Sat, Jul 31, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Calcutta's Chinatown facing extinction over new rule

DEATH SENTENCE An anti-pollution order covering every tannery in Calcutta's small Chinatown may spell the end of a community already in long-term decline


What used to be the livelihood of the small Chinese community in Calcutta -- leather tanning -- has turned into its death sentence.

Calcutta is the only Indian city with a Chinatown but that will now end thanks to a Supreme Court order that all 200 tanneries must move out to curb the pollution they cause.

With one stroke of the pen, Chinatown, in Tangra, will disappear. Tannery owners and workers live, work and socialize in Tangra. Once they move out to the new industrial estate of Bantala, the character of the Chinese enclave will change for ever.

The Hakka Chinese are packing up and getting ready to move out of the congested alleys of Chinatown because of protests over the air and water being contaminated by the chemicals used in the tanneries.

Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association, is reluctant to leave a place that holds so many memories. However, even before the court ruling, decline had been staring him in the face.

From a vibrant 20,000-strong community with its own schools, social clubs and newspapers just seven years ago, Chinatown now has only about 7,000 people. The younger ones, unenthused by the idea of tanning leather for a career, have flown away to Canada, the US and Australia.

Chung, a retired schoolmaster, says he is lucky that his four daughters have stayed on.

"I will never leave India. I was born here. My parents are buried here. This is my home," Chung said.

Other parents have seen their children move out.

"Chinatown is being deserted by the new generation," says S.M. Hsiung, a school principal. "The Lee Club used to be alive with all sorts of activities. Now it's deserted. All the young do is dream of settling in developed countries."

For a man who has worked hard to preserve every tradition of his community, the impending disintegration is upsetting.

"In Tangra, we speak the purest form of Hakka anywhere in the world. Even in its original home it has been diluted."

Despite being ultra-conservative, the Hakka Chinese are known for their tendency to migrate, even to the most remote parts of the world. One anecdote has it that the northernmost restaurant in the world, close to the Arctic circle, is Chinese and run by a Hakka.

The Chinese presence in India dates back to the 5th century AD when traders, Buddhist monks and imperial envoys arrived.

The first Chinese settler in Calcutta was Young Atchew around 1780. He tried to set up a sugar mill but died broken hearted. His workmen remained, though, and other Chinese migrants followed. With every fresh influx, the community renewed its cultural links with "Mother China" and maintained its distinct identity.

Over the years, the Chinese became associated with certain professions, but it was leather that became their chief trade because the Chinese were able to skirt Hindu taboos about working with the skins of the sacred cow. Only low-caste Hindus tan leather; upper-caste Hindus would rather chop off their own hands.

The tanneries added their quota of filth to a city notorious for dirt and decay. Kipling called Calcutta "the city of dreadful night" and Sir Robert Clive, the British adventurer, called it "the most wicked place in the universe."

The narrow alleyways of Chinatown do have dirty water, which contains both solvents and detergents, running through them but appearances are deceptive. Behind the high walls or in the deep recesses of factories built like miniature fortresses, live wealthy families in palatial homes.

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