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Kolkata’s Early Chinese Community and their Economic Contributions

Kolkata’s Early Chinese Community and their Economic Contributions

Martin Lavicka08 Jul 2015Leave a comment


Written by Adam Horálek

BOSE, Arpita (2013): Kolkata’s Early Chinese Community and their Economic Contributions. South Asia Research, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp.163–176.

China and India constitute the two biggest nations in the world. They share their borders in an extensive way and most of the academia focus reflects the political and historical struggles and relations these two nations had and have. However, the fact that there has also been significant migration in the past between them is quite hidden to the general knowledge. Both countries have a most emergent contact via the borderland of Yunnan, which, although it is considered purely and only a Chinese province not bordering with India but Myanmar (Burma), has always played the role of continual ethnic, cultural and religious segue between Indian and Chinese culture. The presented paper focuses on the one-way migration link between China and India and the economic role of Chinese migrants in Indian society.

The Chinese overseas community is a phenomenon mostly discussed in the context of Southeast Asia, United States, and partially in the context of Europe and Africa. That Chinese migrants can be found already in almost any country and in significant numbers is widely known. However, the discussion about the Chinese in India, the second largest population and also one of the most growing economies, is very vague. As the author points out, the Chinese are part of Indian society, at least in the case of Kolkata, since the early 18th century. It is as old as many other Chinese overseas communities in Southeast Asia, though not that vivid and visible. However, the Chinese community in Kolkata represents the traditional, multigenerational and well settled community which faced very similar developments as other Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Therefore, the paper fills the gap in the knowledge of this particular regional Chinese Overseas community and helps to complete the mosaic of the Chinese diaspora worldwide.

As the author points out, not only do the Chinese constitute the worldwide and multimillion-sized population but also Indians are significant contributors to international migration and cosmopolization of the world. Also, recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of Indians in China itself. As the author argues, “…such people tend to keep a low profile, but even the slightest research efforts uncover amazingly rich evidence of migratory connections between South Asia and other parts of Asia.” (Arpita 2013: 164).

After a brief introduction into the general migration to India and a short outlined history of Chinese migration to India, the author focuses on the occupational specialization of the Chinese in Kolkata, the second biggest Indian city with the oldest and biggest traditional Chinese community in South Asia. That there were several migrational waves of Chinese into India is obvious especially due to the historical developments. The major waves included Chinese migration due to the Opium Wars in the 19th century in respective decades and then in the 20th century it follows the geo-political developments in both countries such as two world wars, the Chinese civil war, Indian independence, Chinese Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and then most notably and recently the emergent migration caused by the liberation of human migration after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. These waves also implicated the responses of the Indian (or before, the British Indian) government towards immigrants. There have been several cases of ethnic exclusion of the Chinese in India, especially in Kolkata, where their economic activities were most notable as well as most expanded. These policies influenced the occupational specialization of the Chinese in Kolkata, which is the major focus of the paper.

As the paper shows, there are four main occupations linked ethnically to the Chinese community in Kolkata: carpenters, dentistry, shoemaking, and the tannery businesses. Apart from these traditional and most notable occupations there are several others such as Chinese restaurants, China Bazaars, Chinese Banks, etc. The four major Chinese occupations constituted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the beginning, the group of Chinese dealing with carpentry belonged mostly to the “clan” called “Sez yap” in Cantonese and they came mostly from Guangdong province. However, through time, the Hakka people outnumbered them. Their goods were appreciated and became part of the decorations in governmental houses of the British colonial administration during the 19th century. However, the Sino-Indian war in 1962 spelt disaster for this profession as most of “…the Chinese carpenters who worked in the Hoogly docks were discharged from their jobs due to security concerns.” (Aripta 2013: 168). Most of them left the country (and in particular India) and returned to mainland China or went to Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Chinese carpentry survived this massive reduction and geographically moved to the Bowbazar in Kolkata and their businesses are now more oriented towards the tourist customers.

Dentistry, on the contrary, had a very much different development. It is a much younger occupation typical for Kolkata’s Chinese and it has several other differences. Firstly, most of the Chinese dentists in Kolkata come from Hubei province and the first wave of immigration started between the world wars, in the 1920s and 1930s. Most notably, this strata of Chinese businessmen was not affected that much by the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Due to the need of their businesses in India’s second largest city, their status changed and most of them became permanent residents, which “…brought them further prosperity” (Liang 2007: 407-408, in: Aripta 2013: 169).

The Hakka people from Hunan province also became very important shoemakers. This kind of business started in Kolkata as early as 1838 when the first 25 shoemaker companies of Chinese ownership were registered in Kolkata. Despite over a hundred years of prosperity of these businesses, nowadays, they are on a significant decline. This decline was, partly paradoxically, caused by the shoemaking boom in China itself which overwhelmed even the Indian market with its very low-cost production.

The Chinese tannery businesses started to appear in Kolkata in very early 20th century. Most of the Chinese tanneries were family owned and the “chain” migration was rooted in Hakka’s regions in China. These businesses were very geographically marginalized on the eastern periphery of Kolkata. Since the 1910s, pit tanning was the most common process of tanning and was pioneered by the Chinese in India. Despite very severe conditions ordered by the British Indian government during the Second World War, the tannery businesses survived, though with very significant financial losses. Then, in the 1960s till 1980s the tannery businesses survived because of significant exports to the Soviet Union. However, in the 1980s the decline and later also the fall of the Soviet Union caused the decline of the Chinese tannery business in Kolkata as well. The decline continues to recent times.

As the paper shows, the Chinese diaspora is not a static community with a single business strategy. Rather, it is a very fluctuating community accommodating to its environment both socio-politically and economically. The study points out the significance of understanding the Chinese community businesses in different parts of the world. Not only does it help to understand the tactics and trends in Chinese Overseas migrations but also its economic activities. I assume the same could be very well documented in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. The stereotypes linked with the Chinese Overseas communities are not accurate. However, it must be mentioned, that due to the globalization of the world economy as well as of the Chinese Overseas community, there is one unifying trend in the occupational strategy of the Chinese. Even in Kolkata, which can serve as an example, the very typical and “typified” Chinese businesses, nowadays most prosperous and growing, include Chinese cuisine, Chinese banks or insurance companies, beauty salons, and Chinese bazaars. These trends seem to be very much typical for most of the Chinese communities worldwide.

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