KOLKATA: It is early morning at Tiretta bazaar, the oldest China Town in the country. Only a handful Indians of Chinese descent have gathered to partake of the bazaar’s famous breakfast menu, a medley of Indian and Chinese cuisines.
Elections and a COVID-19 surge have kept most people from the community, who normally throng the place, away from stalls selling momos, soups and an eclectic and delectable array of cooked and raw food.
The minuscule population of around 2,000 Chinese Indians, who live scattered in the city from Burrabazar to Beleghata and from Tangra to New Town in Rajarhat, is being wooed by rival political parties jostling to win closely contested seats in the metropolis where even a few hundred votes could affect the results with graffiti in Mandarin script.
“We are mostly an apolitical community but we follow news closely. People will vote as they see fit,” said David Chen, 59, the proprietor of Sen Fo & Co., an 84-year-old shoe manufacturing business on nearby Bentinck Street.
The Choong Ye Thong Church on Meredith Street, a stone’s throw from Chen’s Bentinck Street shop, where many Chinese Indians gather in the evening, is a hub for discussing things and politics dominates the discourse these days.
However, the close-knit community, whose number has dwindled from 60,000 before the 1962 war with China, has learnt over the years to keep its political beliefs close to its chest.
The 1962 war saw the entire community, living in Kolkata for over two centuries, being labelled as “anti- national”. Many were dispatched to internment camps, including the notorious Deoli camp in the deserts of Rajasthan.
Unlike the US government, which had similarly interned Americans of Japanese origin during World War II, the Indian government never apologised or compensated Chinese Indians, some of whom were detained for up to 5 years after the war had ended.
Outbound migration started soon afterwards. “Some went to Hong Kong, later people started migrating to countries like Australia and Canada…they are now spread all over,” said Chen.
The first recorded Chinese to arrive in Calcutta was Yang Tai Chow also known as Tong Achew, who arrived in 1778 to set up a sugar plantation and factory near Budge Budge. Though the factory no longer exists, the place still bears his name Achipur. Since then waves of Chinese settlers came and made Calcutta and India their home.
“Most of them came from Guangzhou province of China, but many also arrived from other parts, including dentists from Shanghai,” said Chen. Historically, opium dens, leather works, dry-cleaners, carpentry and tailoring establishments were run by early Chinese entrepreneurs in the city.
Fortunately for them, the recent Sino-Indian tensions in Ladakh and calls for boycott of Chinese goods did not impact Kolkata”s Chinese Indians. “People have accepted us as Indians,” said Chen.
“One common business which many Chinese went into was the food business…restaurants run by Chinese families are still popular in the city and we have come up with what is now known as Indian Chinese cuisine,” said Dominic Lee, 61, who runs Pou Chong Food Products, manufacturers of sauces which go into Indian Chinese dishes and Kolkata”s famous kathi rolls.
Hakka noodles popular with many in India, is surprisingly an innovation by Kolkata”s Chinese Indians and is possibly unknown in mainland China. Said well-known restauranteur and expert on food history Sidhartha Bose, “Like Tandoori chicken, Kolkata”s Indian Chinese has picked up popularity and become a national fare.”
However, despite past laurels, the community now fears that like the Jews and the Armenians of Kolkata their numbers will dwindle further as greener pastures beckon their young.
“We would like to say that whoever comes to power through these elections should provide good leadership…this is a great city, if more opportunities could be created here, more people with talent would come here rather than leave,” said Chen.