The Chinese Community of Calcutta: Their Early Settlement and Migration by Ramakrishna Chatterjee
Book chapter from Madhavi Thampi, Ed., India and China in the Colonial World, Routledge 2010
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‘Wherever the ocean waves touch, there are overseas Chinese’ is the title of a famous Chinese poem quoted in Dudley Poston’s article published in the International Migration Review in 1980 (Poston 1980: 480–509). Poston’s article is a ready source of information regarding the geographical distribution of overseas Chinese in the contemporary world. From his work it is clear that overseas Chinese today are widely distributed around the world and that they live in almost every country. Among the overseas communities, they are the largest in number, even through their distribution is uneven. While in some countries like Singapore they comprise the majority of the population, in a country like Morocco they are only ten in number.
The historiography of the overseas Chinese is rich and varied. In South-east Asia, in America, in the Pacific, and very recently in Europe, Chinese communities have been subjected to study by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists. But any kind of systematic research on the Chinese in Calcutta is conspicuous by its absence. Excepting some stray articles in journals and magazines and occasional reports in newspapers, we have only an unpublished PhD thesis from Harvard University by Ellen O. Basu which deserves to be mentioned. This thesis is an excellent anthropological exercise on the family and ethnicity amongst the Chinese tanners of Calcutta. It may be made clear at this point that we are talking about the Chinese of Calcutta instead of Chinese in India as a whole, because more than 90 per cent of the total Chinese population in India belongs to Calcutta, leaving aside the controversial Tibetan refugees. Moreover, the Chinese are the twelfth largest linguistic community in Calcutta, constituting 0.3 per cent of the total population of the city, and are more numerous than the Punjabi, Rajasthani, and Malayali-speaking people in Calcutta taken together.
There is enough scope for studying various aspects of the Chinese society in Calcutta, including the nature and basis of their internal segmentation, their interrelationship with the wider society, their religion, culture, educational institutions, and so on. Here, however, we shall try to explore only the early settlement pattern of the Chinese in Calcutta and their demographic movement from the colonial to the post-colonial period. This study would enable us to highlight how the Chinese, being an emigrant community, are confronted with various economic and political challenges in the contemporary situation. For the sources we have to rely on very fragmented archival records from the period of Warren Hastings and a few contemporary travelogues by Chinese travellers. These sources help to determine the original settlement of Chinese in Calcutta. A very erudite article published as early as in 1858 in the Calcutta Review by Charles Alabaster (1868: 368–84) can also be fruitfully used to understand the early phase of the Chinese community in Calcutta. Successive census reports from 1876 onwards are quite revealing about the demographic aspects of the community. The only other source which can be used is the occasional interview of people from this community found in various newspapers and magazines. Accessing these newspapers and magazine clippings is however a Herculean task in the absence of proper indexing.
Mystery shrouds the early settlement of the Chinese in Calcutta. In an interview with a French journalist, the owner of the Nanking Restaurant, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Calcutta, narrated:
‘It was started in the 1780s when Lord Warren Hastings was the Governor General, when a Chinese ship caught by a storm in the Bay of Bengal came to take shelter in the harbour of Calcutta. To help her crew and those of other ships, Hastings gave permission to the Chinese sailors to establish here a settlement where they could fend for themselves. The area of the settlement was delimited on horseback. The riders started from the bank of the Hooghly at sunrise with orders to be back at the same spot by sunset. Originally a community of sailors, its activities became more diversified, when the families arrived and started growing vegetables, rice and sugar cane. When the settlement was destroyed by fire, new settlements were built in various parts in Calcutta (de Hennins 1972: 21–3).
There is another version, which runs as follows:
One Chinese sailor, named Atchew or Acchi in English (and Yang Da Zhao in China), travelled on a ship with a British captain. Seeing two stowaways in the ship, the captain accused Acchi of smuggling them. But the stowaways magically transformed themselves into pieces of wood. Acchi then knew they were Gods. He planted them on land around which a temple was eventually built. Subsequently Warren Hastings supposedly agreed to grant him as much land in this area as could be covered on horseback in a day. Acchi later recruited workers from China to grow sugar cane for him (Basu 1934: 120–2).
There are striking similarities between these two versions of the story of early Chinese settlement:
That the arrival of Chinese in Calcutta is dated back to the 1770s or 1780s.
That the first settler was a sailor.
That land was granted by Warren Hastings for settlement.
That the area of land granted for settlement was delimited in a particular manner.
The second version of the story however is able to mention the specific name of the original settler, and that makes it closer to the archival records.
Archival records inform us that one Chinese named Acchi brought some Chinese to work for him as indentured labourers. They are alleged to have escaped upstream from Calcutta. Acchi then sought assistance from Warren Hastings. In response to Acchi’s request a government advertisement was published just a few days later regarding the indentured labourers, which runs as follows:
Whereas it has been represented to the Hon’ble Governor General and Council by Atchew, a native of China now under the protection of the government, that several ill-disposed persons have endeavoured to entice away the Chinese labourers in his employ who are under indentures to him for a term of years. Notice is hereby given that the Board wishing to grant every encouragement to the colony of Chinese under the direction of Atchew, are determined to afford him every support and assistance in detecting such persons and bringing them to condign punishment for inveighing away his people or affording them shelter from him (quoted in Basu 1934: 120–2).
Acchi was to die within two years of this problem, for in a letter of 1783, an attorney for the East India Company attempted to extract payment from the executor of Acchi’s estate.
Apparently, the residents of Acchi’s colony not only grew sugar cane but also manufactured sugar and liquor. In an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette of 15 November 1804 the estate was offered for sale. Not only land but also buildings, sugar mills, and stills are mentioned in the advertisement, which makes clear that the settlement of Chinese in this area was short-lived. Further development of the community proceeded in Calcutta. It may be mentioned that although the sugar mill and all that Acchi started no longer exists, the original settlement area still has some reminders of its existence. The town is called ‘Achipur’ after the name of its Chinese founder. A red-coloured horseshoe shaped tomb, said to be Acchi’s tomb, and a Chinese temple stand there. Every year, in the weeks following the Chinese New Year, Chinese families flock to Achipur to pay their respects to the spirit of Tai Pak Kung (as Acchi is known to the Chinese) and also to pray for annual blessings from Tudigong (the spirit of the Land) to whom the temple is dedicated.
The presence of Chinese in Calcutta is evidenced by an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette in April 1784 in which a man referred to as Tom Fatt offers his services as a cleaner of water tanks. This same man is said to have owned a rum distillery and a cabinet-making workshop, and to have been a maker of sugar and sugar candy. Police records of 1788 also state that a number of Chinese had settled in Calcutta (Salmon 1999: 396–8). Even in two maps of Calcutta prepared as early as 1792 and 1793, Chinese settlement is well-marked (Sarkar 1967: 82).
The Chinese presence in Calcutta is further corroborated by an altogether different source. One Li Van Phue, a civil servant of Chinese origin, in his travel note in 1830 stated that he found in Calcutta a few Chinese who had been residing there for a long time. Li further informs us that they amounted to several hundred. Most of them were extremely poor. They already owned a temple dedicated to Guan Yu—one of the most popular deities worshipped especially by merchants. During his stay in Calcutta, Li had many occasions to visit the temple, which was a meeting place for every Chinese businessman. This temple was located in the heart of the Chinese quarters in one of the lanes around Kasaitallah and Dharmatallah, as we know from Alabaster’s account. In fact this area is known as the first Chinatown and is located in central Calcutta. Elsewhere, our author Li deplores the fact that a few Chinese had been hired by British missionaries to translate Christian books into Chinese and to print them, and he comments, ‘in so doing by their treachery the missionaries want to bring the people to their faith’. He also says that the teachings of the Christian missionaries borrowed from those of Confucius in order to attract new converts better. As a matter of fact we know that Serampore to the north of Calcutta was one of the early places where British Christian missionaries launched the printing of Chinese books. The activities of the Chinese community in Calcutta are further described by another Chinese traveller who visited Calcutta in 1820.1
The earliest Chinese to start settling in Calcutta appear to have been the runaway sailors and indentured servants mentioned in Acchi’s complaint to Warren Hastings. Calcutta, being a major port, had started playing host to many Chinese sailors either on their way to or returning from another country. They would stop in Calcutta and wait for the ships to carry them to their destination. Journeys by sea being slow and the ships infrequent, at times many months had to be spent ashore. While they waited for their ships, they had to work for their living, and therefore, they must have started offering their services to the people there. Since most of the sailors were trained in carpentry and mechanical work, this could explain why the first Chinese settlers in Calcutta were engaged in carpentry or did mechanical ‘fitter’s’ jobs. While working, some of the sailors may have got more permanent jobs and hence gradually abandoned their seafaring ways and started living in Calcutta. Thus, although the evidence indicates that a Chinese community did exist in Calcutta as early as the 1780s, the migration of Chinese to Calcutta was neither the outcome of importation of indentured labour on a large scale, as was the case with the immigrant Malays, nor was there any major influx at one time. On the contrary, the Chinese migration to Calcutta was in general slow but continuous.
The push factors responsible for Chinese migration to Calcutta may have had some indirect link with the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion in China in the mid-nineteenth century, combined with the intense exploitation by the imperialist powers and the landlords there. Furthermore, in the process of the triangular trade between India, China, and Britain, there was frequent passage of ships between India and China, which facilitated the arrival of Chinese. Pull factors related to the policies of the East India Company encouraging settlement may also have operated to draw Chinese to Calcutta. The sense of security amongst the Chinese in Calcutta would have lured a large number of Chinese to come to Calcutta and settle down there. Many of the people who had migrated from south China had experience of security under British guns and flagships in the treaty ports along the China coast. India under British rule, in the eyes of Chinese immigrants, was very safe, provided that they did not meddle in local politics and remained loyal to the government. Chinese settlers in Calcutta have always scrupulously followed this rule of not creating any trouble. To quote one among them: ‘The English Government is a very good one; it lets us manage our own affairs and helps us if anyone else tries to injure us. Its policemen leave us alone, and its small cause [sic] court has been established specially for our convenience (Chaudhuri et al. 1975: 156). Somerville (1966: 40–5), in his article entitled ‘The Lanes of China Town’, echoed the same views about the settlement of the Chinese in Calcutta. Another factor responsible for Chinese migration was the pull from the existing Chinese community in Calcutta itself. Many Chinese came to Calcutta initially to meet their relatives. They were eventually absorbed in the township. Some of them were unskilled and learnt shoemaking or carpentry as apprentices under their relatives already settled in Calcutta; each then eventually selected his or her independent trade. Some others, such as skilled tanners or carpenters, came with a little capital and multiplied their money by hard work. The Chinese community in Calcutta has always extended help to the newcomers in their midst.
To a certain extent the Chinese government may also have had some interest in promoting migration, since the Chinese residents of Calcutta’s Chinatown were regular contributors to China’s overseas remittances.
In 1819 for the first time, the Calcutta School Society enumerated the Chinese population in Calcutta. According to its enumeration, the number of Chinese was 414 (Nair 1989: 241). Walter Hamilton in a note of 1820 informs us that the number of houses belonging to the Chinese in Calcutta was ten (ibid.: 228). In 1837 Captain Birch, the superintendent of police of Calcutta, gave the number of Chinese as 362 (ibid.: 867). While the census of May 1850, taken by the order of the chief magistrate of Calcutta, gave the number as 847 (ibid.: 988), Alabaster, in an article that appeared in the Calcutta Review in 1858, estimated it to be around 500 (Chaudhuri et al. 1975: 137).
More detailed and systematic information about the Chinese people in Calcutta could be ascertained for the first time from the report on the census of the town of Calcutta conducted in 1876. The report shows the number as 805, indicating a very gradual growth of the Chinese population over the following decades. It states that the majority of the Chinese lived in three areas of the city—Burrabazar, Colootola, and Bowbazar—the area which is known as the old Chinatown of Calcutta. Structural reminders of the community’s presence exist there, including several Chinese temples, schools, and association headquarters. The report also points to the low number of Chinese females in the community, only sixty-four altogether. It added that because of this small proportion of Chinese women, most of these men continued to wed Eurasian women.
A scrutiny of the census reports from 1901 to 1981 reveals the trend of growth of the Chinese population in Calcutta. Data in Table 1 are not necessarily accurate, but can be used to show the trend. Figure 1 shows the population chart of the Chinese in Calcutta.
The increase in population was paralleled by an increase in the proportion of women to men in the Chinese population. In the 1911 census, it is stated that Chinese men in this area outnumbered Chinese women by 8 to 1. Ten years later, according to the 1921 census, men outnumbered women by only 5 to 1. By 1931 the proportion of men to women had declined further and was then 4 to 1. In succeeding decades the proportion was to be even further reduced considerably. In the 1961 census it was shown that there were 6,000 females out of a total Chinese population of 14,607.
Although the increase in the population of Chinese women was partly due to births within the community, it could also be explained by the fact that, as male Chinese immigrants began to succeed economically, their marriages would be arranged in China, from where they would return with their brides after a short leave from India. Indeed, by the 1930s, the practice of marriage and cohabitation with native women was rare.
Figure 1:Population chart of the Chinese in Calcutta
Tidings of economic success in India, coupled with increasingly difficult circumstances in China, contributed to a steady stream of Chinese immigrants to Calcutta during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. This was the peak period of the growth of the Chinese population in Calcutta.
Thereafter, the number began to decline. The Sino-Indian rift after 1959, and particularly the 1962 war, could be called a landmark in the reverse trend of declining growth rate. The border dispute changed the official Indian attitude towards its residents of Chinese descent. Leng Shao-chuan and Cohen (1972: 12) made a detailed study of the effect of the Sino-Indian dispute upon the fate of the Chinese population in India, particularly in Calcutta. They commented: ‘New Delhi began to take measures against pro-communist elements, ordering the registration and classification of people of Chinese descent in India and tightening the requisites for residential permits for those who were not Indian citizens.’ Many Chinese were deported. These included teachers in the pro-communist Chinese school, staff members of pro-communist newspapers who were thought to be sympathetic to the Chinese government. Additionally, some Chinese who were not self-employed and were employed in factories lost their jobs. Cantonese Chinese, many of whom were ship fitters, were particularly hard hit since they were considered a security risk in the strategic river port area.
In the spring of 1963, China sent ships to Madras and several groups of Chinese were repatriated. In all, some 2,345 Indian Chinese were repatriated to China in 1963. These included both internees and their dependents. From then till the present day there has been a sharp decline in the Chinese population in Calcutta.
Meanwhile several factors have combined to drive the Calcutta Chinese abroad in increasing numbers.
Denial of citizenship rights has alienated the Chinese in a big way. Chen Jung-ta, publisher of the daily Chinese Journal of India, lamented thus: ‘Though I was born here, I was declared stateless after 1962 as I could not produce my birth certificate. When I later applied for Indian citizenship, I was refused, as this time what stood in the way was that I could neither speak nor write any Indian language.’ The community feels that they are living under a cloud of official suspicion. Jong Kee, an octogenarian Chinese born in Calcutta, recalls: ‘Overnight we found the government treating us as communist spies and even today we continue to be treated as such.’
Their movements are restricted. They are required to notify the police about every movement of theirs, from a change of residence to any movement within the country, in spite of the revocation of the Foreign (Restriction of Chinese) Nationals Order, 1962, in 1994, only because of corruption and the mindlessness of unrelenting bureaucracy.
The plight of the Chinese in Calcutta is further aggravated by economic deprivation. Essentially a business community, the Chinese find themselves in the unique position of not being able to take loans from nationalized banks. They continue to depend on the age-old system of looking to their own community for help. Job prospects for the young Chinese is bleak. One Chinese graduate says in a resigned way: ‘This we understand as it is natural for an Indian employer to prefer one of his own blood rather than one with whom he has nothing in common.’ Moreover, the reputation they have established in the tanning industry is also receding because of their lack of adaptability to the latest forms of technological entrepreneurship.
In view of all these predicaments, the affluent group within the Chinese society is looking for greener pastures in Europe, North America, Canada, or Australia. In the last couple of years many more have joined the queue waiting for the necessary sponsorship which can help them pack their bags and say Chai-chien (good bye) to Calcutta.
The statement of the owner of Calcutta’s Chinese restaurant, in an interview with a French journalist a few years back, is revealing. He says that his father came to Calcutta in 1906 from Canton. He was born in Calcutta in 1916. He studied six years in Hong Kong’s King’s College and returned to India. But all his six children are settled abroad, and although he does not think about it, he might join them one day.
Thus the more affluent among the Chinese could pursue alternatives by looking abroad for greener pastures. But what about the hardworking poor Chinese in Calcutta? When asked about their feelings, one such Chinese replied that he would never disappear from Calcutta for the simple reason: ‘where else is living as cheap as here?’
Alabaster, Charles, ‘Chinese Colony in Calcutta’, Calcutta Review 31, 62, 1858, pp. 368–84.
Basu, Basanta Kumar, ‘A Bygone Chinese Colony in Bengal’, Bengal Past and Present, 47, January–June 1934, pp. 120–2.
Basu, Ellen O., ‘The Limits of Entrepreneurship: Family Process and Ethnic Role Amongst Chinese Tanners of Calcutta’, unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University, 1985.
Chaudhuri, Pradip, and A. Mukhopadhyay (eds), Calcutta: People and Empire, Gleanings from Old Journals, Calcutta: Indian Book Exchange, 1975.
de Hennins, Anne, ‘China Town in Calcutta’, Imprint 12, 9, December 1972, pp. 21–3.
Fitzgerald, Stephen, China and the Overseas Chinese: A Study of Peking’s Changing Policy, 1949–1970, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Leng Shao-chuan, and Jerome Alan Cohen, ‘The Sino-Indian Dispute over the Internment and Detention of Chinese in India’, in Jerome Cohen ed., China’s Practice of International Law, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1972, p. 12.
Nair, P. Thankappan (ed.), Calcutta in the 19th Century (Company’s Days), Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1989.
Poston Jr, Dudley L., and Mei-Tu Tu, ‘The Distribution of Overseas Chinese in the Contemporary World’, International Migration Review, Vol. XXIV, no. 3, 1980, pp. 480–509.
Salmon, Claudine, ‘Bengal as Reflected in Two South-East Asian Travelogues from the Early Nineteenth Century’, in Om Prakash and Denys Lombard (eds), Bay of Bengal 1500–1800, Manohar: New Delhi, 1999, pp. 396–8.
Sarkar, Nikhil, China Paray Yuddha (in Bengali), Calcutta: Sripanther Kolkata, Tribeni,1967.
Somerville, Augustus, Crime and Religious Beliefs in India, 2nd ed., Calcutta: 1966, passim.