Fading Footprints: The Vanishing Chinatowns of Kolkata

  In May 2023, many Indian media reported that the Indian Business Daily, which was likely to be the only Chinese-language newspaper in Kolkata and even India, would cease printing. This once again focused public opinion on Kolkata, the only city in India with a Chinatown, and its official status. The rapidly shrinking Chinese community. The decline of the Chinese community in India contrasts with the growing number of Chinese in other parts of the world. In June, Zha Liyou, the Chinese Consul General in Kolkata, said in an exclusive interview with India’s Eastern Review magazine: “As the largest overseas Chinese community in India, the Chinese community in Kolkata has a history of more than 250 years. In its heyday, the overseas Chinese in this community The number of Chinese once numbered nearly 50,000, but now there are less than 2,000. The Chinese community is currently facing a series of challenges, the most prominent of which are the loss of young people caused by immigration, the reconstruction of urban core areas, and the increasingly dilapidated Chinese ancestral buildings. , lack of motivation to expand new business opportunities, etc.”
  Tiretta Bazaar and Tangra are the only Chinatowns in Kolkata. The former is called “Old Chinatown” by local Chinese, and the latter is also called New China city. As early as 2013, some local Chinese and the National Art and Cultural Heritage Foundation of India jointly planned the “Cha Project” to revitalize Chinatown and promote tourism. Since then, people from all walks of life have put forward many initiatives to revitalize the Chinese community in Kolkata and restore the buildings in Chinatown, but it is still on the decline. In 2022, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) included Tireta Block in its World Monuments Watch List 2022 because Tireta Block “witnessed the flourishing and diverse social development of downtown Kolkata. Although compared to the past, it has It has changed beyond recognition, but it still represents a unique community that has retained its own cultural and ethnic identity in the city. However, today the neighborhood is in danger of disappearing completely”. The Chinese participated in the history of Kolkata as an international metropolis during the Anglo-Indian period. Their hardworking, trustworthy and other characteristics also made the Tireta neighborhood a prosperous commercial and cultural center, making important contributions to local economic and cultural development. But why is Calcutta’s Chinatown declining or even on the verge of disappearing? The reasons for this are complex.
The foundation of survival is constantly being destroyed

  The history of Chinese immigration to India can be traced back to the 18th century, marked by the arrival of the Chinese in Calcutta in 1778 and the construction of a sugar refinery near it. The “Chinese Quarter” in Tireta neighborhood in the center of Kolkata has since gradually taken shape. It is also the first official settlement of Cantonese in South Asia. Today, it is still dominated by Chinese whose ancestral home is Guangdong. During Calcutta’s economic heyday, there were carpenters and shipwrights from Guangdong, tanners and shoemakers from Meixian Hakka, dentists from Hubei, and silk merchants from Shandong. In the 1920s, the second “Chinese Quarter” appeared in Taba, an eastern suburb of Kolkata, and soon became a settlement of Hakkas. They brought shoemaking skills into the leather industry, specialized in leather trade, and established a large number of tannery. The 1950s was the heyday of the development of the Chinese community in India, with the number once reaching nearly 60,000. It was also the most prosperous period of Calcutta’s Chinatown. But this prosperous situation lasted less than ten years.
  After the Sino-Indian border self-defense counterattack broke out in 1962, the Chinese community in India began to decline. From 1962 to 1966, the Chinese in India encountered changes to varying degrees, including being imprisoned, having their passports seized, their trade licenses revoked, and their property confiscated. The shops, schools, banks, newspapers, guilds, etc. they operated were also forcibly closed. , the foundation of survival was fundamentally shaken, and coupled with the distrust of the Chinese in Indian society at that time, it promoted the large-scale immigration of Indian Chinese to the UK in the 1970s. Those Chinese who decided to stay resettled in Old Chinatown and Taba, living hidden lives and rebuilding their damaged identities.
  In the 1990s, the Supreme Court of India made a ruling and decided to move the Kolkata tanneries out of Taba in order to alleviate pollution problems. By the beginning of this century, most of the tanneries in Taba had been relocated 15 kilometers away from the area or closed down. The originally prosperous leather industry in the area gradually declined, and the Chinese who had lost their livelihoods were forced to immigrate to countries such as Australia, the United States, and Canada. It is also another upsurge of Chinese outmigration in Kolkata, causing another round of blows to the already “shaky” local Chinese community.
Difficulty establishing a sense of belonging

  ”We were born in India and have Indian nationality, but we are not regarded as Indians.” This is a common confusion among Chinese people in Kolkata. Since the formation of Old Chinatown, the Chinese in Calcutta have changed their mentality of living here and started to call this place their home. As immigrants, they naturally carry the cultural background of their ancestral place. To take root in the Indian cultural environment, they must strive to find a balance between the two cultures. There are many Chinese in Kolkata who are multilingual. They can converse fluently in Bengali, and also speak Hindi, English, and their ancestral dialects that are still used in the community today. They also created the famous “Indian-Chinese food” in India and worked hard to integrate into the local society. However, the particularity of Indian society caused great objective obstacles to their integration.
  The famous British scholar Stuart Hall once proposed that cultural identity is not a fixed essence, but a matter of positioning and a response to a specific historical background. The Hindu society in which the Chinese in India live is a caste-based society with a strong religious atmosphere. The caste system itself has the characteristics of closure and isolation. How Hindus, as the mainstream group in Indian society, view and position foreign ethnic groups with heterogeneous cultural traditions depends on what kind of social behaviors and norms the latter can develop. From the end of the 19th century to 1962, Hakkas and Cantonese made great contributions to the economic development of Calcutta, but these contributions were not recognized by the local mainstream society because the behavior of the Chinese in Indian society was not in line with Hindu ideals. For example, the main industries engaged in by the Chinese are leather processing, shoemaking, carpentry, barbering, dental implants, dressing, etc. These are regarded as “impure” occupations in India’s traditional social division of labor and religious concepts. Therefore, the economy in which the Chinese are engaged The activity was dubbed “Dalit Capitalism.” At the same time, the Chinese custom of eating beef is also taboo in Hindu tradition. Therefore, as an outside group, the Indian Chinese are “untouchable” and are treated by Hindus in a way that isolates or restricts intermarriage and interaction. In addition, the Chinese culturally tend to construct their identity through family or clan rather than religious beliefs. It is difficult for the Chinese to construct a new cultural identity by accepting Hindu beliefs or intermarrying with Hindus, and then assimilate into the Hindu order. This has resulted in insurmountable social isolation for the Chinese in Indian society, and it has become extremely difficult for them to improve their social status. As a result, the Chinese are on the fringes of mainstream Indian society, and their various living rights are difficult to be guaranteed by the government. Unless they apply for an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, they cannot obtain “local citizen treatment” in terms of house purchase, medical care, social security, loans, etc. . Although the Chinese in India call their locality home, they are always regarded as a guest group in Indian society and find it difficult to develop a sense of security and stability.
Lack of development opportunities and vitality

  Because the objective barriers in Indian society are difficult to break, for more than two hundred years, Kolkata’s Chinatown has fully exerted its cohesion and protection functions, providing a self-sufficient social and cultural space for the Chinese. The Chinese in Kolkata have created a small and close-knit community, retaining Chinese values ​​​​and customs. In the old Chinatown, there are many guild halls named after places, such as Nan Shun guild hall, Dong’an guild hall, Siyi guild hall, Hui Ning guild hall, Yixing guild hall, etc. , these institutions assume multiple roles such as social, arbitration, religious, and educational. This has, to a certain extent, constructed a social living space for Indian Chinese, but it has also brought about some negative impacts.
  On the one hand, this small and tight-knit community increasingly limits the exchanges between Chinese and mainstream Indian society and the opportunities for development within it. The exchange of information between the Chinese in India and the outside world is relatively limited, and their performance in adapting to new changes in the outside world and transforming from tradition to modernity is also relatively negative. At present, most of the industries engaged in by Chinese in India still follow tradition, but industrialization and the expanding global supply chain have made local production unsustainable. After the decline of the leather industry, Chinese catering has been the most successful industry for the Chinese in Kolkata, but its business model has lacked innovation. At the same time, the Chinese in Kolkata have hardly developed in emerging industries such as modern industry, finance, and information technology. Currently, this group has no influential figures in various fields in India.
  On the other hand, the large number of guild halls shows that the way the Chinese form organizations is different from that of the Indians. Most Chinese tend to form groups tied by blood or geography rather than political groups. At present, the Chinese in Calcutta have not established a political organization and cannot form a certain political force, nor have they fully utilized the characteristics of the Indian political system to fight for their own interests.

  After entering this century, more and more overseas immigrants have come to India to seek development opportunities. New Chinese circles are forming, but overall the number of Chinese coming to India is still small. On the one hand, this is because India’s social environment is not attractive enough to new immigrants, and on the other hand, it is because India has certain restrictions on the inflow of foreign capital. In addition, most of these new immigrants are concentrated in cities with better economic environments in India such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai. Not only do they have less contact with the old immigrants, they are also significantly different from the latter in terms of business models and social customs and habits. . Therefore, it is difficult for new immigrants to inject vitality into the old Chinatown, and the development of Kolkata’s Chinatown is still sluggish.
  In short, the history of the development of the Chinese in India is not only the history of their search for a homeland in a place where diverse ethnic groups coexist, but also the history of their continuous survival adjustment since the colonial era. With the younger generation of immigrants migrating out and the older generation of Chinese gradually passing away, the Chinese community in Kolkata is undergoing rapid changes. The historic shops have been renovated, and it is difficult to get a glimpse of the prosperity that once existed here. The fundamental reason for the rise and decline of India’s Chinatowns is the departure of the Chinese, which in turn is caused by the difficulties of the Chinese’s survival and development in India. Therefore, the restoration and reconstruction of the tangible architectural heritage of Kolkata’s Chinatown is only a reappearance of narratives and historical memories that echo the changes of the times, rather than the reconstruction of homes. The residence and daily activities of the Chinese are the inner vitality of the development of this neighborhood. power. Without the return of the Chinese and their active attempts to break through the predicament, the reconstruction of Chinatown may only have a symbolic meaning and fail to bring about real revitalization.

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