As Kolkata’s Chinese population dwindles, we discover a story of immigration gone wrong and a community straddling two worlds

Kolkata’s love affair with Chinese food begins at daybreak. In a lane near the Lal Bazar police station, a group of Chinese hawkers sit by the wayside, keeping their pork momos, chicken sausages and prawn wafers warm in steel steamers. Known to loyal customers as the famed Chinese breakfast, the food sells rapidly. By 8am, the vendors have all but disappeared. For the rest of the day, it is hard to find a significant Chinese imprint in an area still referred to as the city’s Old Chinatown. Thomas Chen, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer, grew up here in Tiretta Bazar. When he walks around the neighbourhood today, he is often left asking — where have all my people gone?

Tom Lai’s family had moved out of Tiretta Bazar in the 1950s, but he remembers that in his grandmother’s time, even the large backyard and living room of their Park Street house would witness several impromptu parties. “Fifty or 70 people would suddenly land up. We’d cook noodles, rice and momos together. It would be a community feast. Now I meet someone Chinese once a month, maybe two,” says Lai, a designer of retail spaces in the city. Lai’s revelation should come as no surprise. There just aren’t enough Indians of Chinese origin left to party with or even meet. From 50,000-strong in 1960, Kolkata’s Indian-Chinese community shrank to less than 10,000 in the early 2000s. While some optimistic members of the community prefer to believe that they still number 3,500-4,000 in the city, official estimates in 2013 revealed that the number might be closer to 2,000. Though this drop in numbers calls for a closer examination, it is first an occasion for nostalgia.

Rita Chen, 60, has witnessed the slow erasure of Chinese influence from Kolkata. A hairdresser for 45 years, she talks of the numerous Chinese-owned salons of the past. Once the preferred destination for many a Kolkata woman looking for a bouffant and a bob, only a handful of the parlours remain. Chen remembers the sumptuous food served at the legendary Nanking restaurant. A favourite haunt of Bollywood stars such as Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, Nanking was forced to shut shop in the late 1970s after a bitter property dispute. Bentinck Street, she recalls, had an unending row of Chinese shoe shops. Just a quarter of these are now in business. “They have all settled abroad,” she explains.

For Chen, ‘abroad’ is a familiar place. Her parents, son and six of her seven siblings have all immigrated to destinations such as Australia, Hong Kong and Macau. “In Calcutta, it is very difficult to have a good future,” she says. “It is better if they leave.”

Waiting in line

There are many families like Chen’s in Kolkata. Straddling two disparate worlds, they all mention waits in visa offices that last weeks and queues in passport offices that stretch for months. If one is to collectively consider their accounts, it might be fair to assume that the narrative of Kolkata’s Indian-Chinese community is that of immigration gone wrong. The steady exodus only proves that for this minority, seamless integration has always proved a distant dream. Discrimination, lack of opportunity and unfavourable circumstances are just some of the varied reasons cited by those boarding the next plane out, but they all agree — there’s no running away from history.

Descendents of the Hakka people in China, the Indian-Chinese populace of Kolkata seems to have movement in its blood. Known for their migrations across the Chinese mainland, it seemed only fitting that the community acquired the name Hakka, a word that roughly translates to ‘stranger’. Paul Chung, president of the Indian-Chinese Association, talks about how Chinese businessman Tong Achi arrived in Calcutta with 110 Hakka labourers in 1782 to set up a sugarcane factory for the British. The 72-year-old settles comfortably into his couch before making a comparison, “As far as a migrant work ethic was concerned, they were a lot like the Punjabis. Very, very determined.”

With each passing decade, the number of Chinese migrant workers in Calcutta began to rise. But much like Tong Achi’s original crew, says Chung, “those coming in never came here to stay. They came here to earn money and return.” The year 1949 changed all that. As the Communist Party of China established the People’s Republic, it became clear that no warm homecoming awaited those who had been lured by jobs overseas. “That’s the day we lost our motherland,” laments Chung. Families that would strictly insist upon the use of Mandarin and Cantonese at home began to send their children to English-medium schools. Calcutta’s Chinese community might have even mastered adaptation if it weren’t for October 1962, a date that saw India go to war with China.

Paul Chung was still in school when the Chinese launched their offensive. His classmates ridiculed him for not being Indian and passersby threw stones when he walked down the street. Some like Monica Liu, however, had it worse. Only nine at the time, Monica and her family were picked up from their home, imprisoned in Shillong Jail for a fortnight and then sent to the Central Internment Camp in Rajasthan’s Deoli. Held without trial, they and a few thousand others were forced to stay in the desert camp for five years. “We were given food, but no education. We had lights, but no fans. We were completely forgotten by the Indian government,” says Monica. By the time she was released, it became apparent that most members of her community were looking for a ticket out of India, one that proved too expensive for her. “Think about this,” she says, “My husband has nine brothers and two sisters. But only he stayed back. What does that tell you?”

Monica’s life is, in many ways, a tale of dogged perseverance. From not having enough money for airfare, she now owns six restaurants and a beauty parlour. On the walls of her office hang pictures of her hobnobbing with the late former chief minister Jyoti Basu and Mother Teresa. Ordering the staff at her Tangra restaurant, Monica says the “empire” she has created should be reason enough for her children to stay put. But not everyone from the area is quite as fortunate.

A locality in east Kolkata, Tangra housed a majority of the Chinese population that had preferred the city over various other destinations. Home to over 350 tanneries, most of them Chinese-owned, the locality had rightfully earned itself the name Chinatown. A 1996 Supreme Court directive disturbed the peace. Citing environmental concerns, the apex court ordered that the area’s tanneries be moved outside the city limits. Leather manufacturer Peter Liu was one of the worst-affected. “You can’t solve the problem by simply allotting land in some new leather complex,” he says. “Relocation requires finance and my little local business could never realise that cost.” Electricity supply to his manufacturing unit was severed in 2002 and Peter has since been trying hard to keep his head above water. He has eight children and most of them now live overseas. Peter asks dejectedly, “When you see such troubles in front of your eyes, why would you want to stay?”

This, in some ways, is just the tip of Peter’s discontent. He and other Tangra residents believe that you only need to walk through Chinatown to measure governmental discrimination. Despite paying taxes, they ask, “Why do our streets have no lamps?” James Chung, who once had a leather business in Tangra, has since spent the last seven years in Sweden and Canada. Back in the country for a hiatus, he says, “Unlike other minorities who have benefited from reservations and quotas, the Indian-Chinese are completely ignored.” Arguing that the Chinese are effectively discouraged from thinking of themselves as Indian, Chung says, “We go to the same schools. We have dal with our meals. We try our best to be regular Indian citizens, but at every step we are reminded of our difference. So if you feel you are not wanted, you’ll either fight or you’ll go away.”

Toronto is the new Tangra

After having suffered prejudice even keener than the one described by Chung, Jimmy Leong felt that flight was a better option than fight. The 31-year-old says that while growing up, leaving Chinatown was always a cause for discomfort. “Outside that comfort zone, I was stereotyped as either North-eastern or Nepalese. Children and adults would tease me and say that I ate cockroaches.” He remembers people mocking his features, his “chinky” eyes and his flat nose. The ridicule, he says, “always made me feel that I didn’t belong and that I should move away as fast as I could.” Jimmy left Kolkata when he was 19, first going to Mumbai, then Taiwan — “I had always wanted to be in a place where there are people who looked like me” — and seeing that many members of his Indian-Hakka community were moving to Toronto, he finally decided to settle in Canada.

Working as an auto claims adjuster for an insurance company, Jimmy, a permanent Canadian resident, speaks fondly of a Hakka Chinese community that might have its roots in Kolkata but now flourishes in Toronto. Over a series of emails, he talks of the several Hakka restaurants in nearby neighbourhoods and of retired Chinese citizens who gather to gossip about the young. The community has also been catalogued in a phone directory and the guest lists for weddings are said to now far exceed similar occasions in distant Kolkata. Toronto, it would seem, is the new Tangra.

Back in Chinatown, Fredrick Liao has sacrificed the arguably superior nightlife, transport systems and sanitation of Taiwan to help run his father’s restaurant. As he scrolls down his Facebook profile, he points to a recent picture. Twenty young Indian-Chinese friends have gathered at the airport. They are bidding a mate farewell. He explains, “Only those with businesses stay. Everyone else leaves sooner or later. As a result I have more friends in Canada than I do in Kolkata.”

For those left behind

No amount of travel, it seems, can help members of the Indian-Chinese community escape the contradictions of their dual heritage. Fiona Leong left Kolkata for Scotland in 2010. After successfully pursuing a Master’s degree, she worked as a financial advisor with a bank in Aberdeen for two years. When people would ask where she was from, they weren’t satisfied when she said India. Their confusion would only deepen when she spoke Chinese. This “identity crisis”, she says, “was the biggest disadvantage of moving overseas.” Dressed in a sky-blue salwar kameez, 25-year-old Fiona says she returned to Kolkata after three years because she needed to be with her parents and sister. “At some level, I always knew I’d come back to be with my family,” she says.

Often, family ties tend to be the strongest draw. Seeing that his four siblings had left for destinations like Los Angeles and Toronto, William Wong decided to stay back in Kolkata with his parents. He took control of Shanghai Co, a dry cleaning shop his father had set up in 1936. Wong says that even though he has never been to his village in China, he doesn’t believe there is any reason for his Chinese inheritance and Indian roots to be in conflict. “My children and I grew up here. We feel comfortable in India.” His elder son is studying at the Shri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi, while the younger one goes to school in Chandigarh and plays badminton at the national level. “They like Indian music, Indian films, they have an Indian palate. I just wish they also knew a little Mandarin.”

Fortunately for Wong and other members of his community, there has recently been talk of ₹100 crore being spent to revive the city’s old and new Chinatowns. The brainchild of a Singaporean conglomerate called Buzzmedia, the ‘Cha’ Project plans to reopen several shuttered Chinese eateries and even seeks to revive Pei May, the last surviving Chinese language school in the city. But despite the optimism about the injection of funds, not many are convinced that this will staunch the decline of Kolkata’s Indian-Chinese populace. As 28-year-old Terence Yeh puts it, “Kolkata is like a slow, outdated gadget and everyone wants a faster life nowadays.” Monica Liu imagines a possible scenario where there’d be no Chinese inhabitants left in Kolkata. “That’s the day even I’ll have to run.”

(Shreevatsa Nevatia is a freelance writer based in Kolkata)

(This article was published on May 2, 2014)
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