The imperialist machination of the British merchants was revealed when they imported porcelain, silk and tea from China, and at the same time helped drain the Chinese surplus economy by introducing opium, which led to rampant impoverishment.
The die had been cast in the mid-18th century: empowered by the benefits of the industrial revolution, Britain was already the most formidable colonial power, rapidly expanding its control over Asia.
For many Chinese (mostly Cantonese), it seemed wise at that time to emigrate in search for greener pastures. And ironically, Calcutta, the then capital of British India, became one of their preferred destinations for its easy accessibility by land – the route was used since the days of Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hien in the 5th century.
Beginning in 1778 during the days of Warren Hastings (1732-1818), the first Governor-General of British India, a considerable number of Chinese immigrants started working at the Calcutta port as manual labourers, having settled in the Bowbazar area which fell within the Grey Town inhabited mostly by Anglo-Indians, Armenians, and even the Portuguese.
But Tong Achew was significantly different from other Chinese settlers. He was an entrepreneur with a dream. Originally a tea trader, Achew appealed and was readily granted land on rent by Warren Hastings at Budge Budge, some 30 km away from the metropolis, to set up a sugar mill and sugarcane plantation.
Patronised by the British, Achew soon began to employ 100-odd Chinese compatriots who were rather distressed working at the dock and were looking for ways to settle elsewhere. Eventually, a Chinese colony grew around the place. Named after Achew, the locality began to be known as Achipur in local parlance.
The untimely death of Achew, however, shattered the dream that he cherished. All his Chinese employees moved to the city to settle down at Tiretti Bazar in Bowbazar area well-known to them.
A temple of Earth God and Goddess (perhaps built by Achew himself), and the red horse-shoe shaped grave of Achew stand at Achipur today, bearing testimony to the thriving Chinese enclave that once existed on the bank of River Hooghly. Every year on Sunday, following the Chinese New Year, the Chinese-Indians still visit Achipur to offer prayers at the temple and pay homage at the tomb.
It is a pilgrimage for them.
If not Achipur, then it is Tiretti Bazar in central and Tangra in the eastern part of the city that eventually became the old and new Chinatown of Kolkata. Following the wave of immigration, mostly by the people of Haka origin, the old Chinatown was dotted with Chinese temples, shops and restaurants.
News of their prosperity spread. And the entire 19th century saw immigrants from various parts of China (socially and economically devastated by the opium wars) rush to Kolkata in search of fortune. The British capital of India was cosmopolitan in the true sense and offered shelter to a diverse population.
The early Chinese settlers worked hard and ventured into a wide range of activities. Coming from different provinces of China, they came armed with their traditional skills. They went on to initiate many things previously unthought of in the locality.
Setting up beauty salons, restaurants, carpentry, shoe shops and tanneries and practicing dentistry were secure ways to make money, and be a part of a class that stood below the British in economic terms but above many natives.
Like the British, the Chinese, too, at least in some spheres, began to employ the locals – a tradition that continues even today. The difference? The British had taken the profits away while the Chinese made Kolkata their home. There were once close to 20,000 Chinese in Kolkata alone, constituting a vibrant community.
The scenario, however, started changing in the post-Independence era as both China and India aspired for regional supremacy. While there was a fresh wave of immigrants following the civil war (1945-1949) that culminated in the communist revolution, the relations between the two countries soured after the construction of a Chinese highway in Aksai Chin in 1957 and the Tibetan uprising in 1959 when India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama.
Later, the two countries fought a war lasting more than a month in 1962 in a mountainous region over a territorial dispute.
China won the war, but the Chinese living in India had a harrowing time post the war. The cosmopolitan spirit that once prevailed in Kolkata and India at large was battered by nationalist fervor. The Chinese settlers suddenly became “unreliable,” working as agents for the enemy.
In this atmosphere of distrust, India passed the Defence of India Act (1962) which empowered the authorities to apprehend and detain a person of hostile origin on suspicion. This led to the incarceration of more than 10,000 Chinese settlers from all over India at a camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, for up to five years. Their civil liberties were mercilessly curbed.
Unaccustomed to the extreme weather there, some elderly people and children died. Not a single charge was ever proven, though. The legal definition of a foreigner was even extended to include Indian citizens of Chinese descent. Quite a few Chinese restaurants and shops were vandalised and schools and media shut down. Many Chinese-Indians were even forced to move out of India. It was as late as 1998 when the ethnic Chinese were allowed naturalised Indian citizenship.
The incidents, following the 1962 war, had not escaped the minds of those who stayed back. Hurt by their treatment in a country they considered their home, many Chinese-Indians availed the first opportunity to settle elsewhere.
The community has been dwindling ever since, leaving just 2,000 people now. For those who had decided to start afresh worked even harder. With strong determination, they carried on operating restaurants extremely popular with the Kolkatans, tanneries and sauce factories employing many locals, and opening shoe shops and beauty parlours long before the multinationals arrived.
In the 1990s, however, a Supreme Court order resulted in relocation of tanneries from Tangra to Bantala Leather Complex, on the outskirts of the city, due to environmental concerns. Fearing hazards, some of the tanneries were converted into restaurants, while the rest were leased to ethnic Indians for other businesses. This resulted in further migration for better financial opportunities in Australia, Canada and the US.
Today, the Chinatown of Kolkata is fast becoming a shadow of its past. While the older generation prefers to stay back, the younger visits city only during the New Year and other events like wedding and death. The Tangra area is also targeted by land sharks and real estate companies. Soon, the old enclave with distinctive Chinese character may give way to high-rises where people of other communities will also move in.
Besides the lack of lucrative financial options in Kolkata, there are other concerns plaguing the residents of Chinatown. A feeling of anxiety permeates people of religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities in India, as majoritarianism seems to be the order of the day.
To make matters worse, the constant tension at the border that touched its peak recently at Doklam, keeps the Chinese-Indians on their toes. While the rest of the Indians were exhibiting nationalist zeal, thanks to the efforts of the political parties and a section of the media, there were apprehensions in the Chinatown of Kolkata. The elders kept recounting the sordid days of 1962, and the younger ones just hoped not to live through the nightmare.
At present, the ever-diminishing Chinese community of Kolkata is caught in a dilemma: while there is pull of the past that demands clinging on to the tradition and heritage, the call of the future for a prosperous and secured life is also undeniable. And those who have decided not to leave India yet are intrigued by another question – the one related to a growing culture of distrust with no respect for diversity.
(Subhendu Sarkar is a Kolkata-based freelance photojournalist)
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