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.
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.
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.
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.