first Bangladeshi men to immigrate to New York City, way back in the 40′s. He opened one of the first Bangladeshi restaurants in the city. It didn’t end up lasting, but even in these past few years whenever I would stop by his house, he would cook up a storm for me. It was crazy seeing a man in his 80′s who shuffled when he walked, to grab fresh goat at a local store, and bring it back to his apartment in Harlem just to feed me curry. That’s just how he was, even up till very recently.

He was a POW during WWII for the Indian Army I believe on the Burmese border. He supposedly escaped and lived on eating bugs to survive. I wish someone wrote this man’s stories down. I wish that I did, I wish that I had the time to even do that.

It was difficult to understand him these past few years, mostly because he didn’t have his teeth in. Regardless what I did understand was hilarious, he cursed the Bush government, made jokes (ones that he laughed at harder than anyone else) and never lost his shine. He was so spunky, he was never a cranky old man to me. He always had that New Yorker attitude. After all, he was a New Yorker, Bangladeshi yes, but he spent most of his life in NYC. His life in many ways played along with this history of that city.

New York City lost a son, though he may not have made the front page of the New York Times. Bangladesh lost a son, an ambassador sent so long ago as a young man making his own journey to a strange land, a land that many of his countrymen would not arrive at until almost two generations later. It was he who enabled my own family to immigrate to the United States. My uncles came because of him, my parents came because of him. I am an American because of him.

Most of all however, I lost my Nana. I know that he was in his 80′s, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier. I was glad to see that he had so many that loved him. I saw his love in the tears that fell from the eyes of all those around me during his funeral day. Even those who could only stop in for a moment had eyes reddened by the sorrow of saying goodbye.

I got to visit him one last time, after Thanksgiving this past fall. At least I got to say goodbye. He had lucid moments, but many things that made him my Nana were fading away. During this visit, his personality would suddenly burst through, but then recede back just as quickly into the fog of old age. Right before I left and said my goodbyes, he called out my name and I went to him. It pains me to admit this, but I couldn’t really make out what he told me, but as far as I can recall he told me to stay with him, I think he asked me if I would stay.

I guess I am staying with him, because when you love someone, you never really leave. The grief for them may go away for a little bit at times, but it becomes a part of you. Sometimes when I am quiet my mind just drifts back to him, drifts back to my memories of him.

I guess I should be happy that he is in a better place, but I am selfish. I don’t want these people I love to leave. Old age isn’t an excuse, I know it’s a part of life, but I’m not ready. I didn’t want my grandmother to leave either. I mourn them both, I wish they hadn’t left. I miss them both, all the time…

Bye Nana, I am missing you. I will love you always.

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S. Nadia Hussain is a Bangladeshi American activist, poet, blogger and photographer. She lives in Oakland, CA, and currently works with inner city minority youth in Richmond, CA and refugee and immigrant students in Oakland. She is actively involved with South Asian, Muslim and API organizations. She is also involved in Democratic politics, and is currently on the board of the East Bay Young Democrats and is a founding board member of the Black Young Democrats of the East Bay. She is also the South Asian political Blogger for Hyphen magazine, a national Asian American magazine and blog.