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The Chinese in India: A Colonial Miscellany

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

The following extracts come to us from a range of sources including memoirs and accounts of ordinary travellers. They provide us with a colourful image of the life of the Chinese community in colonial Calcutta and elsewhere. There are a few dominating themes that emerge in these accounts. All of them seem to narrate the space of Chinatown a kind of exceptional space- something that exists within the logic of an Indian city but also simultaneously something that exists outside of it. Many of the accounts use the trope of crossing the threshold in the city to enter into a slightly different kind of cultural zone. While most of the accounts of an ordinary sense of Chinese lives and Chinatown, there is also an interesting account of the subterranean trade in arms within the burgeoning radical armed nationalist movement and the Chinese inhabitants and sailors who passed through the city.


Colesworthey Grant (1813-1880), Anglo-Indian domestic life : a letter from an artist in India to his mother in England, Thacker, Spink & Co. Calcutta, 1862


In the Cossitollah, a street to which European tradesmen are gradually imparting a respectability to which it was before a stranger, as attempt was made some time back by a European to introduce a butcher shop, which might recall our half-scattered recollections of Covent-garden or Meet-market,—but the times were not, I suppose, sufficiently mature for this, and in a short time the shop had disappeared. In this same Cossitollah (which, by the way, literally means, “ botcher’s place,” as I am given to understand it formerly was) may be observed about twenty-five Chinese shoe-makers, whose services are chiefly, if not exclusively in requisition for the more delicate fabrication of ladies’ and children’s shoes.


These they manufacture with much taste and at moderate charges. There are probably an equal number of Chinese carpenters, in and about the same neighbourhood, who are at all times considered valuable acquisitions. Though their remuneration be three or four times that paid to the common Bengalee “mistree” it is not more than commensurate with the value of their services; not only because in matters of skill and ingenuity the Chinese mechanics and artisans may claim precedence of all other Orientals, but because their superiority extends to that greater energy which gets them through as much work in an hour as the Bengalee mistree would accomplish in four. All carpenters attached to our ships in the country service are Chinese; but then this would follow as a matter of necessity as well as choice—because Hindoos cannot go to sea, and the Moosulmans of Bengal follow no other handicrafts than those of printers, tailors, bookbinders, dyers, silk and gold thread-makers, glaziers and bricklayers. There is probably hardly any one branch of the industrial arts amongst the Bengalees in which we are more deficient than in that of carpentry. There are many clever skilful fellows amongst them, no doubt, but they are almost exclusively confined to the service of the European cabinet-makers, who of course have made them what they are: hence to obtain the aid of a decent carpenter for any trifling little matter in the house, or for daily or monthly servitude, is a matter of the greatest difficulty.

The Chinese shoe-makers are, however, not mere labourers. Some are able to sport their little show-glasses and stock-in-trade, and most of them possess sufficient business to require the services of four or five Bengalee workmen. They appear industrious—sober—cleanly—honest and independent. I have, if ever, seldom seen a dirty-looking Chinese, and never heard of a drunken one; but they are of course fearfully addicted to opium smoking—a habit to which, I believe, may be attributed occasional broils, sometimes attended with serious consequences, amongst themselves—generally arising out of disputes during their midnight gambling,—a further habit to which they are sadly prone, both here and in their native land.


Of late years the Chinese in Calcutta appear to have augmented both their numbers and their occupations. There-is, at Intally, an extensive manu-factory for lard—an article for which they would not be slow in discovering that Europeans could not well be indebted to either their Hindoo or Moosulman subjects; and they are busy also in the preparation of sweatmeats and preserves, for which latter in particular their countrymen are so reputed. A thriving, thrifty set, generally, I believe, are our Chinese fellow-citizens; for at one period a happy, intelligent-faced young fellow amongst them, then exclusively a shoe-maker, who might have been seen with his wife, attired in English costume at his side, driving abroad in his buggy, was an object of curiosity—but now is he not only rivalled, but outshone by several of his countrymen, the' owners of yet more respectable and costly looking conveyances. Our old friend of buggy celebrity, however, still holds his place, for, extending his partiality for buggy driving into a feeling of more general interest in such things, he betook himself to dealing in conveyances and horses at large, and, disdaining the hacknied advice of " sticking to his last,” has become, I believe, about one of the most opulent of his community. 1 may mention that the Celestials here cannot get them wives of the daughters of their own people, but intermarry with the humbler orders of the Portuguese.


When a Chinese shoe-maker removes from one residence to another he carries his sign-board, number and all, which is never altered, along with him,—thus converting the order of the shops into a maze of numerical confusion, which is only rendered “confusion worse confounded,” by the occupier’s occasionally entering into partnership with a neighbour, and placing two sign-boards, and two numbers, over the same door!—or, with yet more amusing pertinacity of blunder, erecting a new sign-board containing both names and both numbers! As an amusing instance of this most admired dis¬ order, I notice one of these petty shops, occupied conjointly by several Chinese, who are too poor to hire premises exclusively their own, over the two doors of which may be Been collected together no less than eight sign¬ boards and as many numbers !



The authenticity of the 'English names which appear upon some of these boards may be considered as beyond the merely doubtful. Though—“ a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”—some of our Chinese shoe-makers would appear to think that it is not so with leather; and that, whether with reference to the difficulty of remembering their own, or the recommendation of English names, the latter have very important advantages. In plain language,—though a European name may occasionally be seen with which there may be some connection on the mother’s or wife’s side, the majority are, I believe, altogether assumed.


Daniel Pidgeon, An engineer's holiday; or, Notes of a round trip from long (Sic.), Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co., London, 1882

Once more, to our astonishment, we found the ubiquitous Chinaman,  settled this time in the Calcutta Chinatown, and the Carpenter and Schoemaker of the excellence of this great city. Elsewhere, we've seen the Chinese competing with white pieces at a lower rate of pay, for the Chinese artisans in India demands twice as much wages as a native, and thankfully welcomed by employers at that price. One those not where the style of industry will not appear. Certainly it would be a great improvement if the foreign community of Calcutta could replace their lazy, caste-ridden Hindoo domestics with 1/10 the number of capable Chinese servants.


Extracts from Michael Silvestri, Policing ‘Bengali Terrorism’ in India and the World: Imperial Intelligence and Revolutionary Nationalism, 1905-1939 Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

Michael Silvestri, in his academic study of Imperial intelligence and  revolutionary nationalism in the early 20th century in Bengal provides us with an account of the trade in arms between Bengali ‘terrorists’ who often procured their weapons from Chinese sailors travelling through Calcutta.

In January 1925, a long-standing member of the Dacca Anushilan Samiti named Dhirendra Prosad Ray attempted to negotiate an arms purchase through a Sikh named Bhola Singh, a Peshawari named Syed Golam, a Eurasian man named Robinson, and three Chinese men named Ah Yeong, Ah Loo, and Ah Yeun. Ray had already purchased several revolvers and was negotiating to purchase eight automatic pistols and 800 rounds of ammunition, which had apparently been smuggled into India by a Chinese carpenter.

By this time, Chinese sailors had also emerged as an important source of arms for Indian revolutionaries.50 By the 1930s, the Calcutta Police regarded Chinese seamen as one of the largest suppliers of weapons to revolutionary groups, and speculated that groups of sailors, and sometimes entire crews, would share the economic risk by taking out subscriptions to purchase revolvers and ammunition. Police were also frustrated by the caution of Chinese crew members, who preferred almost exclusively to deal with members of Calcutta’s Chinese community, rather than Indians, as intermediaries.51 The Chinese community was thus strongly identified with smuggling in British India, and it was certainly the case that some Chinese, particularly unskilled migrants who arrived in large numbers due to the political upheavals of early-twentieth-century China, amassed wealth, particularly involving the smuggling of opium out of Calcutta.52 The Dane August Peter Hansen, who served with the Port Police of Calcutta, regarded Chinese as the most efficient experts in the game of smuggling.53 Some intended buyers of arms in Calcutta were Bengali revolutionaries. The Deputy Commissioner of the Calcutta Police B. N. Banarji observed that “the Chinamen preferred selling these weapons to terrorists (Swadeshi Baboos) as their experience in previous cases showed that this type of purchaser paid the best price for firearms.54


A. Claude Brown, The ordinary man's India, Cecil Palmer, London, 1927

A trip to China town is one of the night excursions which you certainly should not miss, on a visit to Calcutta at all events.

It is easily reached via Bowbazaar Street, which is one of the main arteries of the city. Narrow winding streets, ill-lit and indescribably filthy, leads you past mean one-story buildings to the quarter where John Chinaman and recites with his family. The Chinese dwelling themselves, and their occupants, are clean and decent enough, and John himself is an exemplary citizen when left alone to ply his trade without molestation, either as a carpenter or as a shoemaker, at both of which he excels.

True, his work cost more, but it is also worth very much more, than that of the Indian, for it is invariably well done, and completed to time, two little understood qualities in India.

The Chinaman has small use for the Indian; he despises his competitor for his lack of enterprise and general inclination to indolence, his callous way of half doing a job, and his utter indifference to the value of time. John Chinaman employs Indians as waiters in his restaurants, but the cooking and other really important work he does himself.

Chinese restaurants are popular as a novelty with the European residents of Calcutta, and it is quite the usual thing to make up a party, which may include ladies, to pay an evening visit to China town. A motor car can just contrive to negotiate safely the many twists and turns of the torturous by lanes which take you to the quarter, and the spice of adventurous is added if, as is quite likely, some of the party, although residents, may be totally ignorant of the locality of Chinatown, for it is well hidden – though really one of the most accessible of Calutta’s night sights.

Time was, and that not many years ago, when the numerous gaming houses, wherein are played fan-tan and other games of European chance, were open to all visitors regardless of nationality. It is not so now, for European visitors did not always play the game and were quite apt to make their own rules. The Chinese quite naturally retaliated and there was a certain amount of trouble. So that nowadays, while the police allow John and his family to gamble to their heart's content, no European may enter the Chinese gaming house, even as a spectator, and the police are very strict about the matter of enforcing this decree.

Having arrived at the restaurant, a smiling proprietor welcomes the party, personally leading the way inside and conducting you to a curtained alcove. The seats are barren and hard, and the tables of plain unpolished wood, but the cloth spread thereon is immaculate, you will find the fare provided to be of the very best quality, and wonderfully cooked. Pictures of beautiful English girls adorn the walls – the kind of pictures which were once so popular with the publishers of Christmas annuals – and a warm savoury smell of cooking pervades the place. Chinese and also European menus is presented and the visitor is wise who makes his choice of the long list of Chinese dishes. These are novel, and each order is especially prepared, and being placed on the table smoking hot, while the quantity provided will be found invariably ample for the combined appetites of two normal individuals. It is therefore quite usual thing to order one portion for every two members of the party, and the restaurant proprietor takes no exception to this method of ordering.

Rice fried in the Chinese manner will be found particularly delicious, and to those of you who know rice merely as the chief ingredient of English rice pudding, this dish will prove a revelation; and the curried prawns mixed with it may be eaten with a sense of comparative security, as for the nonce you can forget that the savoury morsels are most likely been retrieved from the disease affected waters of the adjacent river Hooghly.  You may at least be certain that the prawns have been  properly cleaned and prepared by a cook who thoroughly knows his business.

Ordinary table cutlery will be found placed ready for your use, as well as the spoon and fork with which Curry should always be eaten. Chinese chopsticks are also provided, but their use is an art not easily or quickly acquired, so, if you like your food hot, and are at all hungry, it will be well to confine yourself to the use of the usual spoon and fork. The chopsticks may be pocketed as a souvenir to be shown to admiring friends the next day.

Then to be thoroughly in the picture you should order china tea and drink it without milk or sugar during the course of the meal, and afterwards, if you're so inclined you may drink something stronger, but only up to 11 o'clock which is the authorised license hour in Calcutta, for John is a law-abiding citizen and values his privileges much too highly to place them in jeopardy for the sake of a transient profit. The Chinaman in India never looks for travel; as a general rule he gives much less trouble to the police that while the Indians, Anglo Indians or Europeans. of course John has plenty of opium for private consumption, and some of this may be obtained by him in ways which are not strictly orthodox, but that is quite another story.



Louis De Wohl, I follow my stars, George Harrap and Co., London, 1933.

Dinner we had in Chinatown.

There are thousands of Chinese in Calcutta, and my English man seemed to be well known among them; he was greeted from all sides, and always greeted back “good evening, John.”

We turned into a little shop.

“Show us things, John. But we don't want to buy anything- only look-see.”

 The Little China man grinned politely, displayed ivory carvings, bronzes, porcelain.

“I bought a fine carpet here yesterday,” whispered the Englishman. “Bargained for hours, of course. Got it very cheap in the end.”

“John”  produced a pretty Chinese vase and give it as a gift to the Englishman, who thanked him very politely, but seemed a little disconcerted, and I notice that he was rather silent on our way home.

Saying good night, I thanked him for a wonderful day.

“that's all right,”he grunted. “-Enjoyed myself- only I can get over the present of John’s——" , 

“Well it was rather nice of him, wasn’t it?”

“My dear chap, you're a novice. A China man giving a present! No, it's a proof that he did me down over that confounded carpet yesterday!…. God night.”



Hagen Louis, India Route March, The Pilot Press, London 1946.

Even nearer to Dalhousie Square and Central Avenue is China Town; another world on Its own, as complete and individual as Kumartuli. Once you begin to wander through the little byways and alleys. there is nothing to remind you that you are in India, This is a corner of China ; rather old  fashioned China, though, for the Younger- and more go ahead inhabitants are to be found in the newly built a block of flats which stand at each side of the wide roads on the edge of the Chinese quarter. But in the Winding streets, only just wide enough for a rikshaw to pass, the people are just the way you would expect them to be. You see frail, opium-smoking, Shadow men, slender women in flowered, silken coats and mummified grandfathers with stringy mandarin beards, sitting on the doorsteps blinking like cats in the Sun.

Almost every little Two Storied House Is a Restaurant Advertising Itself with a Large  vertical sign in scholars with gold and white characters.There are temples with golden dragons, prayer flags, lanterns and the sweet smell of incense. There Is a Chinese-Jewish synagogue with a Chinese rabbi chanting Hebrew prayers. There are opium dens. with the officially licensed addicts smoking their daily quota of poison. There are brothels more sordid than any to be found in the East, which is laying a lot. There Is a bit of Everything in old Chinatown, and everything. however insignificant, looks busy and purposeful and has a peculiar intimacy and self-sufficient life of its own. You see it even in the way they eat with their chop-sticks, sitting at the neatly laid tables in the little restaurants, or in the quietly passionate way they play Cards, with the money or chips changing hands all the lime.

The cafes and workshops are open until well past midnight and there is always plenty going on after dark. You constantly meet happy families, laughing and joking among themselves, on their way home from an outing. The Chinese are gay, sociable people and they love parties. Whenever they go out, which is very often, the women dress up in charming simple frocks, the children are put into their Sunday best and the men wear immaculate white slacks and shirts.  But what makes this place unique in Calcutta, is the everyday life once school hours are over. Then China Town is suddenly filled with children. It is dominated by them. All of them are neat and well fed; it is easy to see how well they are looked after. Obviously it is children first in the Chinese community.

Most of them, the boys and the girls, are dressed in a kind of scout uniform of khaki drill. To see these charming healthy young Chinese marching to their schools or to the gymnastic grounds where they do their exercises, is a wonderful antidote for that Far Eastern Hangover one gets from the seemingly hopeless ignorance and filth of one's everyday contacts and surroundings. The Chinese have their own schools which every child attends. They have their own clubs and welfare organisations. They have not allowed India to get them down.  This solicitude for the younger generation has produced results which can be seen all over the European part of Calcutta. For instance, the Chinese are the owners of many of the best shops; they are more expensive than the Indians, but you can trust their workmanship.

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