Report

In Kolkata, Only a Few Lions Are Still Dancing

A 2-century-old Indian Chinese community is threatened by tensions between the two countries.

A lion dancer moves down the street outside the Chinese Kali temple in Tangra, Kolkata, on Feb. 11, the eve of Lunar New Year.
A lion dancer moves down the street outside the Chinese Kali temple in Tangra, Kolkata, on Feb. 11, the eve of Lunar New Year. Hamsini Hariharan for Foreign Policy

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the streets are dotted with red and yellow lights. Large red banners hanging between the buildings read xinnian kuaile and gonghe xinxi (variations of “Happy New Year” in Mandarin). There is a buzz of excitement in the air. At 10 p.m., the loud beats of the wushu drums begin: thang, thang, thang. Four groups of lion dancers appear, parading up and down the streets as small children stare open-mouthed. One lion eats leaves of cilantro and then scatters the leaves all over the audience for good luck. Finally, the lions bow to a small shrine, indicating the show is over and the audience of barely a few hundred people can disperse. This scene would be an ordinary one in southern China. But this is not Chengdu or Guangzhou but Kolkata in eastern India.

When you think of Chinatowns, you think of San Francisco, Bangkok, or London. But Kolkata has been home to an Indian Chinese community since the 18th century. The Chinese community in Kolkata was once thriving, with some estimates pegging its high at 70,000 people. Most of them immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries, when India was under British colonial rule, setting up community clubs in Kolkata to connect migrants with others from their original home provinces, like Shandong or Hubei, or from their ethnic groups, like the Hakka. At one point, there were even two Chinatowns in Kolkata: in Tangra, where the leather factories were located, and in Cheenapara, the old Chinatown, home to Chinese churches, shoemakers, and community clubs. Even today Kolkata has the highest concentration of Indian Chinese people in the country, though a few of them have moved to other Indian cities.

Now, the Indian Chinese population of Kolkata numbers around 2,500, though there is no official count. While showing me around the Cheenpara neighborhood, the Indian Chinese pop singer Francis Lepcha pointed out how the entire area, once occupied by Indian Chinese people, had rapidly changed. As the younger generation migrated to countries like Canada with better opportunities, the older generation is slowly passing away. Long-standing establishments have been sold and replaced, storefronts have changed identity, and historical apartments are now home to newer communities—it is hard to tell there was once a bustling Indian Chinese presence in the area. Tiretti Bazaar, once famous for its Chinese breakfast, now hosts Indians halfheartedly selling momos, rolls, and dumplings.

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the streets are dotted with red and yellow lights. Large red banners hanging between the buildings read xinnian kuaile and gonghe xinxi (variations of “Happy New Year” in Mandarin). There is a buzz of excitement in the air. At 10 p.m., the loud beats of the wushu drums begin: thang, thang, thang. Four groups of lion dancers appear, parading up and down the streets as small children stare open-mouthed. One lion eats leaves of cilantro and then scatters the leaves all over the audience for good luck. Finally, the lions bow to a small shrine, indicating the show is over and the audience of barely a few hundred people can disperse. This scene would be an ordinary one in southern China. But this is not Chengdu or Guangzhou but Kolkata in eastern India.

When you think of Chinatowns, you think of San Francisco, Bangkok, or London. But Kolkata has been home to an Indian Chinese community since the 18th century. The Chinese community in Kolkata was once thriving, with some estimates pegging its high at 70,000 people. Most of them immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries, when India was under British colonial rule, setting up community clubs in Kolkata to connect migrants with others from their original home provinces, like Shandong or Hubei, or from their ethnic groups, like the Hakka. At one point, there were even two Chinatowns in Kolkata: in Tangra, where the leather factories were located, and in Cheenapara, the old Chinatown, home to Chinese churches, shoemakers, and community clubs. Even today Kolkata has the highest concentration of Indian Chinese people in the country, though a few of them have moved to other Indian cities.

Now, the Indian Chinese population of Kolkata numbers around 2,500, though there is no official count. While showing me around the Cheenpara neighborhood, the Indian Chinese pop singer Francis Lepcha pointed out how the entire area, once occupied by Indian Chinese people, had rapidly changed. As the younger generation migrated to countries like Canada with better opportunities, the older generation is slowly passing away. Long-standing establishments have been sold and replaced, storefronts have changed identity, and historical apartments are now home to newer communities—it is hard to tell there was once a bustling Indian Chinese presence in the area. Tiretti Bazaar, once famous for its Chinese breakfast, now hosts Indians halfheartedly selling momos, rolls, and dumplings.

Diasporas all over the world are used to hyphenated identities, and Indian Chinese are no different. Many of them stress their Indianness—they speak to each other in Hindi or Bengali, and very few of them know Mandarin, though a good number speak Hakka. Intermarrying and assimilation have meant that most of them feel more Indian than Chinese.

But this is also a community hard hit by the pandemic—and by the new distrust of China in India.

But this is also a community hard hit by the pandemic—and by the new distrust of China in India. “Before corona, everyone would come from abroad, and there would be big reunions,” said Peter Chen, an Indian Chinese businessman who was born in Kolkata but now lives in Chennai. The lack of international travel has meant that Lunar New Year celebrations are much smaller. Fears of the coronavirus have also dampened festivities. Most families held private dinners instead of participating in public festivals. Previously, the lion dancers would visit the home of every member of the community to give blessings and receive hongbao (red packets containing money). But this year, people closed their doors to this much-loved tradition in order to limit physical contact.

To keep the spirit of the Lunar New Year alive, some members organized a food festival featuring a lion dance, a music performance, and a sound and light show. The food stalls featured more Indian food than Indo-Chinese, and the light show was filled with stereotypical motifs of China—coins, dragons, cherry blossoms, Asian-style buildings, etc. Outside Pei Mei High School, where the fest was happening, one woman told me, “It’s so boring. That’s why everyone is leaving at 9:30. Last year was not like this.”

But boring or not, the muted celebrations are prudent because of the increased racism toward Asians, particularly Chinese people, in the wake of COVID-19 and the Galwan Valley clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers last June. In India, the Indian Chinese community is used to keeping its head down. Like Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II, shortly after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Indian Chinese people in Tangra and Cheenapara (and across the country) were interned at Deoli in the deserts of Rajasthan. The Indian government sent some of them to China in ships. Some of them were held for years before they were allowed to go back to find their homes and property seized. The everyday racism that people from the Northeast and the Indian Chinese community face has peaked during the coronavirus. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs even issued an advisory last March to all states to ensure that legal action was taken against people who indulged in racial harassment.

To make things worse, in 2020 Sino-Indian relations hit their lowest point in half a century. In May, Indian and Chinese troops clashed at various points along the northern border. Videos began circulating of a fistfight near Pangong Tso in Ladakh and West Tibet. In June, things took a turn for the worse when both sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat near the Galwan River. It resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers. Because the use of weaponry is banned at the Line of Actual Control that divides the two nations, the crude battle saw the soldiers using rods, sticks, and even metal nails to attack each other. After nine rounds of corps commander-level talks and back-channel discussions over nearly seven months, the two sides have finally begun a disengagement process—although China’s recent acknowledgement of the deaths of its so-called martyrs from last June has resparked tensions.

During this time, however, the Indian public and government pushback against China has been immense. The Indian government banned Chinese apps, including WeChat, TikTok, and VooV, citing national security concerns. Many Indians have made a conscious effort to boycott Chinese goods, with some making a public show of destroying their Chinese-made products, including televisions and toys. Some people even burned effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, mistaking him for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Against this backdrop, it is only understandable that the Indian Chinese community has dwindled. Living in India has meant that Indian Chinese are forced to prove their love for the country every day—even if they are second or third generation. It is a complicated identity to straddle, made even more difficult with the current political climate. This is also one of the reasons that the community is shrinking every year.

Even the lion dance, a signature of the community, is declining as members go abroad and the younger generations are unenthusiastic to take up the tradition. This year, there were only four lion dance groups. But James Liao, the founder of the India Hong De fitness club who teaches the lion dance and martial arts, remembers a time in the 1970s when 50 lion dance groups were performing. “[In] 1978, I remember my first time coming out to join the club, and I love that. Because during the new year … all the lions come out at midnight to go to each and every family in Tangra and give the family blessings,” he said.

Whether the celebrations will be resuscitated in the future depends on the pandemic and if tensions between the two countries lessen, but a community that has been there for two centuries is still disappearing.

Hamsini Hariharan is a writer and researcher in India.

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