Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown - 30 Stades

Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown

Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown, West Bengal, 30 stades, border tension, food, leather goods, Tangra, Tirreta Bazaar

It’s a sunny day, broken by short spells of showers in Kolkata. The narrow road leading from the main highway into the compound known as Chinatown, which is home to the city’s most frequented Chinese eateries and restaurants, is unusually empty. 

“Usually, this place is choked with people dropping in for a quick or lengthy meal from morning to night,” says Sanjay Goenka, a businessman whose office is just across the street and who is a regular lunch-time visitor at one of the food joints. “It’s hard to even find a space to slip in a motorbike, forget a place to park one’s car during normal times.”

But the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, followed by India’s border conflict with China, has adversely impacted business and life in Kolkata’s Chinatown – which has been home to Chinese Indians for over two centuries. 

Tucked between the narrow alleys of Tangra in East Kolkata, it houses the descendants of Chinese who came to work in sugar plantations in India in the 18th century. The persecution during Mao Zedong’s communist regime in China and the First World War led to continued immigration in the early 1900s. These people took up manufacturing, mostly producing leather goods. In fact, the name “Tangra” is understood to have been derived from the word “tannery”.  Chinatown, however, is most famous for its authentic Chinese food – fish sui mais, prawn and crab soup, Peking duck, breaded pork chops, Schezwan fried rice and a lot more.  

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Kolkata is the only Indian city with a separate neighbourhood for the people who migrated to India from China.

Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown, West Bengal, 30 stades, border tension, food, leather goods, Tangra, Tirreta Bazaar
Letterboxes in Chinatown, Tangra, Kolkata. Pic: Flickr

The old Chinatown, also known as Tiretta Bazaar, was situated in central Kolkata and was not just a residential area for the Chinese community but a vibrant commercial centre comprising large restaurants, small eateries and a host of businesses, big and small, particularly those manufacturing shoes and bags. 

Gradually, these were shifted to the peripheral areas near Tangra, which became the new Chinatown. But before even as late as just before the lockdown, old Chinatown was still a favourite haunt of early risers and morning walkers who descended on the streets of Tiretta Bazaar where roadside eateries sold scrumptious and inexpensive breakfasts of chicken and fish pie, dumplings and desserts. 

Memories of 1962 resurface

Once bustling with activity, the area is now gripped in a tense silence and the few inhabitants, who are spotted outdoors, are mostly reluctant to say much. “These are sensitive times. I don’t want to say anything,” says a young man who runs a leather goods business with his family in the area.

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Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown, West Bengal, 30 stades, border tension, food, leather goods, Tangra, Tiretta Bazaar
Chinese New Year being celebrated at Chinatown before Coronavirus lockdown. Pic: Flickr

“It’s been like this ever since the lockdown started three months ago,” says Monica Liu, owner of several restaurants in new Chinatown and other parts of the city. She says she believes that the sudden disappearance of customers from Chinatown and Chinese restaurants is related only to the lockdown and the scare of contracting the infection and not any discrimination resulting from the border conflict. 

But her deep-seated insecurities surface soon and she blurts out about the racial discrimination she faced as a child, scarring her for life. “I was ten when my entire family was herded out of Calcutta to live in a detention camp in Rajasthan’s Deoli, near the Pakistan border, when the Indo-China War broke out in 1962,” she says. 

Ostensibly a move by the then Indian government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to protect the Chinese community from public backlash and retributive violence, it was denounced by human rights groups who called it a violation of the fundamental right to freedom. Indeed, many of the detainees from the Chinese community, like Liu, were Indian citizens. 

Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown, West Bengal, 30 stades, border tension, food, leather goods, Tangra, Tiretta Bazaar
The name “Tangra” is said to have been derived from the word “tannery”. Pic: Flickr

“I was born in Calcutta and therefore am an Indian by birth,” says Liu, whose ancestors, fleeing political persecution in China during World War II, migrated to India.

“We were told it’s for our own good,” Liu says, recalling the incident 58 years ago, “but who knows what the real reason was? Most of us think it was because the two countries were at war and our ancestors were from the enemy nation.” They were in the Deoli detention centre for six years and eventually sent back to Calcutta. 

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Former detainees of 1962, many of whom are now old and ailing, remember the “bad days” when they were forced to travel on a goods train with the word “enemy” scribbled across it. 

Fears of being dislocated once again have now gripped many members of the Chinese-Indian communities, who are trying to fight apprehensions by reposing faith in the Indian system. “We may look Chinese because our ancestors were Chinese and so we have Mongoloid features but we were born here and are Indians,” says George Leone, a businessman based in Shillong, emphatically. 

Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown, West Bengal, 30 stades, border tension, food, leather goods, Tangra, Tiretta Bazaar
Lanes of Chinatown, where restaurants were always packed with people, are now deserted. Pic: Somnath Pal

Monica too dismisses the earlier trauma as a “thing of the past” and says, “I am sure those terrible times will never return.” 

India-China border tension

But things are not too great between the two neighbours right now.

News of the Indian government banning  59 Chinese apps including the popular TikTok and barring Chinese companies from work in Indian infrastructure and construction activity have not unsettled them, insist the Chinese-Indians. 

“We identify with India in any conflict and do not pledge our allegiance to the country of origin of our ancestors in a warlike situation between the two nations,” says a Chinese trader who does not wish to be named.

“But what has hurt is the call for a sort of blanket ban on anything Chinese. Many Indian people have interpreted it to mean even boycotting Chinese food which is made by us in this country and in this city. This directly hurts our businesses and pains us.”

But economic or political discrimination, or its looming possibility, is not the only worry. With the Chinese city of Wuhan being called the epicentre of the Coronavirus, Chinese-Indians have been at the receiving end of public derision and even abuse, both verbal and physical. 

“My mother had gone to the local market and was buying vegetables when some rowdies started shouting ‘Coronavirus, Coronavirus’ at her, making her feel terrible,” says Teh Sunn Liu, a software engineer from Bhilai Chhattisgarh. His father too faced similar discrimination, something which even Indians from the North-East too faced due to their Mongoloid features.

Also Read: Coronavirus lockdown: Homelessness, loan defaults loom large as North East migrants face discrimination & job cuts

Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown, West Bengal, 30 stades, border tension, food, leather goods, Tangra, Tiretta Bazaar
Old Chinatown was a favourite haunt of early risers and morning walkers before the lockdown. Pic: Flickr

“The only consolation, in the face of such acts of racial discrimination, is that these are committed by ignorant and illiterate people, not by the educated or the rational,” says Teh.

In fact, that knowledge is the main source of comfort for these Chinese Indians at a time like this. Monica says that in spite of the lurking tension, unease and uncertainty, there is also a deep sense of trust in both the country’s government and the people. 

“We have a lot of support from our fellow Indians.  We get messages and calls from friends from other communities, asking about our wellbeing. It feels good.”

Rain had been lashing Calcutta’s Chinatown intermittently through the day. Now it is sunny again. 

(Dola Mitra is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of ‘Decoding Didi’. She is the Editor of digital news portal Cuckoo News)

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One thought on “Coronavirus scare & India-China border tension grips Kolkata’s Chinatown

  1. Aniruddha Roy Choudhury says:

    Article has been well researched and echoes genuine concerns of the local Chinese community of India. It is no fault of theirs that they look “different”. I feel that it is the responsibility of the Chief Minister of any state to assure and ensure the security of our citizens.

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