India has a long history of commercial and cultural contacts with mainland China. Chinese communities had, therefore (mostly temporarily) settled in different ports along the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea since at least the early centuries of the Common Era. However, the socio-cultural space that we now call “Chinatown”, emerged globally as a result of the large-scale migration of Chinese communities in the 18th century, especially from South China. These migrations were brought about by a rapidly weakening central authority, and a sharp decline in the economy. The expansion of European maritime commercial network in the South China Sea opened up new opportunities for trade and for seeking newer, lucrative markets in other parts of Asia and the world.
Calcutta, the fledgling capital of East India Company’s territories in India was probably the oldest of all Chinatowns situated outside Southeast Asia that came up during this period. Commercially, Calcutta had a lucrative market for Chinese products like tea, silk, and porcelain. A narrow, winding street adjacent to the Armenian Church in Calcutta is still known as Old Chinabazaar Street and is reminiscent of this early demand of Chinese goods in the city. We find regular advertisements in Hicky’s Gazette about the arrival of ships from Canton and sale of “China goods”.
Turnbull, MacIntyre and Dawley begs leave respectfully to acquaint the ladies and gentlemen of Calcutta, that their investment of China goods imported in the Rumbold, is not exposed to sell for ready money, and upon the most reasonable terms, at the house formerly occupied by Mr. Slight near the court house.
Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser, No. XIII (April 1781)
From the available information from the documents and oral traditions among the Chinese community in Kolkata it appears that the first Chinese settlement came up in a hamlet named Achipur, near Budge Budge (Bugee Bugee in early Colonial writing), 33 km south of Calcutta. Achipur gets its name from Atchew, the founder of this settlement who arrived in Calcutta from Guandong province in 1778. Atchew or Yang Dazhao was a tea trader, and in exchange of the tea he brought with him, he received a land grant from Governor General Warren Hastings to settle down at Achipur. Atchew set up a sugarcane plantation and a sugar mill, and he brought labourers from Guandong to work in his plantation and the mill. Thus a small Chinese settlement came up along with a Chinese temple, which is still visited by the remaining Calcutta Chinese community during the Chinese New Year. Atchew, however, soon moved to Tiretta Bazar in Calcutta, and it appears from a petition he filed with the Governor General’s Council in 1781 that Calcutta’s Chinese diaspora then mainly consisted of runaway sailors.
The persons who have thus wantonly endeavoured to injure me, are the Chinese who have deserted from the ships and remain in Calcutta without any apparent means of subsistence.
From: The Bowbazar Chinatown by Zhang Xing
The Chinese diaspora that settled in Calcutta’s Old Chinatown in Tiretta Bazar in the late 18th century were from different districts of Fujian and Canton. These communities were specialized carpenters, cabinet makers, opium dealers and iron-workers, and their skills were in demand in Calcutta port and among the European households in the city. The second wave of migration arrived with the Hakka Chinese in the 1850s, displaced by the Punti-Hakka Wars (1856-67) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64). The Hakka Chinese initially settled in the Old Chinatown and became famous as cobblers and leather workers, opening shoe stores along Bentinck Street and Bowbazar. In 1910 the first Chinese-run tannery was established in Tangra (in South Kolkata) which became lucrative during the World War I, due to an increased wartime demand in leather. This resulted in the relocation of the Hakka Chinese population to Tangra. The Old Chinatown saw the arrival of a large refugee population from South China in the 1930s and 1940s due to the Japanese Invasion, Second World War and the post-war civil war between Kuomintang and Mao’s Communists. The Calcutta Chinese community in general and in Old Chinatown, in particular, went on a steady decline since the Sino-Indian War in 1961-62. During the war, many were deported to China, or sent to the internment camp at Deoli in Rajasthan. The general economic decline of Calcutta also resulted in the emigration of the newer generation for greener pastures in Europe, North America, and Australia. Now the Old Chinatown is home to about 1000 Calcutta Chinese who carry the legacy of the world’s oldest Chinatown outside Southeast Asia. Several Chinese temples still survive where these communities worship the patron deities of War and Craftsmanship, along with the deities of their ancestral village in Guandong province. A handful of the older members still regularly meet at huiguan (Chinese community centres) over games of Mahjong. I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.
Disclaimer: All images used here is the copyright of Heritage Walk Calcutta and are watermarked. Please reuse with permission.
About the Author: Tathagata Neogi is the founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta. He has an MA and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Exeter.