Kolkata: They’ve been nicknamed ‘corona’, nobody comes to their restaurants as much and they seem to have entered an unspoken agreement to stay out of most people’s way.
This is how life has been for some weeks now for the 5,000-strong community in Kolkata’s Chinatown, the country’s only Chinese settlement.
The early settlers of the community came to India around 70 years ago. But nearly three generations have since been born and raised here.
“We are voters here and most of us were born and brought up here. But there are some uneducated bunch of hooligans, who do not know history and culture … call us names. They shout slogans when they see us and ask us to go back,” said 65-year-old Chinatown resident, Lee Yao Sien, who runs two tanneries.
Freddy Liao, a restaurant owner, posted on Facebook: “Indian-Chinese people have been living in India for generations and we are more attached with Indian people,” as he appealed to people to not treat them differently.
Chinatown, a neighbourhood located on the eastern fringe of Kolkata, is home to authentic Chinese cuisine and was once the hub of eastern India’s best Chinese leather products.
Over 40 Chinese restaurants, many small eateries and Chinese speciality sauce factories now dot the locality while exclusive leather processing units, including around 350 tanneries, were relocated to the Calcutta Leather Complex (CLC) in Bantala area, South 24 Parganas district.
Tannery owners also claimed that shipment of Chinese materials were being blocked by the customs department, though officials denied the claim.
‘We are Indian too’
The Covid blow to the economy has been pretty shattering. But the India-China tensions have brought “indignity and insecurity” to them, the members of the community say.
“We feel so insecure that we have stopped moving out of Chinatown. Mostly we stay indoors. The recent series of events have brought indignity for us. We are Indians as much as you are … This is our land too. Where do we go back (to)?” said Lee, whose tannery units are located in CLC.
He said the community didn’t face any hostility during the 2017 Doklam stand-off. In fact, it was only in 1962, during the India-China war, that many Indian-Chinese from Kolkata were taken to detention camps in Rajasthan. “I was very young then, and heard these stories from my parents,” said Lee.
Thousands of Indian-Chinese from all over the country were taken to Rajasthan’s Deoli detention camp, but most of them were from Kolkata.
For a city that loves its food, the coronavirus has turned popular joints into quiet eateries. The normally bustling Chinatown now resembles a ghost town.
Its iconic restaurant Beijing is still shut, though across the road, the Golden Empire reopened four days ago. Business has barely picked up, though.
“We opened, but there are no takers. We have been calling our regular customers, informing them that we opened and maintain all safety protocols. But many of them now say that they fear coronavirus infection from the restaurant itself as we are Chinese,” owner Henry Hou said.
Henry’s family were among the first settlers in Kolkata. “I and my father, both were born here. My grandfather came here before 1947. We are Indians by nationality, only we look Chinese. But our kids now cannot go out, they can only go to a local park, that is only for Chinese people,” he said.
The feeling of insecurity increased for them after senior BJP leaders and ministers appealed to citizens to boycott all things Chinese, including the cuisine.
“Since the clash between India and China at Ladakh, the statements made by few people are very hurtful … about boycotting Chinese food in India. For those who own Chinese restaurants or Indian-Chinese living in India, (they) have nothing to do with those political acts,” posted Freddy Liao on his Facebook account. Freddy owns Golden Joy, another popular Chinese restaurant in Kolkata.
He said the community had come forward to support the underprivileged, distributing food to over 6,000 families when the pandemic broke. Indian-Chinese people, as they prefer to be called, hold Aadhaar cards, PAN cards, Voter ID, etc., he said. In short, our home is India, he reiterated.
There had been some attempts to stage protests and demonstrations in the locality as well as burn Chinese products, but local Trinamool Congress leaders stepped in to manage the situation when the community reached out to them.
“They are suffering from insecurity and fear. They reached out to us and explained what they had been going though. We did some awareness campaigns in the area. We have also informed the local police stations and got a couple of policemen posted in some localities. We have at least 4,000 to 5,000 Chinese people there who feature on the voter’s list. So they are Indians,” said Faiz Khan, a Trinamool councillor.
A senior police official, however, said that they did not get any formal complaint of any verbal abuse or otherwise, but a team of police personnel were posted in some parts of the locality to keep an eye on things.
‘Customs holding back Chinese goods’
Hostility between two countries has impacted businesses another way — by blocking the supply chain and cargo movements, allege Chinatown residents. The tannery industry in Kolkata, mostly owned by the Chinese, is highly dependent on China for the supply of chemicals and other accessories.
“Import consignments are stuck and not being cleared at Kolkata Airport in the wake of the call for boycott of Chinese goods. There seems to be an internal instruction from Customs to all custodians of cargo, including port terminals and airports, to apparently hold all consignments originating from China,” claimed Imran Khan, secretary of the tannery association in Kolkata.
A senior Customs official however said, “There is an intelligence input about narcotic smuggling through cargo. So, there will be 100 per cent checking of all imports. No cargo will be released till the customs check all.”
Khan said that the cost of production would also increase in the Indian leather tanning and leather goods sector if import duties on Chinese products were hiked on items such as chromium, leather fittings and accessories.
Chieh Wu, a 50-year-old tannery owner said, “We always thought we were safe in Kolkata. This city is not like Delhi or Mumbai. But here our business is getting affected. Our cargos are stuck for many days now. There is no official word on that. There are things which we need to get from China as these are not manufactured here. We are settled in Kolkata for three generations. But now we are almost getting stripped off our nationality.”
A senior customs official said there was no such order to stop Chinese cargos, but routine delays have been happening due to low staff strength amid the pandemic.
Kaushik Bhattacharjee, director, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International airport, also denied there being any such order.
“I am not aware of such developments, I have read in the media. But nobody has approached me with any complaint or any request seeking release of the cargo,” he told ThePrint.
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