FEATURE: The story of Chen Te Hu, Norway’s first known Chinese immigrant

Translated by Ka Man Mak. First English version published in Resonate.
This feature was originally published in Norwegian in VårtOslo By Ka Man Mak and Tarjei Olsen

Here is a saga about the first Chinese family in Norway. Grandfather survived Sashsenhausen concentration camp, the son escaped from Mao, in Norway they opened country’s first Chinese restaurant.

Chen Te Hu survived a German concentration camp and opened the first Chinese restaurant in Bislett and was the first known Chinese migrant who permanently resided in Norway.

He was born in Qingtian in eastern China in 1911. As a young man, he was a secretary in the Chinese communist party under Kuomintang. So, in 1933, he decided to travel to Europe with two of his village friends in search of a better life.

They traveled to Shanghai by ship to Italy. They used the next following years to travel around Europe, amongst them were France and Switzerland. Their lives were difficult and Chen Te Hu sold carpets to earn some money.

In the end, they resided in Denmark, where they opened up a Chinese restaurant together.

A better place to survive

Not long after his friends went their own ways, they found their future in different countries. One moved to Sweden, one went to Denmark and Chen Te Hu moved to Norway.

“He heard that Norwegians were nicer, and so he moved to Norway,” said Chen Te Hu’s grandson, Chen Li Chun.

Already in 1939, only 2 years after Chen Te Hu arrived in Norway was he doing well in his business.
Chen Li Chun standing outside of where he had opened a chinese restaurant in 1994 along the road, Sørkedalsveien, 9 years after his grandfather Chen Te Hu have closed down Norway’s first Chinese restaurant at Bislett. Photo credit: Ka Man Mak
Ex-prime minister Per Borten and justice minister Elizabeth Schweigaard Selmer took a tour in Norway’s first Chinese restaurant in 1969. Photo credit: VG (Norwegian newspaper, 27th September 1992)

“Is it not cold there?”, I asked.

“The cold is not the problem. The most important is to find a better place to live. A better place to survive in,” replied Li Chun.

In 1937, Chen Te Hu arrived in Norway. Again he made his living with selling carpets. According to an article about Chen Te Hu from 1946 in Aftenposten, a Norwegian newspaper, he was “so excited about Oslo that he decided to reside here” and to be “an agent for around 10 different Chinese firms.”

He was 27 years old and had not predicted the coming war. In 1940 German troops invaded Norway.

Being sent to a brutal concentration camp

Because of the economic hardship, Chen Te Hu wrote a letter to the Kuomingtang Party, his previous employer, to ask for help. However, the Germans became suspicious of Chen Te Hu because of the letter.

“My grandfather told me this story about the letter himself. The letter was snapped up by the Germans and he was taken in for questioning. At the time, the Germans were in alliance with Japan. And Japan was at war with China,” said grandson, Chen Li Chun.

According to historical sources, he was arrested by the Secret Services on 26th July 1941 and imprisoned for a month for interrogation. He was later sent to Grini prison camp on 17th October 1942, and was there until 28th June, a year after he sent further on 6th July 1943 to the infamous prison camp Sachsenhausen in Germany.

The person standing next to Chen is killed by a British bomb raid

“I was 10 years old when he told me about it. He told me many stories but I don’t always understand them. Some stories he told my older sister,” said Chen Li Chun.

“She remembered a police chief who was taken to the same concentration camp as my father. They became good friends and survived the war. He helped even my grandfather with the China House restaurant before it was opened.”

“Did you grandfather ever told you about life at the concentration camp?”,  I asked him.

“Yes. Every day they must stand outside the barracks whilst their names are read out loud for registration. The fifth man, who stood next to him one day, was killed by a flying bomb that landed near them. He said that he just stood there. He was lucky that he was not hurt. It would be difficult to imagine how he would have felt when we were not there ourselves.” Said Chen Li Chun.

We both were silent for a moment. The noise from the surrounding at McDonald’s filled the air around us. Chen Li Chun, a talkative, smiling man, suddenly became serious in his face. He sank deep in his seat with his hands clamped together under the table.

Working at German cinema after his release

The events regarding Li Chun’s grandfather who was at the concentration camp and the story about the air raid can be confirmed by Professor Günter Morsch, Head of Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen, in an email:

“On the 22nd March 1944, in connection with a British air raid on Oranienburg aiming at the armament industry like the Bramo Flugmotorenwerke at nearby Basdorf, also the camp was hit. Several barracks were damaged, at least one person died.” This must have been the attack, Chen was referring to.

Morch wrote that Chen Te Hu had also spent some days at the camp’s infirmary in September 1943; to months after he was. And he was classified as a political prisoner of war by the Germans, as they officially call it ‘protective custody’.

Picture: Chen Te Hu’s journey through the german’s prisoners’ camp in the Norwegian prison of war encyclopedia.

In August 1944 Chen Te Hu was released. According to Morch, he left “probably” the camp the day after he was released. According to an article in Aftenposten from 1946 he was “led” from the camp to Brussel spring 1945.

“The English men” brought him back to Norway in October 1945.  5th October to be exact, according to Norsk fangeleksikon, a Norwegian biographical dictionary with details on prisoners incarcerated at the Grini concentration camp between 1941 and 1945. A Norwegian newspaper registered him missing on the list on 25th October.

Chen Te Hu as ‘missing Germany’s prisoner of war’ in October 1945, according to Aftenposten. Source: Aftenposten, 25th October 1945 via Yenyin Kwan.

The only person who knows about Chen Te Hus’s activities between August 1944 and his return to Norway in October 1945, is Chen Li Chun, his grandson. Chen Te Hu worked at a German cinema.

“I miss China and my parents.”

Because of the civil war in China, Chen Te Hu had no other choice than to stay in Norway, according to Li Chun.

Article about Chen Te Hu in Aftenposten in February 1946. Source: Aftenposten, 4th February 1946.

The earliest known Aftenposten article from 1946 (See facsimile above): ‘I miss China and my parents, says My Chen, but I want to be in Norway.’ In the article, it also wrote that he dreamt of opening a Chinese restaurant already in 1946.

Chen’s daughters die of hunger

The Chinese civil war lasted from 1912 to 1949, but was interrupted by the Japanese invasion between 1937 and 1945.

Chen Te Hu’s family was still in China, and his wife and son survived the war. His son Chen Fuk Sing, born in 1928, was only 5 years old when his father left China.

Chen Fuk sing had also two older sisters. They died of hunger in the 1930s.

The son was branded as an Anti-Communist

At the beginning of 1950s, Chen Fuk sing traveled to Shanghai to study.

“My father [Chen Fuk Sing] studied In Shanghai. He read an advertisement where Mao Zedong urged everyone who had the slightest dissatisfaction with the Communist party to talk about it,” tells Chen Li Chun.

“His calligraphy is very beautiful. Because he wrote beautiful calligraphy and wanted to show his skills, he wrote about his dissatisfactions. Because of that, he was branded Anti-Communist,” says Li Chun.

At the university where Chen Fuk sing studied, his professor read out loud all the names who had written critically about the communist party. Chen Fuk Sing’s name was on the list. He couldn’t study there any longer and it meant that his life was in danger.

Chen must escape

He escaped to Qingtian first and then to Ürümqi during the 1960s. It took him two weeks on the train to reach Ürümqi.

The city is the capital of the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur in Northwestern China. The name comes from Oiratspråket and means “beautiful pasture.” It is a city of 49 ethnic minorities, including Hui people, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs. A city surrounded by deserts and Tian Shan Mountains.

Picture: Chen Fuk Sing in Spain, 2015 or 2016. In the 1960s he escaped from Mao’s China. Photo credit: Private

The Chinese cultural revolution lasted from 1966 to 1976, with Mao Zedong who was behind a series of pervasive political campaigns in China.

The goal was to change the society from the bottom-up. The universities were closed down and people with the suspicion of having an academic background was mercilessly persecuted. Among other families’ genealogy books, Chinese literature, paintings, and priceless antiques were lost.

In the Cultural Revolution, there was an open hunt for all those considered as enemies of communism. Here the picture shows the humiliation and abuse of two people of the cultural revolutionaries in 1967. Photo: Unknown, Creative Commons

Opening Norway’s first Chinese restaurant

In 1962, Chen Li Chun, grandson of Chen Te Hu and son of Chen Fuk Sing, was born.

The year after, Chen Te Hu opened China House, the first Chinese restaurant in Norway, on the street, Sofies gate 15 in Bislett.

In 1963, the legendary food writer Don Segundo (real name: Leid Borthen) revealed that “finally Oslo will get its Chinese restaurant”. Source: Aftenposten on 2 September 1963 via Yenyin Kwan

Many Norwegians remembered this restaurant, and Are Kalvø have written about China House in the article Kinarestaurantane kjem! (China restaurant arrived!) in the journal City memories (Byminner) 3/2008:

“At the same time there were other places that had Chinese guest chefs and Chinese that were doing catering, and people will always argue about who was the first, but China House at Bislett could probably be deemed as the first real Chinese restaurant in Norway. Run by Chinese, with Chinese chefs, Chinese interior and Chinese food. In 1963.

It was twenty years before McDonald’s came to Norway. Twenty years before the kebab. Years before the pizza. Thirty years before sushi. It is almost ten years before it was possible to buy paprika in Norwegian shops. In 1963 there was apparently a threat that a restaurant did not have white cloths. What is wrong with a restaurant without a knife and fork?! Between the guests who filled the venue during the first period was the embassy people who appreciate the fact that Norway was in the process of becoming international, Norwegians who do not give a f**k to eat with chopsticks. Instead took with them the sticks back home as souvenirs.”

Guests at China house in July 1966, only 3 years after opening. Source: Dagbladet (Norwegian newspaper), July 1966.

In 1957, after China’s civil war, the post could be delivered again. Through letter exchanges, Chen Te Hu found out what had happened with his family in China, including Chen Li Chun.

Here used to be a Buddha statue at China House restaurant. Chen Te Hu was not a Buddhist, but likes to collect antiques and the statue was one of them, according to Chen Li Chun. Photo credit: Ka Man Mak
China House, Norway’s first Chinese restaurant, was here at Sofies gate 15. Photo: Ka Man Mak
China House, Norway’s first Chinese restaurant, was here at Sofies gate 15. Photo: Ka Man Mak
Sofies gate 15. Photo credit: Ka Man Mak

‘Back in time, when I was a kid in China, I was very happy when we received letters from my grandfather! Time has changed. It used to take two months before the post arrived. Now we have email,’ said Chen Li Chun.

In 1976 Chen Te Hu helped both Chen Li Chun and one of his older sisters in Oslo. Their job was to help with washing up at the China House restaurant.

Two years later, Chen Li Chun’s other older sister also came to Norway.

Reunion with father after 48 years

In 1981, Chen Te Hu and his grandson Chen Li Chun traveled on a reunion tour back to China. Chen Fuk Sing was 5 years old when his father, Chen Te Hu, left them. Now he has finally reunited with his father again, at the age of 53.

In 1983, Chen Fuk Sing traveled to Norway so he could be with his family there. But after a short period, he moved to Madrid. It was known that many Chinese from Qingtian lived in Madrid.

The rest of Chen Fuk Sing’s family, his wife and two younger daughters, reunited in Spain in 1985, except for his son Chen Li Chun and two older daughters who stayed in Norway.

Closing the restaurant and becoming an antique collector

In 1985, China House closed its doors, and the pensioner Chen Te Hu had time to focus more on his hobby: collecting antiques.

“My grandfather bought many antiques, but many are fake,” grinned Chen Li Chun.

In 1981 Chen Te Hu was found in Aftenposten again. He collected antiques, and in 1981, he presented ‘one of the world’s rarest archaeological artifacts’ to Oslo citizens. Source: Aftenposten 11th September 1981 via Yenyin Kwan.
In 1981 Chen Te Hu was found in Aftenposten again. He collected antiques, and in 1981, he presented ‘one of the world’s rarest archaeological artifacts’ to Oslo citizens. Source: Aftenposten 11th September 1981 via Yenyin Kwan.

Chen passes away on 31st March 2011

A 90-year long life that contained more drama and greater dangers than most can imagine, was over. But it was a life that also contained greater victories than most people would have experienced.

For a person who survived the Nazi prisoner of the war system, it is not difficult to imagine that life itself was a victory.

Moving to Tromsø

In 1994, Chen Li Chun opened a new restaurant along the road, Sørkedalsveien at Majorstua. It survived until 2015. The Chinese restaurant Yummy house is currently running on the same premise, but with new owners.

On the walls still hangs the old paintings bought by collector Chen Te Hu.

Chen Li Chun inside Yummy House, the premise where Li Chun used to have his Mandarin House restaurant from 1994 to 2015. Photo credit: Ka Man Mak

Chen Li Chun now runs a tourist shop in Trømso with two partners. His father, Chen Fuk Sing still resides in Spain, and Chen Li Chun and his family visit them as often as they can.

Chen Li Chun has two sons who will not continue in the restaurant profession. One works at a Norwegian company and the other is studying engineering.

Thus Chen-family’s Norwegian history takes on new roads, but the dramatic pre-history that brought someone to the cold north and another to Spain, just doesn’t cut the cord yet. It’s a story that can be continued from generation to generation.

“My family history can really be written as a book,” chuckles Chen Li Chun.

Perhaps not a bad idea?

Fact box

Prison camps Grini and Sachsenhausen:

  • Grini was created by the germans in 1941 as a women’s prison at Ila in eastern Bærum. It was the largest camp in Norway. In the early days, there were just political prisoners at Grini, but eventually many people came, who were arrested for criminal acts and prostitution. There were also professors, scientists, athletes, politicians, artists, church leaders, and border guides. Nearly 20,000 people were at Grini.
  • Sachsenhausen opened in Germany in 1936. It was not an extermination camp such as Auschwitz for example, but an internment camp. Nevertheless, around 30,000 people died there because of the executions, exhaustion, disease, malnutrition and pneumonia, and more.
  • In 1940-1945 was approximately 2500 Norwegians in Sachsenhausen, most of whom were political prisoners. There were also some Norwegian Jews in the camp. The Norwegian Jews were, however, mainly to Auschwitz. Approximately eight percent of the Norwegian prisoners died as a result of imprisonment. The Norwegians died due to disease, lack of medical care or hard labor. No one was executed, gassed or hanged.
  • An important reason for the low death rate among Norwegians compared with prisoners from other nations was that the Norwegians got food parcels from the Red Cross.

Sources: Norwegian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia

Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.