August 17th, 2012
12:06 PM GMT
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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.

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. leon

    it's kindof sad to see the Chinese community vanishing :(
    (Kolkata Chinese Community Blog)

    August 17, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  2. tam t

    It is indeed a sad state of affair and the fault lies both with the chinese community and the previous communist government.The community was not united and did not have the vision to see the slow inevitable end and did not wake up to the fact that pollution was rampant and of course the consequences would be the end of tannery business.One cannot build a palace in the middle of a dump and not be affected by it. A recycling plant should have been built in dhapa years back but the sad truth is the chinese businessmen were busy filling their coffers and competing with each other regarding how many number of cars one owned or how big one's house was.It was more a case of jealousy than unity.As for the previous communist government,they missed a golden opportunity of improving and promoting the only china town in india.It could easily have been developed as one of the main tourist attraction but then what can you expect from a government which ruled for more than thirty years and totally ruined bengal.

    August 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  3. Chocolate cupcakes

    Good lord.. they have a million other China towns.. why would they miss this one?

    August 18, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  4. R.Wong

    I was born & raised in Kolkata(formerly known as Calcutta) I left the city in in the mid sixties for Canada when Communist China was almost at war with India. When I returned to visit kolkota in 1988 this city had not changed a bit in the last 50 years! Life is good here in Vancouver.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  5. watzup

    a good news for India, I guess.

    August 19, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  6. Simon

    Mandarin Chinese is spoken a language, Chinese is the written form of the language, so it is not correct to say the newspaper is published in Mandarin.

    August 19, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  7. kcmac

    What's wrong with you people??

    The Chinese have thrived in India, Kolkatta to be precise, has given so much to Indian culture, especially our food diversity!

    It's like saying lets take away the peoples who were brought over by Alexander the Great or all the other cultures that added to India's diversity like the Mughals, the Portugese, the British, etc stripped of all its history, cultures, and everything else that has been contributed. India wouldn't be >that< exciting or intriguing in terms of its history, textiles, jewellery, tea, languages or vindaloo!

    One day India will start to loose their own ethnic communities – then see what there is to complain about.

    August 20, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  8. Julius

    Most of the Chinese people in Calcutta left their impovererished homes in China in the last centuries. Now tthe hometowns of these immigrants are wealthy boomtowns in China's Guangdong Province. Unless you own a business, there are no real opportunities for the Chinese people looking for jobs. Better to emigarte to a Western country or even return to China, where the country has changed beyond recognition from the times their ancestors left it.

    August 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Andrew

    A good friend of mine is from Kolkata, and he's always going on and on about how diverse the city is, and how the Chinese population among others have been there for generations. The city's diversity is a real point of pride for him. He'll be sorry to see this disappear.

    August 21, 2012 at 4:42 am |
  10. gliese 42

    Its not only India which is a democratic nation but its evidence can be felt in Islamic nations as most migrate to the West in search of democracy and the freedom of speech

    August 21, 2012 at 5:39 am |
  11. sandy

    Kolkatta is a dying city and so many are migrating nothing new, the news is a stale news.

    August 21, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  12. Marco Hsiao

    [ Cultural bridge between India and China ]

    Overseas Chinese often have outstanding achievement. Recently, Mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese both are upgrading position in various fields. Overseas Chinese are friendly bridges in Sino-foreign relations. In my judgments:

    1) ("They came as immigrants to India in the late 18th century.") Their original oral language might be not Mandarin but some Chinese dialects; and Mandarin is learned recently (similar with Singaporean).

    2) Traffic between India and China could be improved largely; big infrastructure is being constructed by China gradually closing to border with India. The trade & investment between India and China are expanding, and the potential is great.

    3) Soon overseas Chinese could have big contribution on trades & investments of Sino-India; and 15 years later Mandarin will be important language for whole India gradually.

    August 22, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  13. mc

    I am terrified of the Chinese in New York City. Little Italy is almost gone. The Chinese population in Manhattan appears to be growing. Living next to them for the past 4 years has been eye opening. They are interesting people. They have a great history, but they are odd and mostly uneducated and filthy. The worst drivers in the world. They actually walk backwards with their small children in the bike lanes on the East Side of Manhattan. Stand there for a minute and the thing you notice quickly is that of the endless flow of joggers, roller bladers and bikers, almost none are Chinese, but the people walking, slowly, dragging their heels, they are almost 100 percent Chinese. It looks like a scene from a Chinese zombie movie. Incredibly oblivious to everything around them and not a creative bone in their bodies. Sorry. Love the world and the people of the world, but this is what I see every day.

    August 24, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  14. Tribudragon

    Reblogged this on Tribudragon.

    August 24, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  15. njkm

    I am not chinese but grew up in Kolkata (used to be called Calcutta) and have very fond memories of going to Bentick street (name is changed now) to buy my shoes from Chinese shoe shops and getting a hair cut from the beauty salons (that is what they are called in India) owned by Indian chinese women. I am sad about the dwindling of chinese population in Kolkata! I consider them an integral part of Kolkata and hopefully it will revive. Lets not forget that Indian Chinese cuisine is gaining popularity all over the world. If you live in NYC and hav enot gone to Tangra Masala in Queens, it is worth the trip.

    August 28, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  16. Simon Ostheimer

    Interesting article – I wrote a piece on this for Esquire last year:

    September 3, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  17. abcd

    I also used to live in kolkata i qould never want to live there again. Only the native bengali people are the ones extolling the virtues of this place endlessly. As a non-native i could never understand thier fascination for this place beside the fact it it their motherland. Poverty is fine , many places are poor but the things are utterly disorganized and mob cluture make it really hard to bear. Chinese and Anglos have left or in the process of leaving, other communities from india also find it hard to live ther

    March 8, 2013 at 4:14 pm |

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