Why you should care

Because China’s imprint on India is quickly fading.

Richard Lee’s family history sounds like a Columbus story. In the 1930s, his father boarded a ship from China to Indonesia, because “at that time, China was very difficult,” he says. His family wanted out; they wanted opportunity. So out they went — except the ship took a wrong turn and, instead of landing in Indonesia, berthed in northeast India.

And that’s where they stayed.

Mostly toothless, 73-year-old Lee is sitting in his family’s restaurant in one of two Chinatowns in Kolkata; his son Brendan tends to the handful of customers. One of seven brothers and three sisters, Lee and a few of his siblings are still around, but most of them have gone to Australia and Canada. Chinese immigrants were once the largest foreign population in India, says Tansen Sen, a history professor at the City University of New York. Their numbers, once as high as 50,000, are more like 2,000 today. And the story of how they made their way into India and out again over several centuries is like a window into the relationship between the two behemoths now battling for the title of Asia’s most muscular economy.

There are no paper lanterns or dancing dragons to entice tourists.

It started in the 18th century, Sen says, when businessmen and laborers began to leave China to head for Southeast Asia and, less frequently, South Asia. Those who landed in Kolkata — then the capital of the British Empire — came in hopes of leveraging the city’s colonial trading network. Sen’s research, for example, points to a tea trader named Atchew who, in the late 1700s, set up a sugar mill in West Bengal and began importing his own laborers. Other than trading in tea and silks, Chinese migrants had a variety of jobs — some, like Lee’s father, were shoemakers, and many were involved in the opium business. Still others worked as “teeth setters” (traditional dentists), leather workers (an open, lucrative market given Hindus’ aversion to cow products), carpenters and restaurateurs.

Chinese immigrants maintained their regional distinctions, adopting native trades and even organizing community centers based on their parochially unique roots. In other parts of the country, like Assam, Sen says some assimilation occurred, with Chinese marrying “people who looked like them” — namely, northeast Indians or Nepalis. For the most part, though, they preferred to keep to their own. And frankly, that made them not unlike India’s many other minority communities — nestling into their enclaves, not standing out.

Lee lives in the Tangra district of Kolkata, where many Hakka Chinese emigrated. In the city’s center were the Cantonese — and on Sunday mornings, in one of the few remaining demonstrations of the culture in Kolkata, a massive Chinese breakfast is sold in Tiretta Bazaar. Shrimp and pork momos are a specialty. With a handful of exceptions, though, their living history is fading. In Tangra, the few Chinese-language schools that educated the generations (so that many speak Hakka-Chinese, Bengali, Hindi and English) have shuttered. A huge yellow building, a former school, is now used by the Indian Army as barracks.

Sen says the tides started shifting for Chinese-Indians in the mid-20th century. Though they lived far from their roots, Chinese-Indians’ fate reflected much of the politics and geopolitics affecting their homeland. China faced conflict with Japan in the ’30s and ’40s, while the emergence of Communism in the 1950s made life abroad attractive. In some cases, Sen recounts, the PRC offered passports to Chinese living abroad, beckoning them, for example, to choose China over Taiwan. And then came a too-familiar story of a minority group during wartime: In 1962, India and China went to war, and some 10,000 Chinese were interned or deported. Many departed thereafter.

“It’s very different from what you see in Chinatowns the world over,” says Kamalika Bose, professor at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology in Gujarat, who has worked on preserving and continuing Kolkata’s Chinese history. There are no paper lanterns or dancing dragons to entice tourists. But don’t pity the neighborhood for its lack of flair, she says; the real threat it faces is migration. In fact, Sen says, the largest Indian-Chinese community in the world today is in Toronto.

“The Chinese don’t like to stay here,” Lee says. “There’s no hope, no chance of retirement.” Just three tables are occupied today. He says sometimes he can’t even fill one. To make ends meet, he added a liquor counter that sells onto the open street. He steps out of the restaurant and onto the dusty road to show it off. Across the way is a defunct noodle-and-sauce factory. Nearby, a few temples, still in use. “This place will be gone soon,” he says.

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