Only Chinatown in India

India’s only Chinatown could be just a memory if the remaining tanneries are forced out. But some Chinese are trying to revitalize the community and turn Tangra into a business hub. Words and pictures: Emma Levine

T he Sing Cheung Company, maker of chilli, garlic and soya sauce, is responsible for the sweet smell of molasses wafting into the street.

It helps because otherwise 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.

“So many chemicals, there is no malaria here because it kills all the germs,” joked one resident.

Tangra, on the eastern side of Kolkata, the port city in east India once known as Calcutta, the capital of British India, has long been home to most of the city’s Chinese.

It is a corner of the Chinese diaspora that is fast disappearing. Children have moved on to other opportunities. The tannery business is threatened with displacement and soon, it seems, India’s only Chinatown could be just a memory.

Cows, motorbikes and bicycle- 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.

Yet most of the signs are in Chinese and behind the high-walled factories, the Chinese owners and their families live comfortably.

The tanneries, their corrugated roof tops crammed with hides laid out to dry, represent one of the main
industries that the Chinese, mainly Hakkas, started soon after arriving in the early 20th century. But from a community of more than 50,000 in the 1950s, it has now dwindled to under 6,000.

Most of the immigrants’ descendants have left for Canada, Australia, or the United States – some to Hong Kong or Taiwan, a few to China. Most of the hundreds of tanneries have closed – some converted into restaurants.

The few that are left were ordered by the Supreme Court last year to move to a new industrial area with proper treatment plants to curb water and air pollution. The owners say the local government wants to develop the land in this lucrative part of the city. For now, the tannery owners are sitting tight but once they are forced out it could effectively close down Chinatown.

There are parts of Tangra in which little has changed in generations.

The office of the 50-year-old Overseas Chinese Commerce of India, the last remaining Chinese-language newspaper in the city, stubbornly clings to life. Its editor, CJ Chen, 81, peers from behind thick glasses, and methodically cuts out articles and glues them to the page for a photocopied print run of 300.

The eight-page weekly consists of news articles largely translated from the local press. But even that is something of a recent development.

“Until three years ago I used to handwrite every article,” Chen said. “Now we have computers so I can type them out. But I still handwrite the engagement and birth announcements.”

Arriving in Tangra in 1949 from Guangdong, Chen’s parents ran a tannery business and he remembers the good life, especially the years between 1960 and 1980, when business was thriving.

“But most of the Chinese are gone now and it is difficult to earn a decent income,” he said.

One man determined to preserve Tangra’s heritage is Paul Chung, 72, who established the Indian Chinese Association five years ago. He wants Chinese to be proud of Tangra. One of his recent developments was putting up a decorated road sign for “Tangra Chinatown.”

“This area has not been acknowledged by the government. I put up the sign to tell people that there were a lot of restaurants here and to improve the status of Tangra. For years, no one did anything. Now something is being done and we have some recognition.”

A retired college principal, he wants to strengthen Chinese culture and give young people reasons to stay.

“The ideology of my parents was just to come and work and make money. I want 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 sees opportunity in places like Sun Yat Sen Street, where a Chinese food market opens each day at 6am with food stalls offering vats of freshly cooked pork buns, fried momos and wanton for Indian diners.

Around the corner is the 150-year- old Sea Ip Temple, and the Yin Sin club where Sunday mornings are given over to the unmistakable rattle of mahjong tiles.

Chung is also spearheading Putonghua classes, which have drawn interest from Indian businessmen trading with China. He will soon be running a second Chinese language and culture course for employees of Tata Iron and Steel Company, following its new operations in Shanghai. But he has a long way to go.

Down the road at the Pei May Chinese 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.” Her two daughters have gone to live in Taiwan but she is reluctant to join them.

Like much of the Chinese population in Tangra, her one-room home with her retired husband is inside a tannery. “The first tanneries were shacks, but as the industry developed they grew more lucrative and more people arrived. Conditions in China were bad so we had more immigrants,” she said. “When tanneries became concrete buildings, the owners were able to live with their families inside.”

The English-medium school also teaches Hindi. Most of the children, all from Tangra, are aged three to 10 and speak Hakka at home. “Their forefathers left school early and never learned English, so the next generation realized the importance of giving their children a decent education and want to send them to a decent English school,” said Liang.

Once booming businesses meant parents contributed generous school fees. Now the school suffers declining numbers and dwindling income.

The handful of five-year-olds in a bare classroom recited 1 to 10 in English, led by Benazir, a young Bengali teacher. A couple of the older boys chased each other around the huge deserted courtyard during recess. Most of the rooms are empty.

Like many young people, Christopher Fang, 28, whose parents came from Guangdong, is itching to leave. Born and raised in Tangra, he worked for several years in Sweden as a cook. Multilingual – but not in Putonghua – and possessing a college education, he sees little future for himself in Tangra. “I am waiting for another visa for Sweden, then I will return there to live. Tangra has changed a lot but there are fewer opportunities and most other young people like me are leaving.”

What about the prospects of work in a newly prosperous China?

“I could go to live in China and get a job through my contacts, but I have no interest there. I love the way of life in Sweden, mixing with people of all nationalities, and that’s where I want to be. I guess I’m not desperate to cling on to my Chinese identity,” he said.

Indeed, there seem to be few Tangra residents who want to return to China – the older ones saw their property taken over under communism and would be returning to very little. For the young, China is a distant place.

Another remnant of the community is found in shoe shops owned by Chinese. With leather work a traditionally lower caste occupation in India, Hakkas were free to take up the trade, becoming renowned shoemakers.

Their shoe shops and factories along Bentinck Street, in the thriving center of the city, formed an area of vibrant commerce.

Sandy Au’s shoe shop no longer makes shoes but, like the other 50-odd outlets on the street, sells manufactured footwear.

“My father came over here to set up a business – it was his dream but not mine. All my family members have since left Kolkata, even my mother is now in Canada. I am left to carry on the shop whether I like it or not.”

Next door, David Chen’s shop was founded by his grandfather more than 80 years ago and is one of the only remaining shops still making footwear by hand.

His family has also long since left India.

“I am trapped,” he said wearily, “in my own family commitments.”

With his father and siblings gone, Chen carries on but does not expect his three children to stay in the business. “Let them have a free choice,” he said.

So it is among Kolkata’s Chinese. Some are content to remain, others just want to leave and some are still mired in old questions from another time. “How is it that my family were here for three generations and I cannot get an Indian passport?” complained one man, who did not want to be named. “Many times they refused to give me citizenship. I was born in India under British rule and I have only just been granted permission to get a British passport.”

Like many Chinese, he feels let down by the Indian government, and is angry that he has to keep applying and paying for a resident’s visa every year in order to run his business.

There is also deep-rooted fear that dates back to the Sino-Indian war in 1962, when surveillance of Chinese increased and hundreds were charged with anti-Indian activities and detained or deported. For years after, those that remained were perceived as the enemy, deprived of the right to free movement and dismissed from jobs.

Politically Kolkata is still out on a limb. There is 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.

Sandie Au lays some of the blame with the Chinese community itself.

“In most places in the world where the Chinese go, we are not political, we don’t get involved. In that respect we are losing lots of ground.

“Most people who came here from China were not educated or intellectual, so we had no proper leader. If you don’t have a proper education then you can’t lead and can’t fight for your rights.”

Chung hopes his Indian Chinese Association is an answer for revitalizing the community and taking advantage of the surging economies of both countries. His big dream is to get rid of the tanneries and turn Tangra into a business hub.

“My ambition,” he said. “is to have a beautiful Chinese garden, a Chinese medicine center and housing. I will tell everyone in China, if you want to do business with India, do it through us.”

He has already had talks with the Chinese embassy in Delhi and he wants to bring a brick from the Great Wall of China to exhibit in Tangra.

“Whenever we need it, we will look at the brick and know we are Chinese,” he said. “We should be proud here.”

source: thestandard.com.hk


  1. simon chiu says:

    Hello my friend,its so sad to see that tangra our roots of the oversea-chinese second hometown slowly diappear with less and less chinese staying back.may be we should make a movies one day about us,so that we can remember more what tangra used to be like.I am so sad to say goodbye to our hometown.thank you Simon

  2. vivek says:

    I came across this video and really find it interesting,
    I thought I would like 2 share.
    http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/taste-match/kolkata-a-mixed-bag-of-treats/201561 I remembered I had kamla puchka at the end of the ally behind. mssIng them so muh…………

  3. vivek says:

    I really wish I can get up so early 2 have those yummy food.
    those chinese buns luks really delicious.

  4. ycl1688 says:

    Thanks for sharing the video. At 1:42 mark the kachuri is the tradition of Kamla food enterprise, the relative of kamla puchka owner. It has been there for zillion of years, the alo bazzi is the best of the best. At 3:00 mark the round table treat is unique, forget about the environment and the unsanitary condition, it is the mouth watering experience with those soup with fish balls. So get up one morning before the call center crowd gets in, before the sun rises, before the crowd shows up make it a point to visit and you never regret it. You have so many choices, eat light the night before.
    Then the legendary Nizam’s experience, who will forget ?

  5. ycl1688 says:

    More on kamla puchka.
    The past chinese new year kamla did a brisk business at Tangra (dhapa) where whenever the host organize a feast, he is catering the puchka department, the last I heard he has a set price an order of puchka costing around Rs 700, he shows up himself and serve to the guests. So whoever at the chattawalla gully that evening missed the treat, it so happened I was the unlucky one, there was the neighbor hood person gave us a cell phone number to contact. So make sure you call before going over there. Sometimes he maybe at his hometown too. So call is the right thing to do.

  6. vivek says:

    you are welcome ycl and thanks for the motivation.
    Chinese morning breakfast is my next big mIssIon. Im drooling luking at the noodle soup and dumplings.
    Kamla puchka was certainly a great experience. Im sure your suggestion is always a great one.

  7. Sam says:

    I never knew about this part of India before today. Basically I am not from Bengal. But I am very sad to realize that, a community is slowly getting alienated and will diminish to exist soon. It is a duty for all of us to save and help this little community. The stance of the government towards them does not amaze me, we all know that these guys pretending as leaders of the country are of no use, they dont even care for the people who lived in India for hundreds of generations, leave alone the Chinese community that arrived India 4 generations ago.
    What I believe is that, the Chinese community should be given the Indian passport and citizenship and should be accepted in the mainstream. Proper representation of this community should be made in the regional and national level. After all they are more Indian than they are Chinese. They might have a different language and culture but they have accepted India as their country and we should respect that.

  8. ycl1688 says:

    Sounds like Indian govt is not giving out freebies to indian chinese with passport and citizenship. Only those who were born after jan 1 1950 are eligible. I know certain people have got indian citizenship after over 10 years, longer to get a doctor’s license. Latest rules on oci chinese born in china, married to an indian not eligible, brother.