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The Chinese Community Of Calcutta An Interview With Paul Chung

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

Chapter 6 of The Calcutta Mosaic: The Minority Communities of Calcutta Eds. Nilanjana Gupta, Himadri Banerjee, Sipra Mukherjee. London, New Delhi, New York: Anthem Publishers, 2009, 131 - 140.

The first Chinese emigrant to Calcutta was Yang Tai Chow. He arrived in 1778 on the banks of the Hooghly. He gathered together a group of Chinese, many of whom had jumped ship and decided to stay on in the area of Calcutta or were working on the Khidderpore docks.. Yang started a sugar mill with the eventual goal of saving enough to start a tea trade. Though history has obliterated the sugar mill, Yang’s endeavour has been immortalised in the Bengali word for sugar, chini, which is derived from the Mandarin (similar to the Bengali word for porcelain, chinamati). Yang, known locally as Tong Achi, established the first Chinese community in the area which came to be known as Achipur, a place 33km from Calcutta, near Budge Budge. The place no longer has any Chinese inhabitant but Yang Tai Chow’s grave, and a temple that he built, are still visited by the Calcutta Chinese at the time of the Chinese New Year to seek his blessing.

Geographical proximity of the city to China and its accessibility by land made Calcutta the natural choice for many emigrating Chinese. The first record of modern Chinese emigration to India, writes Haraprasad Roy, can be found in a short notice in the Chinese book of 1820, A Maritime Record. It mentions the city of Calcutta as housing a small Chinese population from Fujian (Fukien) and Guangdong (Canton). These Chinese appeared to be in the opium business. A police record preserved in the Public Records of the Government of India dating back to 1788 indicates that a sizeable Chinese population settled near Bow Bazar Street. Generally sober and industrious, they occasionally used to get intoxicated and commit violent outrages against each other. Around 1830, a Chinese- born Vietnamese envoy named Li Van Phuc wrote of the hundreds of Chinese whom he met in Calcutta, though the police census of 1837 gives the figure of 362. Li described the Chinese people as very poor, but also mentions the Chinese temple dedicated to Guan Yu, a historical figure of the Period of Three Kingdoms (AD 220-280) and one of the most popular deities worshipped among the merchants. We find a reference to this temple, located in the Chinese quarter in one of the lanes around Kasaitollah and Dharamtallah, in 1849 in the writing of the traveller C Alabaster.i Alabaster reports that the Cantonese carpenters of Calcutta also had a temple in Bow Bazar dedicated to the Sea Goddess Tianhou (Heavenly Spouse), a deity generally worshipped by the seafarers.

Calcutta’s enduring romance with Chinese food appears to have begun sometime after 1947. The Cantonese families fleeing Mao’s China opened their restaurants, the most famous of which was possibly Nanking. Many have become a part of Kolkata’s history, like Fat Mama, the subject of Rafeeq Ellias’ recent BBC World documentary which declined with the death of Fat Mama. But others, like Eau Chew on Ganesh Chandra Avenue which dates back to the 1930s have survived with its Chimney Soup still as popular. The breakfast bazaar at Territi Bazaar on Sun Yat Sen Street, opens at 5 a.m.every day and is the only place in the country where you can taste Chinese cuisine as it survives in the kitchens of Kolkata’s Indian Chinese families. The cuisine that has come to be known as Indian Chinese has little and often no relation with traditional Chinese cuisine though, and Chilli Chicken or (Nelson Wang’s) Chicken Manchurian are entirely Indian Chinese creations.

The contribution of the Chinese community to the social and economic spheres of Kolkata through their restaurants, tanneries, laundries, beauty parlours, has been felt by many to be disproportionately large when compared with their population. The early Chinese were probably the Hakkas, greatly valued as sailors in Kolkata (and whose community name, which means ‘guests’, has survived in the Hakka noodles popular in the city). But through the generations, the Chinese have maintained their social distinctions in the field of their businesses, so that even today in Kolkata, the Hakka are the tanners and shoemakers, the Hupeh the dentists, the Cantonese carpenters and restaurateurs, and the laundries are the stronghold of the Shanghai group.


The interview begins with Mr. Chung speaking of the coming Chinese New Year celebrations which they are organising, the Year of the Pig.

Paul Chung: We are organising this with the help of sponsors in Kolkata who want the Chinese community to have this celebration. It comes from their sense of unity. The Chinese are people of a family. And since very few can reach the greater family, which is all of your clan, they try to connect through this smaller community. The clan has traditionally been seen as needed for self- protection and self-preservation.

I: So do you have a sort of hierarchy of power within your community? PC: Our hierarchy is of seniority. It is this way- the seniormost member of the family is the superior. Our cultural structure is very simple. The males are the members of the family, the females are- right from the beginning- not considered the member of the family they are born into. They belong to the family they are born into. This of course doesn’t mean that we neglect our daughters. The bondage between the parents and the children cannot be like that. We bring a daughter up and educate her, but I know that she will go. The girl child does not belong to my family,- I am bringing her up for the husband’s family.

I: Do you have divorces? PC: Divorce is there. But because divorce is not according to tradition, it is not a right. But it is there in the system. Say for example, one rule of the system is this. If you back-chat your mother- in-law, that’s a ground for divorce. That is why the Americans find the Chinese women very strange. Why do they always keep quiet when the mother-in-law is around!

I: But is this dominance of the elders accepted everywhere? PC: Yes, it’s the tradition. See, the understanding of the Chinese family is this: the relationship between the offspring and the parent is known as filia-piety. It is not a family system where I love my parents and I obey my parents. Your parents are taken as gods. So the question of disagreement does not arise. It depends on the gods to be kind, to be understanding.

I: But now youngsters are so rebellious... PC: But still when it comes to these issues, nobody rebels! Or sometimes it may also be like my case when I rebelled against a custom without knowing the full force of tradition. My Dad backed off. Though in the eyes of society, that made him a weak person, I was spared the punishment. It is only now when I know the tradition, that I can see I had been a stupid fellow without realising it, -because I was receiving Western education-. Among the Chinese, this kind of a thing is as understood, though not pronounced. That you don’t treat your parents as parents.

They are gods. We know that when they die they become gods, the protectors of your family. Our ancestors are the gods worshipped.

I: But were you ever in China? PC: I am born and brought up here. For those who are not born in China, at the age of five or seven, they used to be sent back to China. Then afterwards, when about seventeen or nineteen, they would return.

I: But that didn’ t happen in your case? PC: No, we stopped because the Communists took over the country. They were hellbent on breaking that tradition. And they were right- because they wanted to establish the idea of an individual's identity. They wanted to start a system, - a new system, - and the system which we had had was built on the traditions of thousands of years. So they would have to smash that. But in the course of smashing that identity- the family values, the loyalty- everything would have to go. And if you want to smash a tradition that is deep and powerful, you must smash it completely- because otherwise it won’t be smashed.

I: Do you think they have succeeded in doing that? PC: Now it’s come back! (Laughs) Now they have to accept it. But now a certain equation has been worked out, - you don’t talk of tradition and the old values -and we will not interfere unless you cross the line. There’s this understanding. So I don’t know exactly what is happening, - but I know that ancestor-worship is still prevalent. Though the Communists are totally against it, they too have families which continue the worship, - so outside they may be heroes, but at home they're quite tradtional, just like the Marxists in Bengal.

I: But are you continuing the traditional customs in Calcutta?

PC: Oh, Calcutta has one of the most conservative Chinese communities in South Asia. For example, the language we speak in Tangra is the purest in the world. Our Hakka, is comprehensible to people all over the world. People say it's a wonder, how we can still speak like people 50 - 60 years ago! When the Hakka people who are scattered all over Malaysia, Taiwan, Canada start conversing, it is we from Calcutta who have the purest language. Our local language influence is limited to two words: ‘accha’ and ‘aloo’.

I: But how is that? How did you manage to avoid the influence?

PC: We are a very conservative people. Moreover, in Calcutta our business centres like the tanneries don’t depend on people from other communities. But now, things are changing, because the Chinese are moving into many other trades and the association with other people and this will slowly erode the purity. Just as my Western schooling, even without me realising it, decreased the hold the Chinese tradition had had on me. As I began to imbibe the Western values, I begin to see things logically. Once I remember I had a quarrel with my Dad. And at the end, when he tried to use his authority as my father, I replied, “You want me to obey you like this! Then when I’m not with you, I won’t do it!” Because in my school, with its Western education, we were being taught to discuss, to argue. The Western values are very different, you know. It's a completely different way of thinking. My father possibly realised the difference and he didn’t mention that any more. It's only now that I think, “My God. I must have killed him many times.” I: But do you expect these values of loyalty and devotion from your next generation?

PC: No, now the traditional values and traditional way of doing things we do still try to keep, but only for certain occasions. Otherwise we are like the local people. When I was small, things were different. We were very traditional, and everybody had to obey the clan. The society was very strong in the sense that if anyone broke the rules, - you’ve had it.

I: And one of the spheres were rules are followed is marriage. Has anyone married against the rules, maybe say, outside the community?

PC: They have, but we try to settle it socially. The marriage rules are essentially this: that it’s the duty of the parents to get the children married, and it’s the duty of the parents to arrange for the marriage- it goes up to that, and beyond that is unthinkable. And nobody speaks about it. So the system is this, if someone wants to get married to somebody, they must go to a matchmaker. Even if you’re in love, you usually go and tell your mother, so then the parent calls a matchmaker through whom the proposal will be made. This is the inside story which need not be discussed in public, and even if you marry outside the community, you can go through the matchmaker. The matchmaker must be someone outside the family - it is almost like a profession for some, because the matchmaker will be paid something. But people of the immediate family don’t matchmake, because it is believed that they would be biased, so that spoils your name in society, it diminishes your social status, -people say the family is manipulating the proposals to get their child married. In fact, we are concerned about our Chinese traditional marriage customs dying out, so we have included a writing on it in the diary our Association brings out every year. The diary is in English, and through it we try to acquaint our young Chinese members with their traditional values and customs. Most of the Chinese children these days are educated in the English-medium schools, and they often have a lot of questions on the Chinese customs.

I: When did your family come to Calcutta?

PC: In the early 20th century. The first person to come was my grandfather. He was a shoemaker. My Dad also was a shoemaker, then he became a tanner. But when I came back from Don Bosco, I said I’m not going to go into the tannery. It is now managed by my brothers. My elder brother is there, my younger brother is there. I am the middle fellow, so somehow I have been allowed to go my way.

I: Did your brothers also study in Don Bosco?

PC: No, no! I was the first in the family to be given an English education. My brothers both studied in Tangra. We have our own schools there. The Chinese are very strong in education. But when you reach a certain level, it is considered enough. For most of the Chinese coming here, the education is to help them earn their own living. And then send the surplus earning back to China, to help the family back home. So if you can read and write letters, know the rules and regulations, the laws, you can negotiate, - that’s enough.

By sending me to the English school, my father was going against the community’s unwritten rules. He too was a rebel, I guess. I didn’t realise that when I was a kid. Now the other family members tell me, “Your father was a rebel. He sent you to an English-medium school.” And they had all tried to make him change his mind, but he had stood his ground. So he broke the tradition of the Chinese community. And for that he suffered. Without knowing it, I had made him suffer. These customs of obedience are well known in China, but I hadn’t known it.

I: But did you study Chinese at all?

PC: Yes, I finished my primary school. I was in my middle school when he plucked me out and put me in Don Bosco. I had a good memory. And I did well, but after a lot of punishment from my cousin who was a teacher. I used to shout loud and study. Like the Bengalis, we too shout out loud and study.

I: So what did you do after your education?

PC: I joined a company. But that was 1966, - and there was the War going on then. Soon the government didn’t allow us to work anymore. The only reason was that we were Chinese. In fact, the day the war broke out, I had my last Mechanical Engineering exam. We had trouble joining work. But somehow, I used my buddhi and got this job. But after two years, they sacked me. Then when I got myself another job, the government would not give me a permit to go and join. So I wrote a letter to Lal Bahadur Shastri. I wrote, " What is all this you say about India

being a secular country where everyone gets an equal chance?! I am born and brought up in India, but I can’t even get a visa to go and join my job? I can’t earn my bread." Within ten days the Visa office called me. "Why you writing letters?” they said. “Why shouldn’t I write!" I said, "He’s an authority I can appeal to.” I got my visa.

I: So where did you go? Which country?

PC: No other country. I got a job in a factory near Dumdum Airport. I needed a permit for that. When the War started, we were restricted to our house, and locality. So we could not come out from Tangra.

I: But did all Chinese at that time stay in Tangra?

PC: No, they were in many places of Calcutta. But to move out anywhere we would need permits. Looking at it now, it seems so stupid. They don’t have either the moral force or the physical force to restrict us like that. But the Chinese are such law-abiding citizens and there is this fear of "what'll happen if we disobey." Now, of course, we are citizens. But the problems carried on even after the War. I think it was finally in 1999 that this need for the work permit was withdrawn. Not that I faced too much of a problem. Since I was a teacher, I was given a lot of respect. If anything unpleasant happened, I would complain, and the offending chap would get a scolding: "Don't you know he's a teacher?" In other words, it's ok to harass non-teachers. Then I became the Assistant Principal of Don Bosco, Liluah, and after that there was very little problem.

I: What about voting rights?

PC: Now we have voting rights. After we were given citizenship, we got the voting rights. But not everyone was given the vote. I fought the case for a long time. I applied, and applied, and applied till thy finally gave me citizenship. Now things are easier. But sometimes the intermediaries create a problem. And most of the Chinese are not as bothered, or knowledgeable. Even now some of them don't know what lies across the road. I tell them, if you have any problem, write a letter to the Home Secretary. But they don't want to get into trouble. Most of them are very gentle people. Our policy is very different, more so because we are from the Hakka community. Hakka means 'guest'. In China too we are like guests. We came from Mongolia. When we come to a place, we try to adapt to the situation, and if it is too difficult we move on.

I: Where is the migration taking place?

PC: Canada. Because there they are getting what most of them are missing here. The basic need of freedom. They can choose what they do. The first advantage of other countries over India is that the harassment is less, - the bureaucracy is less. The Chinese are a hardworking people. That is our one big advantage. One of my non-Chinese students who's gone to Australia told me, "These Chinese buggers- (no disrespect to you, he said) they work three shifts! And when they come home, they stay in their homes, they don't spend their money. So what we save in three years, they save in one." But of course, now the psychology of migration has changed. My Dad came to India to make business, save money, and go back to buy more land in China. But after the Communists took it away, he could no longer go back. The Communists also gave him a title: Exploiter of the People. So if he went back, they would skin him. He was an honest man, and he wasn't involved in any politics. Actually, the system itself was exploitative. He too used to work 16 to 18 hours a day. Just to make some extra money. That was forced on him. But either way, he could not go back any more.

I: Tell us something about the women in your community.

PC: In the Hakka community they are like men. There is a saying in Hakka, that the Hakka girls are women with large feet. There are no restrictions on them.

I: Does that also mean that their feet were never bound?

PC: That was the Manchurian women. The Manchurians were the ruling class then. And if the ruling class follows a practice, it gets imitated by the lower orders.

I: Are most of the Chinese in Calcutta Hakka? PC: Most of the Chinese in Tangra are Hakka. But the Chinese in China Town are mostly Cantonese. But there are others from other communities too. The Cantonese are skilled people: carpenters, engineers. The Hakkas are the unskilled people. Their primary aim, if I may say so, is to earn a living. So when they came to India, they picked up shoe-making. The leather was something nobody touched here. So the major group here is my group. We're also Han Chinese. Then there are the Mongolians, Manchurians and Tibetans.

The girls usually study further than the boys. Earlier, most of them would become secretaries. They were very hardworking. So the bosses used to say that one Chinese girl is worth three secretaries. Now many of them work in beauty parlours and offices. No job is looked down upon. So wherever the girls see an opportunity they will go and work. In fact, if there is a divorce case, then the question will always be asked, "Has this girl contributed to the family?" If she has, then the divorce cannot take place against her wishes. In our culture, you are not only a partner of your husband, you are married into the family. So when a Chinese girl is married, the groom's family does not get a dowry. The father has brought her up for the groom's family, and now when she goes into that family, her father's family will lose that income or help which used to come from her. So the groom's family has to give the dowry. Usually the practice is to give the bride's family some money in a red packet. Maybe the groom's family agrees to give the costs of the wedding or something. Just to thank the father of the bride.

I: Tell us something about your festivals.

PC: The festival that's coming up is the New Year. In China, this is a 25-day celebration. On New Year, the gods bless you for the coming year according to your deeds of the last ear. The belief is that God calls your Kitchen God and asks about you. So for ten days before the New Year's Day, we have a lot of celebrations. A kind of sweet, like your rasagollas are made with sticky rice. This is made so that the Kitchen God will have all the sweetness of these riceballs sticking to his tongue and won't be able to say anything bad about you. He'll say only sweet things about you. After the New Year, we have basically family celebrations. On New Year's Eve, the whole family gets together and will gamble and celebrate till late into the night. We have the Moon Festival, the Dragon Festival.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities between your Bengali celebrations and ours. Between your culture and ours. Like for example, you don't say "Bye bye", you say, "Ashchhi." We also say the Chinese for "See you again." Then in most Western cultures, they are very vague about the relationships. Many different relatives will be called Uncle or Aunt. The Chinese are very clear. We have about 57 distinct family relationships.

But like your Bengali families, the Chinese families are also becoming nuclear. Earlier, there would be many brothers and sisters. But now with the government measures, families have become very small.

I: But not much marrying with the local people of Bengal?

PC: Not much, but there are some. My second youngest daughter has married a Bengali Hindu. They worked in the same bank. It was okay with me. If you can stay together, and adjust to each other's cultures, the marriage will be a success. But such marriages are few. That is because the Chinese are largely a closed community, so there is little exposure to the locals. Then there is always this 'special' thing about our features: the eyes, the nose, etc. And that feeling of difference is present on both sides. When I came back from the English-medium school, I went back to my earlier school for three months before I joined Intermediate School. My friends would

call me a 'traitor'. We were about 12 or 13 then. And for a child of that age, it is very painful. I suffered a lot. And now, almost all the youngsters are students of English-medium schools! The Chinese language is needed by the mainstream offices now for trade and business. So we teach non-Chinese students during the weekend at Sacred Heart Chinese School. We have also started teaching Mandarin Chinese in an institute. There is a lot of demand for Chinese in the job market. That's why I tell the young, -since you are citizens of this country, you have to contribute in some way,- so if you can teach this language, then do that. Otherwise these institutes will be going to China to get their Indian teachers trained. But the spoken Chinese language has very distinct intonations and accents which are difficult for an Indian to learn in 3 months. We are used to conversing in Chinese, so we know the language. In fact, there is already a reaction against the Kolkata Chinese teaching the language. If we join as teachers, then the competition for the Bengali teachers teaching the Chinese language becomes very stiff. And at the moment, this is a very lucrative career.

I: How do you think your ‘different’ education has influenced you?

PC: Yes, that always has an influence. Since I was outside, I could see the reality of our Calcutta community clearly. If had been inside, I wouldn't have been able to judge objectively. So many of our community lack exposure to the wider world and therefore have a narrow view of the mainstream culture. This is often a negative view, - that of being exploited because we are minorities. But I've dealt with so many from the mainstream, that I know them well. I can recognize that this negative view is born out of insularity and lack of knowledge about the others. Moreover, I have been a teacher, which is always a position of respect in this state. Now, though, the younger generation is moving into the mainstream. From our Association we also support 2 or 3 of the youth and help them to get jobs in the mainstream corporate offices, call centers etc. Some get jobs in Kolkata, others go to Pune, Delhi, - all over the country. There is a lot of talent here, so we have to use that.

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