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India's Chinatowns: Down but not out

Sea Ip Church, pictured here on Sept. 11, in Kolkata's old Chinatown has a history going back 110 years. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

NEW DELHI -- When he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last September, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised China would invest $20 billion in India over the next five years. But while the flow of money from China has begun to pick up, there are also less encouraging signs about the state of Sino-Indian economic ties.

     There are only two Chinatowns in India, both in the eastern city of Kolkata. Both are on the wane.

     The old Chinatown is located in the city center, while the newer one is in the southern Tangra district. Five years ago, John Lee was running a restaurant in the latter. "We have 2,000 Chinese living here now," Lee said at the time. "There used to be as many as 30,000, and between 250 and 300 leather factories. It was bustling. My restaurant was also a factory before we turned it into a Chinese diner. The ceiling is very high, you see."

     He went on to describe the neighborhood's changing fortunes: "My father moved here from China in 1926 and later started the factory. He launched a Chinese association and put out a Chinese newspaper. There were Chinese schools, too. But about 10 years ago, the Indian government suddenly ordered us not to run factories here. Since then, many of us have emigrated overseas. The last school was closed six months ago because there weren't enough children."

      In early September this year, Lee's restaurant, the Hot Wok Village, was still there, but he was not.

      "Lee moved to Canada two years ago," said an Indian employee behind the register, where Lee used to stand.

Influx and exodus

In the 1770s, Chinese merchants from Guangdong Province came to Kolkata and set up sugar plantations on land granted to them by the East India Company. The original Chinatown dates to around that time, making it one of the oldest among the world's 170 Chinatowns.

     Kolkata's Chinese population ballooned in the early 1900s with an influx of workers who left home in the confusion that followed the end of the Qing dynasty. Affluent Hakka immigrants acquired tanning factories that had been run by Italians but which were shut down by the government of then-British India during World War I. The new Chinatown sprang up around this group of leather factories.

     According to local records, the number of people of Chinese descent living in Kolkata reached its peak of 100,000 sometime around 1940 to 1945. But when a border dispute broke out between China and India in 1962, tens of thousands left the city. Some were deported by the Indian government, others decided on their own to leave. Around this time, the small Chinatown in Mumbai completely disappeared.

Reason to hope?

Today, there are only 3,000 to 5,000 ethnic Chinese in Kolkata.

      Ho Chi Hsiung, 55, was playing chess at the Sea Ip Church, a landmark dating back to 1905, in the old Chinatown. "There is no future here for us," he said.

      His father, a carpenter, came to India from Guangdong Province in 1916. Ho was born in Kolkata and later owned a Chinese restaurant there. Already struggling with a limited number of customers, the shop took a further hit from the spread of bird flu. Ho finally closed the eatery three years ago. Two of his four siblings have emigrated to Canada.

      "Many Indians are losing their jobs," he said. "So how could Chinese find work here?" Ho placed his hands together and bowed to a hanging scroll of Kwan Kung, a Chinese god of wealth, housed in the church. At another temple nearby, around a dozen Chinese men were absorbed in playing mahjong.

      Could more Chinese investment in India revitalize the district?

      China's direct investment in the subcontinent has sharply increased since Modi came to power in May last year. China's cumulative investment in India as of June had almost tripled in 14 months to nearly $1.2 billion. The surge in the past year has been remarkable, though it is not enough to put Xi's promise of $20 billion over five years within reach.

      India is keen to reduce its growing trade deficit with China by, among other things, upgrading its manufacturing industry. To do so, attracting Chinese businesses will be vital. China, for its part, is encouraging its companies to explore overseas opportunities as a way of dealing with the cooling market at home. Given the sheer size of India's potential demand, it is certain that Chinese businesses will accelerate their investment in India, particularly in infrastructure, telecommunications and the electronics sectors.

      Despite his grim assessment of the future, Ho also sees at least some potential for a turnaround. "I have no doubt that Chinatown could provide a comfortable base for Chinese companies looking to enter India," he said.

      Kolkata is still home to several thousand India-born Chinese, who are fluent in Hindi or Bengali, as well as Cantonese and Hakka. Ho added: "Though much fewer than before, there are still some restaurants offering 'authentic' Chinese dishes, which would definitely be a plus" for Chinese workers posted to India.

      The Indian and Chinese governments have not shown any overt interest in the district, but Singaporean businesses and people of Chinese origin have joined with the Kolkata city government to revitalize the area. The Cha Project was launched to restore streetscapes and buildings, including Toong On Church, the oldest in the district, and to redevelop the dining district.

      Greater trade and investment between the two countries could give Kolkata's Chinatowns a much-needed second wind. Stronger economic ties would also go a long way toward soothing bilateral relations that remain strained by territorial disputes, both on land and at sea.

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