The Reflective Indian

India – History and Society – for those who wish to think and learn for themselves

The Chinatown In Calcutta

China and India are two nations who have reemerged from the shadows recently. A few hundred years ago, the Chinese and Indian economies accounted for a considerable proportion of world GDP. However, the advent of imperialism and the industrialisation of western Europe combined with internal political compulsions led to India being subjugated and China going into self imposed exile.

India’s history has been influenced considerably by China and events in China. The Kushans, the first grand dynasty of India, were after all immigrants from north west China. Kanishka, his court and the patronage of arts led to great centres of learning and commerce such as Taxila. Chinese philosophy influenced Indian thought and nation building.

Modern Chinese links with India were re-established courtesy of the Europeans, in particular the Portuguese, who after discovering the sea route to India were soon trading with Chinese ports. Chinese labour and slaves were soon making their way to India.

One famous slave was Chinali. A young Chinese slave, he was captured by Kunjhali IV, the fourth Marakkar admiral of the Zamorin Fleet. After Vasco da Gama’s first visit to Calicut (in north Kerala), the Portuguese soon disposed of the Arab shipping fleets. Soon, the Portuguese were locked in naval warfare with the Zamorin, the ruler of Calicut. The Zamorins took the aid of Arab shipping merchants, making them their admirals. From 1520 to 1600, the Marakkar admirals fought the Portuguese. The fourth admiral, Kunjhali Marakkar first captured Chinali, then befriended him. Chinali became a Muslim and then vowed to fight his former masters. He was so admired by the Marakkar that he became the right hand man of the admiral. They fought the Portuguese successfully for many years before eventually being betrayed when the portuguese struck a treaty with the Zamorin directly.

About 200 years ago, Chinese immigrants started arriving in Calcutta and Madras, seeking security from the political upheavals in China. At Calcutta, they gradually set up a thriving community trading and working predominantly with leather. Upper caste Hindus were reluctant to deal with leather, yet at the same time, Indians and the British sought high quality leather goods especially shoes. The Chinese catered to this demand. Alternative medicine and dentistry were two other fields where the local Indians sought Chinese expertise. Opium dens were also run by the Chinese, the opium trade being legal in British India.

The Chinatown of Calcutta in the Tangra quarter was soon famous for high quality shoes and Chinese cuisine. The famous Nanking restaurant opened in 1924. At one stage, there were many thousand Chinese living in Chinatown. Shoe shops, dental practices, roadside food stalls and restaurants provided employment to many. However, numbers started dropping as the leather trade declined, emigration to other parts for setting up restaurants took place and there was no further immigration after Indian independence in 1947. At the moment, there are perhaps a few hundred Chinese left in Chinatown.

This picture of an Opium Den is by Claude Wallace, US Military photographer, 1945.

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One comment on “The Chinatown In Calcutta

  1. chennai guide
    January 18, 2013

    well articulated and useful information

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This entry was posted on December 27, 2012 by in East India and tagged , , , , , , , .

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