Members of Kolkata's Chinese community celebrate Lunar New Year in Chinatown.
Identity

In India’s fading Chinatown, holding onto heritage and a sense of home

Dec 12, 2018

Mornings in Tiretta Bazaar, India’s oldest Chinese enclave, feel like any other in your typical Chinatown.

Stacks of aluminum steamer baskets filled with meat buns, dumplings, and rice cakes line Sun Yat Sen Street, the main drag of this compact part of Kolkata, also known as Calcutta. On Sundays, roast pork is the best-seller, often sold out within 30 minutes.

Steamed buns on sale at Tiretta Bazaar in Kolkata.
Steamed buns on sale at Tiretta Bazaar in Kolkata. / Photo: Arup198/Wikimedia

Everyone here speaks Bengali, the local language, but many of the residents can trace their roots back to China.

At its peak in the 1940s, the city was home to nearly 20,000 Chinese immigrants, according to Bean Ching Law, president of the Chinese Indian Association. Many of them came for better opportunities when China was in political turmoil.

A lion dance in Kolkata's Chinatown.
A lion dance in Kolkata's Chinatown. / Photo: Alamy

But nowadays, the Chinatown is slowly fading, a product of anti-Chinese sentiment in India after a war broke out between the two countries in 1962.

Few opportunities for upward mobility also forced many families to move to other countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, where they formed their own separate Chinese-Indian communities.

Fruits on sale at Tiretta Bazaar in Kolkata.
Fruits on sale at Tiretta Bazaar in Kolkata. / Photo: Arup198/Wikimedia

Kolkata’s Chinese population is now estimated to be around 2,000 to 4,000, with most people living in Tangra, a neighborhood about 20 miles away.

“My personal fear is that the next batch of people won’t be here,” says Law, a third-generation Chinese-Indian in Kolkata.

Land of opportunity

The earliest wave of immigrants came to Kolkata in the 1770s to work on sugar mills established by Chinese merchants. (In fact, the Bengali word for table sugar, cini, is derived from the word for Chinese.)

Later waves of Chinese immigrants worked at leather factories, where they handled cowhide, considered a lowly profession in a country where the cow is revered. Other Chinese immigrants opened medical clinics and restaurants.

Eventually, cultural associations and clubs formed around Tiretta Bazaar, the heart of Kolkata’s Chinatown.

Performers prepare for a lion dance during Lunar New Year celebrations in Kolkata's Chinatown.
Performers prepare for a lion dance during Lunar New Year celebrations in Kolkata's Chinatown. / Photo: Alamy

“This is my home,” says Law. “We are the last Hokkien family in Kolkata, along with my cousins. Others have all immigrated.”

Law’s family moved to India in the 1940s. “In those days, there was chaos and too much poverty in China,” he says. The family decided India, a British colony at the time, offered a better life.

“This is my home.”

They settled in Kolkata, where Law’s father was able to receive an education and became the city’s first Chinese policeman. When relations between China and India soured in the 1960s because of border disputes, many Chinese immigrants left the country, but the Laws stayed.

Now, Law is an active member of the Chinese-Indian community, and works with the Chinese Indian Association to preserve and restore temples and other heritage buildings around the city, despite the dwindling Chinese population.

‘Mentally, we are Indians’

The Toong On Church in Tiretta Bazaar is a faded two-story brick building that once housed India’s first Chinese restaurant, Nanking. It was here where Kolkata had its first taste of Chinese food.

The Toong On Church in Tiretta Bazaar, which now houses a Chinese temple.
The Toong On Church in Tiretta Bazaar, which now houses a Chinese temple. / Photo: Alamy

“Most of the people didn’t know what noodles were,” says Dominic Lee, owner of Pou Chong Food Products, one of the city’s largest sellers of Chinese sauces.

Pou Chong was started about 60 years ago by Lee’s father. Initially, the store only sold Chinese sauces, but the elder Lee noticed that many Bengalis consumed green chilli and began selling green chilli sauce.

Dominic Lee, owner of Pou Chong Food Products.
Dominic Lee, owner of Pou Chong Food Products. / Photo: Amrita Das

Today, Pou Chong sells a wide variety of sauces, not just Chinese ones, and it also carries a line of noodles and dumplings. It is a popular local brand, and dominates the kitchens of homes and restaurants specializing in Chinese cuisine.

Despite the modest success, Lee is not pressuring his daughters to inherit the family business, even if it means the end of a legacy.

“Bengalis are going out,” Lee says. “Indians are going out. Not only Chinese.”

Pou Chong is a recognizable brand in Kolkata, where it enjoys a local following.
Pou Chong is a recognizable brand in Kolkata, where it enjoys a local following. / Photo: Amrita Das

Indeed, people with means to do so often choose to leave Kolkata and immigrate to countries like the United States and Canada in search of better opportunities.

But both Lee and Law see the merits of staying in the city that raised them. Law spent nine years in the United States but chose to return to India out of a sense of purpose.

“Personally, I would like to do something that brings back the Chinese from Canada and America,” Law says.

And even though Lee travels to China frequently for business, he feels most at home in Kolkata.

“We look like Chinese,” Lee says, “but mentally, we are Indians.”

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