WILLIAM Yeh’s family has lived in India for generations. Still, the 33-year-old restaurant manager, a member of a small ethnic Chinese community in Kolkata, says he does not feel Indian.
“My parents were born in India, so was I. Yet I often feel like a second-class citizen,” Yeh told Reuters.” I speak Bengali and have worked with Indians but some people still make me feel like a foreigner,” he said. “The police asked extra questions when I applied for a passport. One reason was because I am Chinese.”
This rankles for somebody who belongs to a community that has been part of Calcutta’s history for more than 200 years. The first Chinese settler arrived in the city in 1780 during British colonial rule and started a sugar mill.
Disillusioned about being marginalised from mainstream Indian society, Yeh plans to move to the West just like hundreds of other Chinese who have left Calcutta and migrated to countries such as Canada, Austria and Sweden. As a result of the exodus over the past 12 years, the number of ethnic Chinese in Calcutta has plunged to about 4,500 people from more than 19,000 in 1990.
“When we go to villages, people stare. In cities, some make fun of us because we are different,” said Paul Chung, a former assistant school principal.
Calcutta is home to more than 90 percent of India’s dwindling Chinese community, which made a name for itself at the start of the 19th century as carpenters on ships at the city port.
Today, while some Chinese run restaurants and tanneries in the city of some 15 million people, others are carpenters or run shoe shops, laundries and beauty clinics. Most of them live in Tangra, Calcutta’s run down Chinatown, where restaurants with names written in Chinese characters sit cheek-by-jowl with old tanneries.
The tanneries, which once released untreated effluents into open drains flowing past the eateries, have been closed since the Supreme Court asked them earlier this year to move to a new industrial area with proper treatment plants.
“Though Tangra is still quite dirty. It was far worse 25 years ago when the tanneries were functioning. It really used to stink and one had to be very brave to eat there,” said Calcutta businessman Ravi Kumar.
The first Chinese settler, Yong Atchew, arrived some about 220 years ago and started a Chinese settlement in Calcutta when he brought more than 100 labourers from China to work at his mill. Many early settlers were also men who had jumped ship.
After 1949, Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in China sent a wave of Chinese emigres fleeing communism into Calcutta. Things became difficult for the Chinese when India and China fought a brief border war in 1962, leading to anti-Chinese sentiment in India.
Hundreds of people were sent to detention camps in Rajasthan. Monica Liu, now a partner in a successful chain of Chinese restaurants, was 12 years old when she was sent to a camp. “Along with my family, I was sent to a camp in Rajasthan, a hot desert state. I kept asking why? We weren’t criminals.”
“Later, I realised we were sent away because we were Chinese,” Liu, 52, said as customers poured into her smart restaurant. “Even when we were allowed out for a picnic, police followed us. Though things are better now, the suspicion is still there.”
Chung, also president of the Indian-Chinese Association, says the Chinese must take some blame for their relative isolation.
“They tell me they are harassed, but when I ask them to file a complaint in writing, they don’t want to.” Deputy Commissioner of Calcutta Police Sivaji Ghosh said he had not received any complaint of harassment of ethnic Chinese people but did not rule it out at the lower level.