Getting to know Kolkata’s Chinatown

Had breakfast comprising of toast, vegemite and masala chai in our hotel room again today. Our hotel supplies us with a newspaper which offers an interesting read each morning. It is somewhat of an eyeopener offering one a slight clue as to how the Belgani middle class ignores the pressing poverty issues for example when one reads headliners such as: ‘During my childhood, we ate a lot of roadside lozenges which came in colourful glass bottles, without paying much attention to hygiene. Now I am careful even when buying Swiss chocolates for my daughter’ says Deepa Roy, mother of three-year-old Meghna (The Telegraph, Calcutta, India, 4.11.2007, p. 8 ) .

Set about to explore Chinatown, which is in the eastern part of the city of Kolkata and the only Chinatown in India. The area was once home to 20,000 ethnic Chinese however it is a corner of the Chinese diaspora that is fast disappearing and of which the population has dropped to ca 2,000. The traditional occupation of the Chinese community here was working in the nearby tanning industry and Chinese restaurants. Cows, motorbikes and human towed rickshaws give Tangra the appearance of any crowded Indian district. Rivers of black and fetid water flow along channels by the roadside as leather goods are transported on open carts. The overpowering odor in the Tangra neighborhood is a mix of stagnant water and rotting eggs, the product of chemicals used in the area’s tanneries ‘there is no malaria here because the chemicals kill all of the germs,’ joked one of the residents. The area is still noted for Chinese restaurants offering traditional Chinese and Indian Chinese food. Many opium dens, which are now illegal in India, used to be located in the area.

Down the road at the Pei May Chinese Charity School, principal Pauline Liang sees the decline in student numbers and worries about the future. “It’s like the Titanic – old, slow and sinking. But I don’t want to desert it. I will work for as long as the work is here.” She gave me a tour of the school and I took photos of the students, which I will be sending her. The English-medium school also teaches Hindi. Most of the children, all from Tangra, are aged three to 12 and speak Hakka at home. Politically Kolkata is out on a limb having no Chinese consulate and no direct flights to the mainland or Hong Kong. When premier Wen Jiabao made his first trip to India earlier this year, he bypassed the country’s only Chinatown, which is governed by a communist party.

Article by Sharon Schneider


  1. Bill says:

    It will be interesting to find out when this article was first written. The author said that Kolkata (Calcutta) has no Chinese Consulate. Mention of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao indicates that it must be fairly recent. There is now a Chinese Consulate in Kolkata.