India’s Chinese community has been in steady decline in recent decades, but in Mumbai there still exists traces of the Far East
In the early 19th century, hundreds of Chinese labourers joined the East India Company, working as welders, fitters, carpenters and cooks at its operations in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai). The Company used to hire mainly Cantonese from Hong Kong, who were brought by ship to India, while others crossed the border into India from Burma.
In 1820, Kolkata was home to an estimated 50,000 Chinese nationals. In those simpler times, there was no need for passports and visas, and skilled people could migrate to wherever they found employment.
The Chinese in India came from all over the Middle Kingdom — Canton (now Guangdong) in the south; Hupeh (Hubei), a central province; the Hakka, who were originally from the northern provinces, but later migrated all over China; and Shantung (now Shandong), an eastern province.
But almost 200 years after large-scale migration of Chinese began to India, the community has dwindled significantly. According to Tulun Chen, Mumbai-based chairman of the Maharashtra Chinese Association, there are just around 3,500 Chinese in Mumbai, down from an estimated 15,000 in the mid-1960s.
Kolkata is home to over 10,000 Chinese. But Bangalore, the country’s IT capital, is one of the few cities to have seen a sharp growth in the number of Chinese. According to Chen, there are about 3,000 Chinese-Indians in India’s Silicon Valley, up from just 800 a quarter century ago. Cities in Maharashtra, including Nagpur, Kolhapur and Solapur, have a sprinkling of Chinese families.
Sadly, while bustling Chinatowns can be found in many parts of the world — including the US — in India, they are on the decline. Mumbai does not have a Chinatown as it did at the time of Independence. The Chinese who came to Mumbai in the early part of the 19th century settled around the Mazgaon docks area in south-central Mumbai, even establishing a temple (the Kwan Tai Shek) and a cemetery. By the 1850s, the Chinese moved to other localities, including Byculla and Kamathipura. The latter became a notorious red light district, and is today one of the largest and oldest in Asia. Shuklaji Street was once the city’s Chinatown.
Tangra in east Kolkata — which used to house over 350 tanneries — was once the most vibrant Chinatown in India. Today, Tangra has less than a quarter of its original Chinese population, while Shuklaji street has just a handful of Chinese families living there.
The Chinese-Indian community has traditionally specialised in a handful of professions, and even today most of the surviving members can be found in these crafts: foods and beverages (restaurants), dentistry, hair salons and shoemaking.
Says Ryan Tham, 27, a descendant of a prominent Chinese-Indian family: “There are about four families in Mumbai that run Chinese restaurants: the Wangs, the Chens, the Nankings and the Thams.”
Tham’s grandfather was born in Kolkata, and moved to Mumbai about 60 years ago. In 1962, he launched Kokwah, the first cabaret venue in India. Later, he opened the Mandarin, near the Gateway of India. His son Henry, who married a Bengali, sent his two sons — Ryan and Keenan — to Australia for higher studies. For several years, the family also ran the famous Thams salon, near the Taj Mahal hotel. Henry and his two sons now run Henry Tham, a fine-dining resto-bar in Colaba.
“We have been in the food and beverages business for the past 50 years,” explains the young Tham, who is often seen in celebrity circles and exclusive parties. “But I consider myself more Indian than Chinese. I am fluent in Hindi and Marathi and completed my schooling in Mumbai.”
Agnes Chen is another third-generation Chinese-Indian who feels more Indian than Chinese. Born in Kolkata, she was educated at the Loreto Convent and is fluent in Bengali, English, Hindi and French. “We are Chinese genetically, but in all other respects we are Indian,” says Agnes, who moved to Mumbai 13 years ago. “About 70 per cent of the younger generation Chinese-Indians have migrated to countries like Canada, the US and Australia,” explains Anges.
“I was too busy with my career and did not get the time to migrate,” she smiles. A hairstylist and dresser, she has worked for several multinationals, including L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Wella. She has lived in London and Paris, travelled across the world organising hair fashion shows, and has also trained over 10,000 hairdressers.
Today, she runs her own hair salon, Butterfly Pond, located in the over-100-year-old heritage building, Royal Terrace. Agnes points out that the overseas Chinese community is usually very enterprising, and most Chinese-Indians have set up their own businesses. Unlike many Chinese-Indians, she entered into an arranged marriage with another Chinese from Kolkata. Her nine-year-old daughter, a fourth-generation Chinese, was born in Mumbai.
Edward Wang, another young third-generation Chinese-Indian, is also extremely busy, expanding and modernising the restaurant — China Garden — which his father started in Mumbai. What does he think about young Chinese in India and their social interactions? “I don’t have a single Chinese friend, though I have a few acquaintances,” explains the 32-year-old. According to him, there is an increasing trend of Chinese marrying Indians
“Two sons of one my employees married Indian girls. Another employee’s son married a Nepali girl,” says Wang, who is single. His father, Nelson Wang, started life as a shoemaker in Hyderabad. He came to Mumbai with less than Rs50, and began working at a restaurant. He pioneered the concept of Indian-Chinese cuisine, creating dishes like Chicken Manchurian. Other restaurateurs have honed these skills, churning out meals like Gobi Manchurian, Chinese-bhel and chilli-fried tofu.
While many young Chinese-Indians have chosen to migrate to the West or Australia and New Zealand, there is a clutch of professionals who continue to thrive in India and have no plans to leave the land their forefathers made their home 200 years ago.
Mumbai’s China Syndrome