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Chinese, The


Chinese, The Traders, Buddhist Monks and imperial envoys from China used to come to the different kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent regularly since the fifth century AD. The first was Faxian (fa-hien). We do not, however, have any trace of a Chinese diaspora in India till the advent of the western powers. The Silk Street in Calicut (Kozhikod), Chinakatta (Chinese market) in Quilon, and some words like Cheenabharani (Chinese jars), Cheenachetti (Chinese cooking pot), Cheena or Chinu (large boats), etc and the Chinese porcelains, are the only vestiges of Chinese presence in India. Even the seven voyages to the western Indian kingdoms and four to Bengal did not lead to Chinese emigration.

This however, is not the case with Southeast Asia where wave after wave of Chinese emigration followed the violent overthrow of dynasties like the Song, Yuan and Ming. The story of these migrations, and of the search for refuge by these Chinese, both officials and others, has not been fully explored.

At present there is a sizeable number of Chinese in Calcutta and other parts of the subcontinent. Though not numerous, they are important for their contribution to the material life of these places.

The first mention of emigration in Chinese records is to be found in a short notice published in a Chinese work that can be translated as "A Maritime Record". Published in 1820, it is based on an eyewitness account of the late 18th century. It mentions that there were Chinese in Calcutta from Fujian (Fukien) and Guangdong (Canton) provinces (both coastal areas), but does not say what kind of business they were engaged in. It may be assumed that besides other items they were involved in the preparation and sale of opium. Contemporary evidence is available in a police report of 1788 (preserved in the Public Records of the Government of India) which mentions the existence of a sizeable number of Chinese settled close to Bow Bazar Street. Although generally sober and industrious, they used to get intoxicated occasionally and commit violent outrages against each other. These may be the persons engaged in drug trafficking.

Around 1830, a Chinese-born Vietnamese envoy to Bengal, named Li Van Phuc, met the Chinese residents in Calcutta during his stay there. He put the number at several hundreds, though according to the police census of 1837 they numbered 362. He described the local Chinese as very poor, but at the same time mentioned that they owned a temple dedicated to Guan Yu - a historical figure of the period of Three Kingdoms (220 AD -280 AD). Guan Yu is one of the most popular deities especially worshipped by merchants. This gives the impression that these Chinese who came from Fujian and Guangdong were not Buddhists. They are commonly known as Hakkas, presumably a corrupt form of Fukien (Fujian), or a form developed from the Cantonese Hak ka, meaning 'stranger'.

The temple was a meeting place for Chinese businessmen. Li often visited the temple and communicated with the local Chinese by means of writing as their dialects differed. This temple of Guan Yu (also called Guandi, di meaning 'a god'), dedicated to the God of War, was located in the Chinese quarter in one of the lanes around Kasaitollah and Dharamtallah as reported by C Alabaster in 1849. Alabaster reports that the Cantonese carpenters of Calcutta also had a temple dedicated to the Sea Goddess Tianhou ('Heavenly Spouse') worshipped by the seafarers and located in Bow Bazar.

In addition to the carpenters and lard manufacturers there were also shoemakers. Alabaster informs that many of these Chinese were engaged in the lucrative profession of preparation and retail of opium and charas. At Dharamtallah and Kasaitollah one could see little black boards announcing that they were licensed to sell opium, ganja and the like.

Ahmad Rijaluddin, a Malayan traveller from South India, (1810) alluded to the China Bazar where wealthy banians sold commodities like gold thread, mirrors, silk, lamps, lanterns, teapots, dishes, cups and saucers from China.

The raison d'etre of Chinese emigration may be the trade connection with the Portuguese and the British, and the security of livelihood that the British capital in India provided them in contrast to the hazardous and unsafe life in China. Moreover, the traffic in opium and other drugs encouraged by the Western Powers lured them to Bengal with the prospect for quick money. The Chinese carpenters were already reputed as boat-builders. The shoemakers followed later, and the First World War ushered in the Chinese tanneries. Continuous turmoils like the Opium Wars (1840, 1856), the Taiping Tianguo Uprising (1850-1860), the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901), and the series of movements and uprisings that overthrew the Qing (Chhing) dynasty, must have forced the Chinese people to seek refuge elsewhere. Calcutta was a safe haven close to home. A later addition to the community were the Chinese dentists who spread over all the metropolitan cities. They were a respected lot and much sought after for their skill.

The various censuses show that from 300 in the 1830s their number rose to around 500 in the 1850s, and kept on increasing at a snail's pace till 1961 when it stood at around 7000. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 caused a sudden downward fall. Unofficial estimates put the number of Chinese in Calcutta at around 20 thousand, most of whom are concentrated in the China Town at Tangra. They are, with a few exceptions, all engaged in the tannery business, their tanneries numbering as many as 500. To spare the city of the pollution caused by these tanneries, the government of West Bengal has made arrangements to move them to a new and better location at Karaidanga near Sonarpur, about 16 km from Calcutta.

The Chinese, like any other foreign community, are basically insular. The earliest settlers were all male, some of whom even married into Eurasian families. Later, they would marry in the Chinese mainland or into Chinese families elsewhere and come back with their spouses to look after the family business together. Instances of marrying into Indian families are rare. The Chinese used to bring their own people from outside to help them run their business. Sometimes they would help their kinsfolk to set up their own business here.

With the passage of time the Chinese in Bengal gradually became more and more closely associated, if not totally assimilated, with the local way of life and religious beliefs. Besides celebrating their own (Lunar) New Year festival, they started taking part in Durga and Kali Puja, Eid and Diwali with their Bengali neighbours. The famous Chinese Kali Badi (temple) in China Town in Calcutta built by a Chinese devotee is a favourite place of worship for all communities.

The Chinese presence in Bengal was not only limited to Calcutta. In Dhaka they were quite prominent in the economic life of the city, mainly in shoemaking and the opium trade. They introduced the Chinese cuisine in Dhaka when they first opened Chinese restaurants in the fifties of the last century. The Chinese Diaspora in Dhaka is also a post-First World War phenomenon and their number swelled in the forties. They resided in particular areas of the city. The shoemakers used to reside in the Imamganj - Mitford Road area and their shops lined the road. The China building in Azimpur, where several families lived in one building, reminds us of their presence. Chittagong also had a sizeable Chinese population engaged in trade and shoemaking.

It is characteristic of the Chinese Diaspora that they settled in urban centres where they could easily earn their livelihood through trade. They hardly ever settled in the rural areas. [Haraprasad Ray]

Bibliography Alabaster, C, 'The Chinese Colony in Calcutta', Calcutta Review, 1849, (reprinted in, Pradip Chaudhuri and Abhijit Mukhopadhyaya (eds), Calcutta: People and Empire, Gleanings from Old Journal, Calcutta, 1975); Pradip Sinha, Calcutta in Urban History, Calcutta, 1978; The Census Reports of Bengal, up to 1991; Salmon Claudine, 'Bengal as Reflected in two South-East Asian Travelogues from the Early Nineteenth Century', in Om Prakash and Denys Lombard (eds), Commerce and Culture in the Bay of Bengal, 1500-1800, Manohar, Delhi, 1999.