Chinatown in Kolkata
Chinatown in Kolkata

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has arrived in New Delhi to meet with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, in an effort to resolve some seemingly intractable problems between the giant Asian rivals, including border issues.

"We don't deny there are problems between the two sides," Premier Li told reporters in the Indian capital.

"We need to improve border-related mechanisms and make them more efficient. Both Mr. Singh and I believe there are far more interests than differences between our two sides. We need to confront issues with a broad mind and tackle them in a mature way.”

Premier Li is scheduled to visit Mumbai next, and then journey on to Pakistan and Europe thereafter. Thus, he will not venture into Kolkata, the metropolis in the eastern part of India that once boasted the largest Chinatown on the subcontinent.

Chinese people, principally ethnic Hakka from the provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi and Fujian, have lived in Kolkata for at least 230 years, dating back to the time when the city was the capital of the British Empire in India. (The Chinese presence in India dates back much further, at least to the 5th century AD.)

These Chinese immigrants came to work in Kolkata’s busy port, and also became engaged in manufacturing activities, particularly in tanneries, where they produced leather goods (a profession that's off-limits to most Hindus). They eventually settled in a community called Tangra.

Once numbering in the tens of thousands with its own schools, social clubs and newspapers, Kolkata’s Chinese community (the only Chinatown in India of any significance) has now dwindled in population to no more than 5,000, according to A report from CNN indicated that community may actually be even smaller, perhaps only 2,000.

Due to their small population (and sensitive to India’s difficult relations with their homeland), the Chinese in India have largely stayed out of politics and remained clustered in their own tight-knit communities.

Many Chinese in India fled the country in the wake of the brief Sino-Indian war of 1962 – indeed, many Chinese-Indians were also interned in military camps and prisons in northern India following that conflict. Those who were not imprisoned saw their movements restricted, and some even had their Indian citizenships revoked.

Alas, the Chinese who saw no future in India departed, primarily for the U.S., Australia and Canada. “They [left India] for [a] better future, [a] better life,” Kolkata-born Gina Wong told CNN. (Wong’s children moved to Canada).

A decision by the Indian Supreme Court in 1995 to close down Kolkata’s tanneries due to environmental concerns, also sparked another exodus of Chinese from the city (to other parts of India, or out of the country entirely).

Kolkata’s remaining tiny Chinese community generally operates restaurants (which offer Indo-Chinese fusion cuisine), shoe shops, tea gardens and beauty parlors.

K.T. Chan, who published a Mandarin-language newspaper in Kolkata, lamented that Chinese youth are moving away in droves.

“Young people, they don't know how to read Chinese Mandarin -- only English,” he told CNN.

Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association and a retired schoolmaster, told the Observer newspaper of Britain that he would never abandon Kolkata.

“I will never leave,” he declared. “I was born here. My parents are buried here. This is my home.”

The Hakka Chinese in Kolkata are predominantly Christian, but they have sought to assimilate with the majority population by learning and speaking flawless Bengali.

Another longtime resident of Chinatown, S.M. Hsiung, complained that the youths of the area simply want to move to the developed countries. "Chinatown is being deserted by the new generation," he said. "In Tangra, we speak the purest form of Hakka anywhere in the world. Even in its original home it has been diluted."

On a more optimistic note, now given that many “Indian-Chinese” from across the globe are now returning to Kolkata to attend the festive Chinese New Year’s celebrations, perhaps there is hope that the Chinese community will not vanish entirely.

Last month, India’s Statesman newspaper reported that the once bustling Tangra neighborhood may be set for a “revival” of sorts.

G. M. Kapur, of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), told the paper that he wants to preserve Chinatown in Kolkata through a series of programs. "It will be an urban-regeneration initiative as well as a tourism opportunity,” he said. “It will not only attract tourists but also people from the city itself. Basically, it will recreate the old Chinatown days.”