Options:

From Achipur to Tangra

A revival of Calcutta’s Indian Chinese community may be imminent, after decades of neglect and immigration.

The traditional Chinese dragon dance breathes an indescribable liveliness into the Chinese New Year celebrations each year. The beating of drums echoes through the air, as the dancers sway ferociously to keep step with every beat. The small crowd applauds enthusiastically, mesmerised by the effortless twisting and undulating of the giant dragon. There is a frenetic energy here, and one cannot help but move along with the music. Such celebrations take place across the vast Chinese landscape, of course; this one, however, is taking place far removed, on the sidewalk of a busy street in Calcutta. Then again, the scene is hardly alien, for the Indian Chinese have been an integral part of the city’s make-up for more than a century. The demographics have been changing, however, as many Indian Chinese leave for shores beyond the Hooghly. Chinatown, meanwhile, has been slowly crumbling from neglect and indifference.

The Buddhist monk Fa-Hien’s journey to the Subcontinent – in present-day Nepal, India and Sri Lanka – during the fifth century AD is well known to many, due to the meticulous records that he kept during the experience. What is largely unrecorded is that Chinese traders, scholars and monks wandered the area for centuries thereafter. Their presence may not be etched in history, but their influence on the region certainly is. For instance, the Bengali word chinamati, literally translated as ‘mud from China’, is to this day used to describe porcelain. Centuries later, in 1778, Yong Atchew landed on the banks of Hooghly, to become the first Chinese settler in India. Atchew’s initial experiences in Calcutta are clearly laid out in the records of the East India Company. That year, according to the papers, a trader named ‘Achi’ petitioned Warren Hastings, then governor-general of Bengal, for land on which to establish a commercial enterprise. The request was granted, and he acquired a large plot some 33 km away from Calcutta, just south of the town of Budge Budge.

There, Atchew set up a sugar mill, for which he brought in migrant workers from China. Many of these would eventually make Calcutta their home. The raw material for the mill was provided by a nearby sugarcane plantation that Atchew also owned. The mill became a focal point around which a quiet Chinese settlement would flourish, and the village was named Achipur, after Yong Atchew.

The Chinese have long left Achipur, but their presence continues to echo through the beautiful ancient Chinese temple there, where the deities Khuda and Khudi are propitiated. The colours of the walls have faded with the passage of time, but the intricate wood carvings and Chinese inscriptions remain intact. A little distance away is a simple horseshoe-shaped grave, the resting place of Yong Atchew. Today, the village is a quiet one; but it comes to life every year during the Chinese New Year, as the Chinese community returns to Achipur to celebrate its founder’s life and legacy.

Integration and identity
The story of the Indian Chinese does not end in Achipur, however. Jennifer Liang, a third-generation Cantonese development worker from Bangalore now working in Bodoland, divides the Chinese migration to Calcutta into three phases. Larger numbers of Chinese first arrived during the 19th century, most of them traders and skilled workers in search of opportunities. These migrants shared a good relationship with the colonial government, which meant that they were able to make a living in India. The second wave, ancestors of a majority of the present-day Calcutta Chinese, arrived during the 1920s and 1930s. The imperial Manchu government was crumbling at the time to make way for the communist republic, and the situation became still more desperate after the Japanese invasion in 1931. This led to out-migration, and some of the refugees ended up in Calcutta.

Until 1910, most of the Chinese coming to Calcutta were men, and only a small number of them at that. But by the following decade, author Kwai-Yun Li points out, increasingly large numbers began to come, including women. At the time, there were two distinct Chinese areas in Calcutta. The ethnic Hakka settled into the eastern part, in Tangra, and went into shoemaking and leather-tanning; Bow Bazar, in the north, became home to Cantonese beauty salons and restaurants, Toi-Sanese furniture factories, and Fukkianese dentists and merchants.

Many of these immigrants did not seek to make India their permanent home. Rather, they were simply seeking refuge from the turmoil of their homeland. But after the end of World War II, in 1945, it became clear that the dream of returning to a peaceful China was to remain just that. Even while the conflict with Japan continued, civil war broke out between the feuding communists and Kuomindang, the Chinese Nationalist Party. As such, the final phase of Chinese migration to India occurred during this time, after which permanent Chinese settlements were finally established in Calcutta.

Standing out with their distinctive features, the Indian Chinese remained a marginalised community in Calcutta. Indeed, the community became largely ghettoised, alienated with little or no opportunity to interact with the Bengalis. Such was the case, at least, until the Sino-Indian War began in 1962. Suddenly, the Indian Chinese became spot-lit in a climate of suspicion and war hysteria. Though many knew only India as their home, they were demonised and their loyalty held suspect. Even today, those who lived through that horrifying time remain reluctant to speak of the old wounds. Yun Li, then a 12-year-old, remembers how her mother stitched money into the seams of their dresses and kept packets of rice and tea ready in case they were forced to leave their home. The entire community was fearful of deportation to the detention camps in Deoli, in Rajasthan. Set up by the British to house Japanese prisoners of war during World War II, thousands of Indian Chinese were interred there during the 1962 war.

The situation was not much different in the Northeast. There, many Cantonese carpenters and their families worked in tea gardens near the towns of Makum and Tezpur in Assam, and in restaurants in Shillong. In 1962, many of them, too, were transported to Deoli. When they were released some went back to China, but others returned to Assam and Shillong. Those who returned to Assam are almost incognito now, having married and completely assimilated amongst the locals. On the other hand, it is estimated that there are about 20 families, mainly Hakka, in Shillong who retain their Chinese identity.

Grabbing Tangra
After the war, many Chinese began to leave Calcutta itself. Though the treatment during the war was a catalyst for the exodus, it was not the sole reason. For instance, many supporters of Mao Tse-tung returned to the homeland during the 1950s, as he came to power. Moreover, there was a dwindling in economic opportunity for the Chinese after India’s Independence, which resulted in many looking to the West for greater opportunities. The ultimate impetus for much of this outward migration, however, was a law passed by New Delhi stipulating that only those Indian Chinese born in or after 1950 would be able to apply for citizenship. Even while this may have taken in most, the new legislation made the community feel like unwelcome outsiders, and contributed further to the exodus.

Today, about 90 percent of Calcutta’s Indian-Chinese community lives outside of India. The community in Calcutta today consists of less than 3000 people (from a self-professed high of roughly 20,000), with between 5000 and 7000 Indian Chinese scattered throughout the rest of the country. The younger, educated generation is particularly deciding to venture outside the country, and today such individuals are found mostly in Australia, the US, Canada, Taiwan and Hong Kong. All the while, though, Bollywood, cricket and jhal muri (spicy puffed rice) remain as much a part of their reality as that of any other non-resident Indian youth. As for Calcutta’s Chinatown, with the tanneries in Tangra forced to close down due to chemical pollution, the area is today characterised by rundown buildings and faded inscriptions, just waiting to be grabbed up by property developers.

The recent report of the sale of the Toong On Church, which is the site of the former Nanking Restaurant at Tiretta Bazar, could be a harbinger of what is to come. The property is owned by a trust, but Au Yau Wah, whose family started the restaurant around 1924, has been accused of conspiring to sell the place to developers. Years ago, the trust handed the original deed to the family, as they sought court protection to keep the restaurant from real-estate developers. The case ended and Nanking survived, but the deed papers were never returned to the rightful owners. As church trustees found themselves once again needing to petition the Municipal Corporation to save the property, the Nanking owners sided with the developers. The Nanking case continues to receive significant media coverage in Calcutta. As of last year, the municipal commissioner had asked the police to protect the site, and had revoked the permission that had been granted by the Municipal Corporation.

Motivated in part by such stories, today some Calcutta Chinese have begun to harbour the hope that the days of decline may soon be over. The strides made by the Indian economy have begun to slow the trickle of youth headed for Western shores. The starting of trade missions to China and the opening of the Chinese consulate in Calcutta – following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the city in 2005 – 40 years after both were discontinued, has created some optimism in the community. Beyond official gestures, this new hope is most visible in community efforts to revive their role in the city. In just one example, the Pei May Chinese School in Tangra, which had seen a steady decline in enrolment, was recently given new life by C T Lung, a third-generation Chinese and language teacher. Lung has taken on the mammoth task of interesting the youth in the language of their homeland, which many can neither read nor write. And with mainland Chinese investments in West Bengal increasing significantly in recent years, public interest in the language institution has risen – and the Chinese community benefits.

There has been at least one potent recent example of large-scale public acknowledgement of the Chinese history in India. Last year, Meiyang Chang, a Chinese dentist from Dhanbad in Jharkhand, became a finalist on the popular television show Indian Idol. As he charmed the audience with his flawless renditions of popular Hindi numbers, there was sense of pride among the Indian Chinese. What really stood out, however, was the acceptance of a person of Chinese ancestry singing Hindi songs, the viewers seemingly looking beyond the ‘foreignness’ to embrace him.

Indeed, in that image, the old demons finally seemed to have come to a rest. Perhaps Meiyang is an exception. Then again, he may well be a beacon of the possibilities for a community that has too long been relegated to the shadows and suspicions of the past. Overlooked once, perhaps they will now be remembered and accepted, as Calcutta wakes up to an important part of its own multilayered history.

By Fatima Chowdhury, a freelance journalist shuttling between Toronto and Calcutta.

Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    A good write-up refreshing the past with the present state of Chinese settlement in India. Kudos to Fatima Chowdhury.

    After the rains, come the beautiful & colourful rainbow. Also, there’s a silver lining in the darkest clouds.

    Here wishing prosperity, hope and fittest survival for this small marginalized community.

  2. ycl1688 says:

    At least there is someone has shed the plight of Indian Chinese and acceptance
    of foreignness by Indian. Anyways we were lucky to have ‘survived’ the life in
    those 60’s, when Chinese in Kolkata were treated like dirt.

  3. Vincent Liu says:

    A very insightful article on the plight of the Indian Chinese.If the author has time and happens to be in Toronto on June 28. She is welcome to attend a meet-up of the surviours of the Deoli Camp.

  4. Wan says:

    To: Vincent Liu

    It is an excellent opportunity for Indian Chinese now based in Toronto to extend invitations to the Indian Consulate or Commissioner (whatever the case be) in Toronto, Canada and also prominent Indian historians there or in India to participate in and atttend this eventful meet up; so that the Indian history records can be revisited and refreshed in the right perspective to worldwide Indians – to understand and acknowledge the plight of Chinese settlers’ persecution and sufferings in India during 1960’s.

    I wonder if Kwai-Yun Li, the author of the “Palm Leaf Fan” short stories would attend. Also, Josie Tham who had written an article – “Indo-Sino border war prompted odyssey to Canada”. Both were formerly residents from old Chinatown in Chattawalla Gully and Weston Street, Calcutta. They have articulated their experiences vividly in their writings in which many of us shared.

    It is high time that the Indian Government to say “SORRY” to those Indian Chinese still living in India. It is never late to say sorry and it is better late than never.

  5. ycl1688 says:

    It will not easily convince the arrogant of Indians to say sorry, Japanese have not yet done to the invasion of China in ww2. To say it bluntly look at india’s internal problems north east independence movement, kholsa separatism,
    Telengana in the south, when Sikh golden temple was raided, the govt say it is the ‘idea of india’ versus sikhs separatists and religious fanatic, when 62 border war came along, the indians say it was the ‘invasion’ yet the chinese claimed to defend the homeland.

    Will indian govt ever say sorry i doubt.

  6. Bill says:

    Hi ycl,
    I believe what you cited are examples of situations that are political in nature and subject to debate. What we are talking here is the treatment of the Indian Chinese by the Indian Government, which is indisputable. Regardless of what lead to the war, how the Indian Government treated the Indian Chinese is inexcusable. This is what the apology is all about. Just as the American Government was not asked to apologize for the war with Japan, there were asked to apologize for the way the Japanese Americans were treated after the Pearl Harbour attack.

  7. Vivek says:

    Hi Bill & Ycl
    Im not a politician but just an amature trying to understand your views. It is very unfortunate that incidence as such happened. Its really very painful to know that beautiful people like you live in our society ( considered to be known as hospitable). faced such atrocities.
    Ycl . Im not sure about Indian Govt saying SORRY but certainly Indian people will feel deeply sorry in their heart, if they know about what the govt has done in the Past even though its unintentional.
    If im a politician I would have joined you in your humble endeavor . As an Indian Im “SORRY”.

    Pls Note: My views are amateur in nature, Its not meant to hurt any ones sentiments either Chinese or Indians.

  8. Wan says:

    To: Vivek

    Thank you for sticking your head out, personally or otherwise, to say “Sorry”. I do not think any one, Indian or Indian Chinese, should feel offended/hurt with sentiments, especially when you, as an ordinary Indian citizen – without fear, stood for what you see, believe in, understand and rationally differentiate what is right from wrong. In many instances, clouded with political taste and flavour, it is very hard to make such clear distinctions. One needs not be an amateur or professional to say “Sorry”. The remorse comes out from the heart.

    I am sure all Indian Chinese appreciate your good will and earnest intentions of apology. Just to let you know that there were many renown Indian historians and Indian seasoned journalists worldwide who had time and again, over the years, stood up requesting for apology from the Indian Government and its people. So far, there is yet any official verdict or any signs of remorse that sum up to say “sorry” to Indian Chinese.

    Mother India is proud to have a great son like you – Vivek. Jai Hind.

  9. ycl1688 says:

    Bill,

    American govt was forced by japanese lobbyists and Reagan to say sorry, the survivors were compensated and publicly mentioned for the govt misdeed. Americans are supposedly treated under the law. Yet
    the way in India does not work, in my previous post I mentioned about how other ethnic groups were treated, I did not want to elaborate, whoever can pursue the GOI to apologize more power to them.

    Vivek,

    Since you like Chinese food and people, you may have to play a part to lobby the govt on our behalf. Would not you know somebody higher up
    and help us. Would appreciate it. After you are fed with good Chinese food, will
    you help us by writing letters to govt officials, that is doable.

  10. Vivek says:

    I can only promise my sincere effort for this noble cause, not because for the delicious chinese food which i like a lot, but for the respect of human right.
    I feel that the story should reach out to Indian people like me, you need the help of media which is the most effective medium and it will be the key , and most importantly the people to whom it matter they should come together for their right.
    Yes i dont think its impossible.
    you can count me in anytime. (I don’t mind good Chinese food comming along with it)

  11. ycl1688 says:

    Vivek,

    Thanks for your offer. You represent the true spirit of India, always helpful,always selfless and warm hearted.

    With you on our side, you will always find good Chinese food along the way, somewhere on this forum you will find the Chinese restaurants list, so say you try one a week will keep you busy for a while, by the time you can become a Chinese food critic and set up your own blog. Isn’t a good idea ?

    Joking aside, appreciate your good will, may the best of India shine upon us.

  12. Bill says:

    Hello Vivek,

    As someone who experienced the persecutions of the post 1962 years, hearing an ordinary citizen like you say that what the Government did was wrong means a lot to me. I was very gratified to read the article “Say sorry to Indian Chinese” by Calcutta journalist S.N.M. Abdi (also carried in this blog). That was the first time I ever read an article written by an Indian author who recognised the injustice of the time. Thank you for your courage and righteousness and your ability to view this past he smoke screen of political cloudiness and express what your heart believe, without bigotry and jingoism. It is people like you that will ensure that the light of civil liberty will shine brightly in India.

  13. Vivek says:

    Hi Ycl,
    very hearty thanx for the advice.(Sorry couldnt post anything yesterday).

    Bill,
    Civil liberty means a lot to indian people. I hope your Indian chinese community will get justice.

  14. Vincent Liu says:

    I have been following the Dhapa Blog close to a year now. Never have I encountered so much comments back and forth on a subject. Author Chowdhury must have hit home something in the Indian Chinese Community and people who care. The year 1962 saw the exodus of the Indian Chinese. Now almost fifty years later the straw that breaks the camel’s back would be the closure of the tanneries under the guise of pollution control and eveuntal land grab.

  15. ycl1688 says:

    As the saying goes ‘when tree falls the earth shake’, it is the tragedy of living in a foreign land, where no laws to protect you.

  16. ycl1688 says:

    Here is my personal opinion on this subject, as the author mentioned 90 % of indian chinese are overseas, whoever can scrambled out of india did so.

    Looking back Indian authority, did give us some chances of opening our own schools, giving chances to keep our religious worship places open. Of admitting ourselves in English Medium schools (of course to some extent), keep the Chinese newspapers office open (even there is an sign outside mentioning this property is enemy one). To some extend keep our businesses open.

    We have to be grateful in these regards. Look at Indonesia when communist witch hunt started, overseas Chinese were the victims, chinese surnames were no longer tolerated, if you are a Lee changed to Lehurto, chen to chenhurto some odds names. Jarkata still has the most funny Chinatown without Chinese signboards, no offense to Indians just like Mcdonalds in India do not sell beef. All my travel thru SE asia, I came to know locals in Malaysia still have lots of preference over local Chinese even they are 4 or 5th generation Chinese.

  17. ycl1688 says:

    To clear any doubt about what we have done to do our part, we have seen Chinese food mushroomed all over India, this is a great achievement, in my school days I remembered Social Study book still says chinese eat dogs and cats this was in class 6.

    If you are formerly holding Indian passports the govt of india will issue you a PIO card to some extent dual citizen, at least the govt is extending their arms to welcome you back, it learnt a lesson they cannot ignore NRI.

    Disclaimer : I do not work for Indian govt.

    Hopefully it has taken the right steps and as Jews said ‘Never Again’ to these kinds of harsh treatment to Chinese during those dark days of 62.

    Enough said it is time to heal the wounds, only thing is we can forgive and
    never forget. As india is not a perfect union, you like it or not is upto you.

  18. Zong Zhai Ming says:

    Good comments from all readers and writers. Lets forget pointing fingers at each other. I treated my life in India in the early 60s and 70s as past and like clouds and what I have now is a peaceful way of life like in Daramsala (Markham Canada). Too quiet here and I love to get back into action like when I was a kid in Tangra. Peace : To all of you guys and gals. Amen.

  19. Vivek says:

    Hi, ycl
    Thanks for the appreciation, I hope i wont disappoint you.
    I liked your idea very much. I have already started to list the restaurants. I hope there are sweets available, (indian love sweets very much.) and im obsessed with sweets.
    do you know where to find the best sweets ?

  20. Lu says:

    Vivek

    Chinese dont like sweets .b
    if you like chinese food than dont forget to list Big Boss, Goldenjoy, Beijing they are my favourite.

  21. ycl1688 says:

    Vivek,

    As for sweets in chinese restaurants in Kolkata, one could hardly find any. this part we have been ‘indianized’, following chinese banquet, we eat ‘russ mali’ for sweet, in the good old days we have ‘bird nest soup’, it has become so expensive, they have to do away with it. Also white fungus treat is gone. Anyways who can beat KC Das and Ganguram in your part of the world. If you want to taste real good chinese dessert and sweets you may have to travel to Hong Kong, taipei, Singapore, Malaysia or China. So start making plans to see those parts of the world, I am sure you will like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, with multi culture and food. Before forewarn sweets with sugar does not mean to be consumed by large quantity by human, i am not a doctor yet i know the fact.

    Start browsing eatingasia.com or chowhound.com for the very first step. Good Luck.