Chinese Diaspora in India

Ethnic Minority Community in a Transnational World: The Case of Chinese Diaspora in India by Ajaya Kumar Sahoo, Junior Research Fellow (UGC) at the University of Hyderabad.



In this article, I propose to examine the cultural identities in the context of diasporic experience of the Chinese in India. The study of ethnic groups has been a neglected part of Indian history and especially the immigrants who made their home coming from far land, has specific dimensions. The Chinese in India as an ethnic minority group has made tremendous effort to succeed in the social ladder from the beginning, and now they are the most successful groups among the immigrants in the multicultural mosaic of India society.


The usage of ‘diaspora’ has wider applicability today especially in the field of sociology, anthropology, geography, and international migration. Until the late 1960s, there were extensive studies on three classical or traditional diasporas, viz., Jewish, Armenian and Greek, of which the ideal case was the first. But for the last four decades, many dispersed communities, those once known as minorities, ethnic groups, migrants, exiles, etc., have now been renamed as ‘diasporas’ either by intellectual and political leaders, or by scholars and academicians.

Today intellectuals and activists from various disciplines are increasingly using the term ‘diaspora’ to describe such categories as ‘immigrants, guest workers, ethnic and racial minorities, refugees, expatriates and travellers’ (Safrani; Tatla; Cohen: cited in Vertovec, 1997: 277). The meaning of the term diaspora has therefore been extended to encompass the dispersed communities outside the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian diasporas. As Tololyan (cited in Wahlbeck, 10) rightly points out, the diaspora communities now ‘serves as the exemplary communities of the transnational moment’, where the diaspora culture goes beyond and challenges the national boundaries (Bhat and Sahoo 2003: 146).

The Collins Dictionary of Sociology (1995) defines diaspora as the ‘situation of any group of people dispersed, whether forcibly or voluntarily, throughout the world, referring particularly to the Jewish experience’. To label a community under the definition of diaspora, it should represent certain features, which shares among the individuals in that community. Robin Cohen (1999: 178) pointed out nine different characteristics to come up with five major types of Diaspora: victim (ex. Jews), labour (ex. Indian), imperial (ex. British), commercial, (ex. Chinese) and cultural (ex. Lebanese) Diaspora. According to him neither ‘minority status’ nor mere ‘physical dispersion’ is the ipso facto for labelling a community as diaspora. Rather there has to be more, such as acute memory, image or contact with the homeland (cited in Safran, 1999: 257).

Generld Chaliand and Jean Pierre Raycou (in Safran, ibid.: 256) went beyond this definition to discuss the term diaspora. They included under the rubric of diaspora only those minorities who share the above characteristics:

1) a collective forced dispersion of a religious or ethnic groups, often political in nature,

2) a role played by collective memory, which transmits both the historical causes of the dispersion and a specific cultural heritage,

3) the will to survive as a minority by transmitting a heritage and, the persistence of an externally oriented collective identity after the lapse of several generations of resistance in a ‘host’ country.

The above characteristics of diaspora can be juxtaposed to the case of Chinese in India in order to labelled under the rubric of a diaspora community.

Important Characteristics of a Diasporic Community

Chinese in India

Forced dispersion / Voluntary migration


A collective memory of the past


Political integration into the host society


Perpetuation of the mother culture / Cultural Identity (e.g. language, religion, dress code and values)


Regular communication with kin in the homeland


Voting in homeland election


Chinese Diaspora

The history of Chinese diaspora in India traced back to 18th century when the first Chinese ‘Youg Atchew’, came to India during 1780. The archival data shows that the first wave of Chinese migration goes back to the early 19th century when the ‘silk merchants’ came to trade with India. They are said to be the ‘boat people’, because they came by boat mostly from south China to Singapore and then moved on to India. The second wave of migration occurred during the Ching (Qing) Dynasty and following civil wars, when thousands of Chinese migrated to India and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. The third wave of migration took place following the communist victory in China in 1949.

Overseas Chinese communities by their origin divided into two categories such as lao huaqiao (early migrants) or xin huaqiao (new migrants), the Chinese in India comes under the later type. The Chinese those who came to India in the early part of 20th century settled permanently in the multicultural mosaic of Indian society. They settled mostly in the western part of India, i.e., Calcutta (now called Kolkota) which is still remains the centre of Chinese world in India. The 1951 census shows that there are 5,710 Chinese in Calcutta, a couple of thousand more in 24-Paraganas District. Today they are estimated to number around 20,000. Most of them got Indian Citizenship while few still have British or Chinese nationals (passport). The other places besides Calcutta where the Chinese made their home like New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kanpur and few other cities. According to C. S. Hugh, the Chinese in India were called as the ‘Miocene Chinese’ (Neihsin in Chinese) better known as Hakkas or Hums followed by them is Cantonese and Hupey.

Major Occupations of the Chinese

The Chinese in India invest much of their energy in business ventures such as maintaining restaurant, retail trade, handicrafts and manufacturing business. Leather – its tanning, manufacture and trade – is the most important business of Chinese in India, next to it is the restaurants, carpentry, dentistry and hairdressing followed by laundries. Chinese hotels/restaurants and fast-food centres with excellent food needless to say, are among the important Chinese business in India. The best Chinese restaurants can be found in major metropolitan cities. The original Chinatown in central Calcutta can be found around Bentinck Street, Phears Lane and the adjoining part of Rabindra Sarani. The other place is at Tangra in east Calcutta. The ‘Tangra-type food’ had now grown prosperous over the last two decades. In Bombay, “The Golden Dragon”, in New Delhi has the distinction of makings of a star restaurant. Of late, the Chinese entrepreneurs have also taken the pharmaceutical and food-processing industries where they manufacture sauces, pickles, seafood and so on.

Cultural Identity and Transnational Networks

It goes to the credit of the Chinese that they have managed to remain without any conflicts in India, nor India has shown any discrimination towards them. They have preserved their language, culture and tradition alive. The cultural markers of Chinese are identified through selected symbols such as ritual, cloth, language, religious texts, music, as well as food. Other cultural markers based on phenotype, such as hair texture and, to a lesser extent, skin colour are also important criteria for Chinese to become visible within the multicultural Indian society.

The Chinese have close linkage with their homeland China as well as with their kith and kin settled in other parts of the world. The community has sustained its re-creation of a ‘Little China’ on Indian soil, with traditional temples, dragon-architecture, and festoons in their own language, with the rustle of real silk and the aroma of Chinese food.

Chinese celebrates festivals with fanfare along with lights, firecrackers, dragon dances and traditional music especially during the Chinese New Year. The other festival like ‘Rice Pudding Festival’ is also important among Chinese in India. Besides that the Chinese also celebrate Christmas, Durga Puja and Diwali.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism form a combination of Chinese religion in India. For example, during the time of funeral for the Taoist priests and the Buddhist monks as well as nuns are usually called in to recite prayers for the dead in addition to the performance of ceremonies in conformity with the Confucian rules of propriety (Sarkar, 1975: xxi). China temples unlike Hindu temples and Christian Churches are well attained by Chinese in India.

Chinese Newspapers, journals and pamphlets are among important communication media to channelise linkages among Chinese in India. The Chinese Journal of India and The Overseas Chinese Commerce of India are two old media among Chinese in India.

Current Scenario

Though the Chinese population at one time was quite formidable, today it has shrunk down to about 10,000 to 15,000 and the largest cluster of Chinese population is still centred in Calcutta. The second/third generation Chinese has now moved to Europe, North America and Australia. In places like India with small Chinese communities with little economic power, assimilation may be a necessity. Whereas in countries such as Southeast Asia, USA and other countries Chinese tend to maintain more strongly their Chinese identity.

This brief survey of the Chinese diaspora shows that diasporic identities undergo constant transformations. The extent to which diasporic Chinese can choose what identities to assume depends largely on the very delicate balance between them as a group and the social and political climate in their host societies.


Bhat, Chandrashekhar and Ajaya Kumar Sahoo 2003 Diaspora to Transnational Networks: The Case of Indians in Canada. In (eds.) Sushma J. Varma and Radhika Seshan Fractured Identity: The Indian Diaspora in Canada, Rawat Publication, New Delhi, pp. 141-167,

Cohen, Robin. 1999. Global Diaspora: an introduction. London: UCL Press.

Jery, David and Julia Jery. 1995. Collins Dictionary of Sociology. Glasgow: Harper Collins.

Ling-Chi L Wang. 1994. “Roots and the Changing Identity of the Chinese in the United States.” in The Living Tree. The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today , ed. Tu Wei-Ming. Stanford: Stanford UP, 185-212.

Rajagopolan Radhakrishnan. 1996. Diasporic Mediation Between Home and Location. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP,

Rey Chow. 1993. Writing Diaspora. Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Safran, William. 1999. ‘Comparing Diaspora: A Review’, Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, Vol. 8 (3).

Sarkar, Binoy Kumar, 1975. Chinese Religion through Indian Eyes: Study in the Tendencies of Asiatic Mentality. Oriental Publisher, Delhi

Smadar Lavie & Ted Swedenburg. 1991. “Introduction: Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity” in Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity, eds. Smadar Lavie & Ted Swendenburg. Durkam: Duke UP, 1-25.

Wahlbeck, Osten. 1998. ‘Transnationalism and Diaspora: A Kurdish Example’. Paper presented at the International Sociological Association XIV World Congress of Sociology, Montreal, Canada.

The original source of the article can be found here.


  1. Ramesh Singh says:

    As far as my knowledge goes, the first wave of chineese that came to India,
    were those looking for work. They were plantation workers and worked in
    rice fields around Calcutta. From here they moved on to many different fields as mentioned by you. Very little is known about this first phase. Some good research will reveal very interesting history of the chineese in India as such.
    I was born and bred in calcutta, grew up with chineese friends. Still have contact
    with some now living abroad. As a film maker, it was my dream to make a documentary about the chineese in calcutta. Hellas the political situation in calcutta was never ripe enough to do justice to such a documentary. China town of calcutta as we all know has been raised to the ground !! Again a big loss for India.

  2. leon says:

    rice field or sugar mill ? i dunno .. maybe someone would answer you .. but not rice field i guess ..