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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Saying goodbye after 14 years, Little Tibet plans closing

December 6, 2010

By HILLARY FEDERICO, Press Staff
The Middletown Press
Monday, December 6, 2010

MIDDLETOWN — The shop owner of Little Tibet begins his trek before
dawn. In this dark, quiet hour, his thoughts sometimes drift back to
the Tibetan village where he was born.

But as the sun rises over the city skyline, Bhumba Drok-Sang’s current
world demands his attention. The B bus rattles around a small stretch
of asphalt, where North End residents are huddling to keep dry from
the rain. Neon signs beckon. Cars blare their horns.

Drok-Sang slips into an ornately decorated building, so far removed
from the lush green pastures of his youth. From the outside, the store
looks like another world, a little piece of Tibet, as the name
implies. Grandiose statues come to life and luxurious goat hair rugs
hang by their tassles. But for 14 years, through the artifacts in his
store, Drok-Sang has seen remnants of a life of struggle, of beauty
and of growth. And now this life, the one he’s invested 14 years in,
is about to be left behind as well as he prepares to close his store.

In 1993, 23-year-old Drok-Sang fled his homeland of Amdo, Tibet. A
political refugee, he and his ex-wife navigated forbidden terrain, a
rocky trail worn into the country’s mountains, to escape the
oppression suffocating the area.

The destruction of Tibet’s culture and oppression of its people was
brutal after the National Uprising in 1959, Drok-Sang said. Twenty
percent of the population, 1.2 million Tibetans, died, while many more
suffered in prisons and labor camps. More than 6,000 monasteries,
temples, and other cultural and historic buildings were destroyed and
their contents pillaged, in an effort to completely subjugate the
Tibetan people.

Exhausted, their shoes in tatters and feet bleeding, the couple
reached the crest of a hill. Before them, the golden roofs of the
Dalai Lama’s palace blazed in the sun. It seemed impossible that they
had reached safety, Drok-Sang remembers, that the agony of cold and
hunger finally lay behind them.

On July 3 of that year, Drok-Sang found himself in the United States,
half a world away from the tyranny that he called home.

“America was so beautiful,” he said, noting that he didn’t know
McDonald’s served food and did not speak much English. “The next day
was the Fourth of July and I saw fireworks light up the night sky. It
was magical.”

Since then, Drok-Sang, now 40, has built a small empire of sorts on
the north end of Main Street, where the famed O’Rourke’s Diner has
been a mainstay of home cooking for decades. At first, business was
good at Little Tibet, a rug and furniture shop, so he opened a
restaurant which boasted the finest Tibetan cuisine in the country, he
said.

But the restaurant began to lose money and in late 2006 it closed. In
2008, the remaining store was marked for closure, but with the help of
locals who rallied together for Drok-Sang, the store stayed open — at
least for another two years.

Now, the 10,000 square-foot masterpiece — located at 680 Main St. — is
marred with vibrant yellow signs: “Store Closing Sale 60% Off.” For
the next several months, Drok-Sang and his brother, Dongzhou, will
spend six days a week selling as much of their inventory as they can.

“It’s the economy. Our world changes, you know. The wheel just has to
stop in here,” Drok-Sang said. “It’s very sad. I started this business
with nothing. It’s been more painful since I have put that sign up.

“Every day I have a customer come in in tears. It really breaks my
heart. On one side, I feel very sad to let it go. On the other side, I
am very happy. I am very proud of myself.”

Drok-Sang said that aside from his Middletown headquarters, he will
also be closing his stores in Westport, Essex and Glastonbury, though
he plans to continue selling some merchandise through his website,
www.littletibet.com. A letter of explanation detailing the store’s
closing will be mailed to his customers.

When Little Tibet was first marked for closure in 2008, Harold Murphy
of Pearl Property Management of Westfield, Mass., an owner of the
building where Little Tibet is, said that Drok-Sang is an asset to the
community and Pearl Management does not want to see him go, not least
because Drok Sang has invested a great deal of his own money in making
store improvements.

“We are trying to make it so attractive for Bhumba that he will want
to remain there,” Murphy said two years ago. “We love Bhumba.”

And so do the townspeople.

“Right now, nobody can help me save this business,” Drok-Sang said,
thoughtfully sipping steaming oolong tea from a small cup. “It’s just
the economy. It’s nothing that I did wrong. But it’s not the end of my
world.”

Meanwhile, there are still items to sell.

On a given day clientele will range from celebrities to politicians to
Wesleyan students, each with a specific style or piece they are
looking for.

In the main room, smaller objects including incense, turquoise jewelry
and prayer flags are displayed for shoppers while adjoining rooms
spotlight more extraordinary pieces like rugs, statues and centuries
old marriage beds.

In one room hangs a 200-year-old Thangkas, a Buddhist painting matted
in fabric in a bell shape. It is called “The White Tara (Bodisatva of
Compassion).” The White Tara is the female Buddha of long life and
embodies the spirit of compassion.

Other items in the display include a prayer wheel, a butter lamp, a
prayer flag, as well as statues and figures. The exhibit shows only a
part of the work at the store. One piece not on display that is a
favorite of Drok-Sang is a map of Tibet. The map was done for children
and shows the three areas of Tibet, which share a language but have
different dialects, and variations in dress, food and culture. The map
shows the customs, wildlife, and different features of each area.

“A lot of people don’t know what’s hidden in this little corner,”
Drok-Sang said about the location of his shop. “When I am purchasing a
piece, I have to think and picture this in somebody’s home. It has to
make somebody laugh. It has to make somebody enjoy.”

According to customers, when they look into a statue’s eyes, there is
something there that later helps them at home. Others swear by the
Tibetan rugs saying that they are more durable, yet softer, than rugs
in America. One woman from Marlborough, Conn. said she purchased an
antique one-of-a-kind television set and has since returned to the
shop several times.

Drok-Sang wouldn’t talk about his future plans just yet. However, he
does hint at continuing a life in Middletown with his wife and three
children — Tenzin, 18, Tshi, 16, and Tara, 5.

“It’s easy living (in Middletown),” the lifelong Buddhist said. “It’s
easy to fit in.

“It wasn’t my plan to lock that door, but it’s a reality. For me, this
is a 14-year business. I want to finish it responsibly. I want to
finish it Bhumba’s style.”

Hillary Federico can be reached by e-mail at hfederico@middletownpress.com
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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