August 17th, 2012
12:06 PM GMT
Kolkata, India (CNN) - Kolkata’s Chinese community has been a key part of the city’s cultural and social fabric for more than 200 years. But now the city’s “Tonga” town is disappearing.
Once home to tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese, Kolkata has only around 2,000 today. They came as immigrants to India in the late 18th century, most finding work in this bustling port city.
Many left India because of ethnic tensions following the country's war with China in 1962. Now, more are going – though their reasons are different.
“They go for better future, better life,” Gina Wong told CNN’s Mallika Kapur.
Wong was born and raised in Kolkata. Her daughters migrated to Canada 20 years ago. The reason? “More jobs, more studies,” Wong said. “Like my daughter, the children have better studies. Now grandchildren becoming doctor.”
Kolkata's Chinatown used to be a bustling center that revolved around the leather tanning business. That started to change in 1995, after India's supreme court ordered the tanneries to move out of the city, because of pollution concerns.
Following that directive, many Chinese families moved their tanneries out of Chinatown and into the suburbs. Many of those who couldn't afford to move packed up and left India.
Chen Ping Hsiah took his tannery out of the city. His father had started the business when the family first moved to India, when Hsiah was just 13.
He says the tannery's new location is good for the environment, and better for business.
“Because the machinery I have here, more space, more labor, so definitely in future the margin of profit will be better than what it was in Chinatown,” he said.
Some families that stayed on in Chinatown turned their homes and tanneries into restaurants. There were once a number of Chinese schools there, but they have shut down because of a lack of students.
But the dwindling number of ethnic Chinese doesn't stop K.T. Chan from publishing the only daily Chinese newspaper in India - in Mandarin. Chan and an assistant source news from the internet and prepare the layout manually. The circulation used to be 800: today it's 180.
“Young people are migrating away,” said Chan. “Young people, they don't know how to read Chinese Mandarin - only English.”
Chan says as long as there are some readers - mostly people his age - he'll keep printing.
But for how long? Paul Chung, of the Indian Chinese Association, fears the day may soon come when Kolkata's Chinese community is wiped out. But he holds onto the hope that things could change.
“Those who have gone abroad, every year, they are returning home for Chinese New Year,” he said. “So people who have left India for Canada, America etc, unknowingly, they come back.”
They come back, Chung explained, because Kolkata is home.
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