Little China Stays Alive in Eastern India

The unveiling of yet another road sign is no spectacular event in this busy capital of West Bengal state and eastern India’s main metropolis. Yet it drew a crowd of curious passers by.

This road sign was different because it had Chinese characters on it– besides the usual English, Hindi and Bengal scripts to indicate ‘Tangra’, Kolkata’s two-century-old ‘China Town’.

This move, initiated by the Indian Chinese Association (ICA), is an indication of the local Chinese community’s desire to come out of its cocooned existence from behind the walls of Tangra–where people now venture mostly to savour authentic Chinese cuisine.

Kolkata has the highest concentration of Chinese people in India. Though a part of the city’s population for more than two centuries, its people have traditionally shied away from merging with the mainstream.

And now migration to new lands by the younger generation, along with other adventurous Indian citizens is threatening its very existence.

Says Paul Chung, president of the ICA : ”Things are changing and we at ICA always try to emphasise that we are a part of this city– politically we are Indian, but culturally we are Chinese and we are proud of both these identities”.

Chung says there have been misunderstandings about the community that go back to 1962, when a border dispute between India and China flared into a declared war, which soured relations between Asia’s two giants for decades afterwards.

The war resulted in restrictions being put on the community. Those still holding Chinese passports had to register themselves in the law office and had to take permission to travel outside the city.

These restrictions eased subsequently, especially with the thawing of relations between the two countries, but meantime it encouraged the younger generation to seek greener pastures, mainly in Australia, Canada and the United States in droves.

Today, the population has dwindled to about 5000, says Peter Chen, vice- president of the ICA. During the Second World War, Kolkata’s Chinese community was about 10,000 strong with many more streaming in to join their relatives during and after the communist ‘cultural revolution’, and at one point Kolkata had as many as 30,000 people of Chinese origin.

The award-winning BBC documentary ‘The Legend of Fat Mama’, by Rafeeq Ellias , traces the trauma of the years after the 1962 war and the subsequent migration to third countries, as also the memories of the Chinese in their Indian home.

Though most of the local Chinese are Christians, they celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year with gusto and many who emigrated from Kolkata make it a point to return at this time.

According to Chung many return out of nostalgia for the good and easy life they knew in Kolkata. ”They don’t like to talk about their life abroad and if there is any hardship or disillusionment, they don’t want to reveal it”.

While many Chinese in Kolkata have their own businesses and are relatively well-off, most of those who have emigrated to the West now live the life of wage-slaves.

The Chinese in Kolkata are mostly from the Hakka community which specialises in shoe-making and leather-tanning. The others are Cantonese who are mostly carpenters and restaurant owners.

The Chinese first came to India to work at the Calcutta port (not accounting for travellers and traders in the middle ages) when Kolkata (Calcutta) was the capital of British Indian empire. The first Chinese to arrive (1778) is said to be one Yang Tai Chow who came to start a sugar mill and undertake tea trade. Over the years, the Chinese added an interesting dimension to the city’s socio-cultural scenario. Kolkata earned a reputation for custom-made Chinese shoes and Chinese hairdressing saloons were patronised by the city’s rich and famous. But what truly set Tangra apart was the Chinese cuisine offered at its many fine restaurants and even the ‘chow mien’ and noodles on street corner foodcarts that anyone could afford. Lately, there has been a growth in the number of Chinese restaurants in Tangra partly because it brings in more money and partly because the government banished the polluting leather industry to a remoter part of the city. But many among younger generation are also taking up modern professional courses, although some manage to continue with the family trade too.

Dentistry is one example where a modern course in a medical college has helped to keep up a reputation for mending teeth, long enjoyed by the Hupek Chinese.

Kolkata’s old-timers still swear by the expertise of traditional Chinese Hupek dentists and will still seek them out to get their teeth extracted, or order dentures.

There is now hope among young people that improved relations between India and China and the increasing establishment of Indian software companies and other enterprises in cities like Shanghai would create new situations in interpretation and liaision work.

But according to Chung, Chinese youth are too used to the freedoms they enjoy in India to actively seek out work on the Chinese mainland and prefer to take up jobs in India itself.

Tangra’s Chinese language school run by the ICA, in the doldrums till recently, is now suddenly picking up in enrolments an there is a demand for teachers.

With Tata Iron and Steel Company’s (Tisco) acquiring the Singapore-based NatSteel Asia, which has operations in China, the ICA has actually opened Chinese language classes in Jamshedpur, Tisco’s headquarters.

India’s IT giant, Infosys Technologies, too asked for help and two women from Kolkata are now working in the company’s office in the city as coordinators.

Infosys has set up development centres in several cities in China and has taken up a programme of training 100 students from China at its Global Education Centre in Mysore.

Two years ago, the Association also ran courses for Indian army personnel at Kolkata’s Fort William, headquarters of the Eastern Command, Indian Army. This was basically to enable communication, if necessary, with their counterpart on the international border between the two countries in the north and north-east.

In October, China and India plan to revive trade over the high Himalayan passes, which came to a standstill as a result of the 1962 war. One of these passes is in Nathu La in Sikkim while the other falls in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district.

The ICA plans to turn Tangra into full-fledged ‘Chinatown’ that might attract tourists to its rich and, so far, lost heritage. ”Keeping to themselves did not help the Chinese community,” says Chung.

”Besides if the people find good jobs here they won’t go away,” he said optimistically.

Article by Ranjita Biswas