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The Chinatown of Kolkata: Disappearing trades and forgotten people



National School of Journalism (NSoJ) Bureau, Bangalore: A city that once boasted of accommodating the only Chinese community in India is witnessing a dwindling number of Hakkas today. Quintessential old Chinatown (popularly called Territi Bazaar), that was once celebrated for its gastronomic wonders is falling prey to the evanescent nature of time. The Chinese have been disappearing from Chinatown.

The Chinese in Kolkata are a community of immigrants and their descendants that emigrated from China during the late eighteenth century. After Faxian and Xuanzang’s quests in India, it was Chinese tea trader Tong Achew who landed in the banks of Hoogly in the eighteenth century. Warren Hastings gave Achew a few acres of land and there he set up a sugar cane plantation and a sugar mill. He brought with him a bunch of his Chinese comrades and hence began the first Chinese settlement in India.

Over the period of time, the Chinese had set up leather tanneries in the city. They were also fending well for themselves as shop keepers selling authentic Chinese sauces, herbs, medicines and green teas, and that period also saw the emergence of many beauty parlours run exclusively by Chinese women- connoisseurs in the trade. In 2004, a Supreme Court order banning leather tanning left them despondent. Factories were shut down and people were evicted. Restaurants and small eateries emerged with authentic Chinese and Kolkata-Chinese cuisines, and to this day, that has been their main source of income.
A recent visit to old Chinatown turned out to be upsetting. Once home to 20,000 Chinese-Indian residents, a mere 1000-1200 reside in the City of Joy today. The young generation of Chinese are abandoning their home town in search of a better lifestyle, flocking to USA, Singapore, Australia and Canada. They are also opting for schools with English as the principal mode of instruction, rather than Mandarin- leading to the shutting down of many Chinese schools in the area. The older generation is desperately trying to hold on to, and preserve whatever is left of their rich culture. There is a subtle hint of insecurity in the air as they speak about their diminishing community. Many of them still do not feel safe in Tangra, where many were rendered homeless after the tanneries were shut down and their properties were looted and destroyed. Racism is well and alive in the small by-lanes of Kolkata, and even after almost 230 years, the Chinese have to deal with an identity crisis. One question still haunts them— are they a community of Chinese-Indian? Or Indian-Chinese?
As the city slowly gears up to bid farewell to the plunging community of the Chinese, a ray of hope still flickers in the sky with the chirp of the early bird and the delectable aroma of an honest-to-goodness, hearty breakfast. Maybe the city will host its last generation of the Chinese this time, but in the alleys of Tangra and Sun Yat Sen road, their legacy will forever live on.