|Twilight descends on Calcutta's Chinatown|
|India's only Chinatown is fast losing its lustre as many
of its traditional trades and eateries struggle and families emigrate
CALCUTTA - In his big diesel, Joseph Huang is immune to the floodwaters
that eddy, shin high, through downtown Calcutta. Heavy rains in the
predawn hours have reduced the city to a struggling mass of vehicles
chugging through flooded streets, with rickshaw drivers making a killing
ferrying neatly uniformed schoolchildren from dry land to their schools as
parents balk at churning through high waters.
It's just the same as it has always been,' Mr Huang said with a sigh. Calcutta, a low-lying city close to the sea, has flooded ever since people can remember whenever there has been heavy rain. Mr Huang, 52, owns the oldest Chinese restaurant in India. Eau Chew restaurant, in a ramshackle building at the edge of the city's once famed Chinatown, was started 75 years ago by his grandmother.
Today, India's only Chinatown is a fading facsimile of its former self. Once home to about 20,000 ethnic Chinese, the population has sunk to 2,000 or so. The traditional leather tanning industry that sustained Tangra - another centre for the Chinese some kilometres away - has been ordered by courts to shift out or change its ways.
Many of the old Chinese eating houses, so popular with college students, have vanished under the weight of competition or because families have emigrated. All the residents remember Fat Mama, for instance, whose eatery was much sought after in the 1970s and 1980s but has now vanished. Its proprietor died and her children have closed it down, with one moving to Dubai.
Mr Huang has long considered emigrating to Toronto, where he has family, but has so far chosen to stick it out in Calcutta. The four Chinese schools have closed down as has one of the two Chinese newspapers.
It's no point teaching the children in Chinese,' Mr Huang told The Straits Times. 'They won't fit in when they grow up.' When they choose to leave, most Chinatown residents opt for Toronto, which has a big population of Indian Chinese fuelled exclusively by the exodus from Calcutta. But Calcutta, a city known for its warmth, will always remain home; all the ethnic Chinese there are second generation and consider themselves Indian even if they maintain contact with family all over the world, including in China.
In the main bazaar, Mr Huang buys supplies for his restaurant, speaking in flawless Hindi and Bengali with the Indian vendors who line the road with displays of fresh vegetables including bak choy, a rich lustrous green in the grey wet monsoon morning.
A Chinese woman has an improvised steamer from which she sells dumplings and pao. The dumplings go for one rupee (US$0.40) each. On Sunday mornings, many of the residents gather here to have breakfast and exchange news.
A friend of Mr Huang, who says he would prefer if his name were not mentioned, sits at a tea stall sipping hot Indian tea. He owns a shoe shop - another traditional industry for the Chinese here - but business is dwindling. There is too much competition nowadays. He is also getting fed up, he says, because nothing is ever done to improve the city. There is too much politics,' he told The Straits Times. 'There is no development, only politics.' The politics affects the overseas Chinese only inasmuch as it strangles development. The Chinese community has always stayed out of Indian politics and melded seamlessly with the local culture while maintaining its own identity. This place used to be the best and the cheapest, but that's changing,' Mr Huang's friend said. Things are moving backwards. There's too much politics and too many labour problems. If you open a business, your labour can go on strike at any time.'
Another resident, interior designer Peter Chen, contemplates the slushy street and says: 'It's okay for us, but not for the young ones.' One of those young ones is Mr Huang's daughter, Jennifer, a sunny 20-year-old who has just started university studies at the elite Loreto College. She giggles as she hands me a copy of the local newspaper, saying she could not read Chinese.
Mr Huang is dropping her to college as he usually does. She can speak only Hakka, having picked it up at home. She plans to enter the tourism and travel industry after majoring in geography. Then, the world will be her oyster.
Today, she sings softly along to the words of The Tennessee Waltz on her father's car stereo. She jumps out of the car at her college and waves goodbye. Mr Huang extracts a promise from me to come and eat at his restaurant the next time I am in Calcutta. He said he visited Singapore some years ago but did not go about much, spending most of his time with a relative. He has also visited Hongkong and would like to go to the mainland, but has not had the opportunity. I've been told, go to China, I can even get land in my ancestors' village,' he said. I have relatives there. But I don't know them and they don't know who I am.'
A model of racial harmony
RESIDENTS of Calcutta have always been proud of their Chinatown, and race relations have been for the most part a model of harmony. There was only one period of friction during the 1962 war with China when Indian security agencies came down on Chinatown and carted off many people suspected of being agents.
Links to Hakka Related Web Sites