Definitions

Bow Bazar

Chinese community in Kolkata

The Chinese of Kolkata in West Bengal, India are a community of immigrants and their descendants that emigrated from China starting in the late 1700s to work at the Calcutta port . Unofficial estimates put the number of Chinese in Kolkata anywhere from 5,000 to 200,000, most of whom live in or near Chinatown in Tangra.

The ethnic Chinese have contributed to many areas of the social and economic life of Kolkata. Today a majority are engaged in business with a major segment involved in the manufacturing and trade of leather products. A sizeable number are also owners and workers in Chinese restaurants. Kolkata is the only city in India to have a Chinatown.

Immigration

The first record of travel from China is provided in the travelogue of Fa-Hien who visited Tampralipta, in what is now Tamluk in the Fifth Century A.D. Records of immigration for the next sixteen centuries are not reliable although many words in Bengali can be attributed to Chinese influences. For example chini, the Bengali word for "sugar" comes from the word for China, and words like Chinamati for porcelain china hint at Chinese influences.

Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, was the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911. It was also geographically the easiest accessible metropolitan area from China by land. The first person of Chinese origin to arrive in Calcutta was Yang Tai Chow who arrived in 1778. He worked in a sugar mill with the eventual goal of saving enough to start a tea trade. Many of the earliest immigrants worked on the Khidderpore docks. A police report in 1788 mentions a sizeable Chinese population settled in the vicinity of Bow Bazaar Street.

During the time of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British India, a businessman by the name of Tong Achi established a steel mill at Achipur, 33 km from Calcutta, on the bank of the Hooghly River near Budge Budge. A temple and the grave of Tong Achi still remain and are visited by many Chinese who come from the city during the Chinese New Year.

One of the earliest records of immigration from China can be found in a short treatise from 1820. This records hints that the first wave of immigration was of Hakkas but does not elaborate on the professions of these immigrants. According to a later police census, there were 362 in Calcutta in 1837. A common meeting place was the Temple of Guan Yu, the god of war, located in the Chinese quarter near Dharmatolla. A certain C. Alabaster mentions in 1849 that Cantonese carpenters congregated in the Bow Bazar Street area. As late as 2006, Bow Bazar is still noted for carpentry, but few of the workers or owners are now Chinese.

According to Alabaster there were lard manufacturers and shoemakers in addition to carpenters. Running tanneries and working with leather was traditionally not considered a respectable profession among upper-caste Hindus, and work was relegated to lower caste muchis and chamars. There was a high demand, however, for high quality leather goods in colonial India, one that the Chinese were able to fulfill. Alabaster also mentions licensed opium dens run by native Chinese and a Cheena Bazaar where contraband was readily available. Opium, however, was not illegal until after India's Independence from Great Britain in 1947. Immigration continued unabated through the turn of the century and during World War I partly due to the fact that China was undergoing political upheavals such as the Opium Wars, First Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion. Around the time of the First World War, the first Chinese-owned tanneries sprung up.

Sino-Indian War of 1962

During the Sino-Indian conflict, the chinese faced racism unleashed by the Indian National Congress. In a climate of ultra-nationalist war-hysteria, Chinese businesses were threatened and many people of Chinese origin unfairly interned on the ground of race. A section of Indian communists, who later formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist) opposed the Indian government's position and as a result, became victims of the state-sponsored anti-Chinese xenophobia. Like the Chinese in India, many communists found themselves behind bars and labeled 'foreign agents'.

India's Independence from Britain did not hinder the influx of Chinese into Kolkata. In 1961, there were close to 7,000. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 ended further immigration from communist China. An unknown number left (most for Australia, Canada, and the United States). Further, those that remained were often suspected of collaboration with an enemy nation. According to a 2005 documentary, some were sent to an internment camp in Rajasthan The situation was alleviated when India and China resumed diplomatic relations in 1976. However, it was not until 1998 that ethnic Chinese were allowed naturalized Indian citizenship. In 2005, the first road sign in Chinese characters was put up in Chinatown, Tangra.

Today

The Chinese today work as tannery-owners,sauce manufacturers (Pouchong Brothers), shoeshop owners, and restaurateurs. A number of them run beauty parlours in the city. Among services, dentistry is a traditional occupation that is being welcomed by the new generation. Many of the shoe shops lining Bentick Street, near Dharmatolla, are owned and operated by Chinese. A number of restaurants dotting the city are also owned by the Chinese. Fusions of Chinese (especially Hakka) and Indian culinary traditions have given rise to a widely available form, Indian Chinese cuisine. There is one Chinese newspaper published in the city, The Overseas Chinese Commerce in India but figures from 2005 show that sales have dwindled from 500 to 300 copies sold. At one time, 90% of the students of the Grace Ling Liang English School were ethnic Chinese. In 2003, they comprised only about 15% of the 1500 students.

Most of the Chinese of Calcutta are Christians. A large number of the younger generations became Christians due to the influence of missionary schools they studied in. The Chinese New Year remains widely observed.

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