Kolkata Chinese Puzzle in Poll Season

For the Chinese community in Kolkata, elections are as routine as rolling up dumplings every morning. They vote because they have to. Not because they hope something good will come out of it. Ignored by politicians, the dwindling Chinese population is getting desperate to be seen, heard and belong.

They have been in India for generations. Indeed, many are Indian citizens. Yet, six decades after India turned a democracy, they are ignorant of what it means. They vote, but only out of a sense of duty. There’s no pride in participating in the world’s largest democratic process and no interest in knowing what happens before, or after, the ballot is cast.

Living a cocooned existence in Tangra and Teriti Bazar, the Chinese community in Kolkata has little or no interest in the great Indian elections. The posture is not one of defiance. It is simply because they don’t understand what it means.

“Most of us are culturally alien to the concept of democracy. Some of our forefathers came to Kolkata when China was under imperial rule. So the tales we’ve heard and passed on are of an Oriental mystical land. Freedom or its absence does not figure in the story because no one has experienced life under the present Communist regime in China,” explained septuagenarian Chang Wei Hsing, relaxing with other senior members of the community at the Pai May Chinese School grounds in Tangra.

Chang is a Chinese citizen who does not have the right to vote despite being born in Kolkata and never having stepped out. Others like him acquired Chinese passport after being denied Indian citizenship because they were born prior to 1950. Chinese born in India after the year India became a Republic are naturalized citizens.

Indifference, Both Ways I don’t vote because I am not an Indian citizen. My children are Indians and will vote. It is a duty they will perform as citizens. Beyond that, there’s no interest in elections. It doesn’t matter to us. We don’t understand and political parties have not tried to explain it to us,” said Hsieh Ying Hsing, a seventh generation resident of Kolkata, and boss of popular Chinese joint Big Boss.

Pre-election campaign is rather lacklustre in Tangra with parties going through the motions of rallies and street-corner meetings to woo the non-Chinese living in the locality. There’s no attempt to address Hseih’s children or other Indians of Chinese origin.

Huan Bao Tannery Owners’ Council honorary director Ajit Kumar Sen, who has been associated with the Chinese for years, felt political parties did not try enough to engage with the community. “Perhaps, they (parties) feel there aren’t enough votes to warrant the effort. Hence, they don’t bend backwards to woo the Chinese like they do to win over other minorities,” he said.

The area that the Chinese community lives in lays claim to not one but two MPs. While Teriti Bazar falls in the Kolkata North constituency, 75% of Tangra is in Kolkata South and the rest in Kolkata North. But development has always been a dusty, murky mirage.

Mention the Chinese to Rabin Deb, Javed Khan, Sudhangshu Sil and Md Salim and they complain that the community is impenetrable and unapproachable.

But, have they tried enough? And then, why blame the politicians? Hakka chow may have become the most popular local snack but Indian Chinese are still regarded as foreigners.

Behind A Wall

To the Chinese youth in Kolkata, the disengagement is natural. “They (political leaders) don’t say anything relevant to interest us. They don’t even promise to improve civic amenities. It is we who have funded and created the infrastructure. The municipal corporation only looks after Matheswar Tala Road,” scoffed Alfred Hou, slouched on a bike outside family restaurant China Garden. He votes to “fulfil his obligation”.

Few Chinese in Kolkata voted prior to 1992. South Tangra Chinese Youth Club secretary Chen Khoi Kui, who came to Tangra from Orissa’s Sambalpur in 1984, recalled how the community shunned elections. “Polls meant violence and the Chinese don’t want trouble. Also, the arrests and restrictions that the community faced in 1962 (Chinese aggression) had made them suspicious and bitter. They had gone into a shell. It took a lot of convincing to get them to register for voting,” he said.

Yao Shing tannery managing partner Yeh Chi Yen was one of those who enrolled back then and has been voting since. But he does so without conviction. “Democracy is fine but what about progress? We need a government capable of taking tough decisions. Look at China’s rapid progress,” the nattily-clad leather exporter said.

Hou too felt China had progressed fast because it had a strong government. “Look how one woman brought a government that has been in power for 33 years to its knees in West Bengal,” he remarked, referring to Mamata Banerjee’s movement that drove the Nano project out of the state.

Dreamy-eyed about the images of the fabulous China they view on television, the Chinese in India are puzzled what democracy really means. Living in seclusion behind high walls that literally shut off the outside world, the contrast between glitzy images of China on TV and the stark reality of Kolkata’s dirt and squalor is, for them, too great to fathom.

The problem, says Indian Chinese Association for Culture, Welfare & Development president Paul Chung, is not the complexity of Indian democracy but lack of interest on part of the Chinese to understand it.

Home Away From Home

“The Chinese have always remained a rootless tribe in India, unable to connect with the past and accept the present. They never did come to live in Kolkata. They came here to work. It is only after China turned a communist country in 1949 and the state confiscated the land and curbed rights that the Chinese here stayed back. Returning would have been hara-kiri,” explained Chung.

Educated in a boarding school away from the ghetto, Chung is among the few who have accepted the reality that this is their home. But most never did settle down in the true sense. Very few have purchased property in Kolkata. They live here because they had nowhere else to go.

“The Chinese, particularly those in Tangra, live in denial. They refuse to acknowledge that the idyllic homeland that they had seen in their childhood or heard in tales of parents and grandparents are gone forever,” he said at his Park Street residence, away from Tangra’s walled existence that plagues the community.

Several Chinese families in Tangra are battling an existential dilemma. They hate to be referred to as foreigners. Yet, they still view India as a foreign land. Most are biding time, hoping their children will settle in another country. Many have done so, migrating to Canada and Australia. Some of them are leading miserable lives in alien lands. They long to return to India but cannot because that would lead to loss of face. And that, for the Chinese, is loss of honour. It is death.

Those at Teriti Bazar have become more pragmatic. But it’s borne out of circumstance than choice. With migration depleting the numbers, Chinese families have had to move into apartments. Mixing with other communities in neighbouring flats, they have become less inclusive.

Dil Hai Hindustani

Selling taipao and dumplings at the doorstep of Chinese eating house Yee On Thong on Teriti Bazar’s Sun Yat Sen Street, Young Hung Kain is philosophic about the changing times. “We need to socialize to survive. Indeed, several from the community married Bengalis and Marwaris. The intermingling of cultures has made us realize that an unusual force binds this diverse nation. You could call it democracy,” said Young.

Bowbazaar resident Monica Lee admitted she too began to see the city, its people and the culture in a new light after finally accepting Kolkata her home a few years ago. “My sister, who migrated to Australia, thinks I am a fool to stay back. But this is where I belong. I have friends here. If I ever wish to go to another country, it would be to China. But that is impossible since there is no democracy there and dissent is put down with an iron fist,” she remarked.

As fate would have it, she and the 4,500-odd Chinese live in a state run by a democratically-elected communist government where there is dissent at every corner.

The final word though belonged to sexagenarian Hsu Pi Jung of Tangra. He refused to be defeated by red tape. His grit got him the Indian citizenship in 1983. A proud voter, he shot off: “Hum hain Chini. Par dil hai Hindustani.

Article by Subhro Niyogi & Sumati Yengkhom, Times of India.


  1. ron says:

    First generation migrants in any society will still have a longing for their original homeland. however the situation is very different for the kids who are born in a new adopted country. For them, the new country is the real home.

  2. Bill says:

    Excellent article. Gives a perspective of the first generation Chinese as well as the reasons for the marginalisation. Not getting involved results in being ignored. Getting ignored results in apathy. And the vicious cycle goes on.

  3. holstein says:

    This was very well written — ” Many have done so, migrating to Canada and Australia. Some of them are leading miserable lives in alien lands. They long to return to India but cannot because that would lead to loss of face. And that, for the Chinese, is loss of honour. It is death. ”

    The Chinese community doesn’t like trouble. They prefer to earn their living
    and stay at home, oblivious to what is going around them.
    One major reason maybe the size of the Chinese Community in Calcutta ( which is getting smaller each year ). Older generations fading away, younger ones leaving for other countries. It is a pity. At one time nine out of ten faces in Tiretti
    Bazar were Chinese, now one would be lucky to find one Chinese face out of ten there. Indians are selling “tai pao ” and Yew Chow Kuis. We do miss those old