Dibakar Banerjee’s adaptation of bhadralok sleuth Byomkesh Bakshi for the big screen has focused attention on Kolkata’s past and the history of one of the city's most fascinating communities: the Chinese. The film is set in 1943 in Kolkata's Chinatown against the backdrop of the opium trade.

At the time, Kolkata was the second city of the British Empire, after London. People from all over the globe flocked to this melting pot. These included Armenians, most of them from Isfahan in modern-day Iran, Afghans, Greeks, Baghdadi Jews as well as the Chinese.

Most of these communities have left. The Greeks left first, even before 1947. After Independence, most Armenians left too, to England, Canada or Australia. The Baghdadi Jews made a beeline for Israel after it was created in 1948. The land route that the Afghans used to bring in dry fruits became unviable post-1947 and only a few still come to the city, mainly to act as moneylenders. Only the Chinese remain in any substantial numbers and with a distinct identity.

The making of Chinatown

In 1780, a Chinese gentleman called Yong Atchew received a grant of land from the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, in an area about 30 km south of Kolkata. His tomb still exists there and the area is now called Atchepore, after him. On this land, he set up a sugar plantation and a mill to make refined sugar. Refined sugar was a fairly new product for the people of Bengal at the time and so they took to calling this new stuff chini, literally meaning “Chinese”. Bengalis also borrowed the name of a new drink the Chinese bought with them that, in the Cantonese and Hakka dialects, was called "chaa". The British already had a word for it: "tea", taken from the Chinese Amoy dialect via Dutch traders.

Atchew started off with only a hundred of his countrymen but more were added. Shanghaied sailors, desperate to desert their ships, escaped the first chance they got when their vessels docked at Kolkata’s port. These were joined by Hakka shoe-makers and tanners, who set up shop in what is now Bentinck Street – and where Chinese shoemakers can still be found, selling high-quality, reasonably-priced footwear.

From here the Chinese population grew, driven by the general state of violence in China in the first half of the 20th century, which sent more immigrants to the relative peace of Kolkata. The census of 1951 counted almost 6,000 Chinese in the city. Hard working and skilled, they made certain professions their own: dentistry, shoe making, leather production, beauty salons, dry cleaning and restaurants.

The opium habit

In all of this, there was one widespread vice, though: opium. Kolkata's first Chinatown, situated in the Tiretta Bazar area, had a number of chandukhanas or opium dens. In British India, the business was legal and, in fact, heavily promoted by the Raj for the revenue it bought in. Rudyard Kipling’s first published short story, The Gate Of A Hundred Sorrows, is about an opium den in Lahore, run by a Chinese boot-maker from Kolkata who murdered his wife and took to the drug.

This, of course, made Chinatown an exciting place for story tellers. Saradindu Bandyopadhyay placed his first Byomkesh Bakshi story, Satyanweshi, in Chinatown. The plot revolved around drugs and murder and is one of the inspirations for Dibakar Banerjee’s film.

Banerjee’s film, however, is not the first Bollywood movie to be set in the city's chini para. That honour goes to Shammi Kapoor-starrer China Town (1962), which features opium gangsters, with a double-role-identical-twin switcheroo. If Bollywood is anything, it’s a master of the stereotype and the Chinese in China Town weren’t exactly portrayed with any nuance. As if this wasn’t enough, the film portended a dark time for Kolkata's Chinese community: it released on the same day that hostilities with China broke out in the 1962 War.

Judged by the colour of their skin

The reaction of the Indian government to this was shameful in the extreme. On the orders of Prime Minster Nehru himself, the Chinese of Bengal and Assam were taken to a camp in the middle of the Rajasthan desert and locked up. Three thousand people were arrested and detained without even the hint of a legal process, simply on the basis of their ethnic origin. While the Chinese rarely ever spoke publicly about this incident, their faith shaken, they started to emigrate out of India, to Canada, Australia, the United States or Hong Kong. Kolkata’s crumbling economy didn’t help either.

From a high of an estimated 20,000 during the 1960s, the city’s Chinese population has fallen to 2,000, confined to the city’s new Chinatown, Tangra, located in an eastern suburb of the city. In Tangra originated Indian Chinese, as chilli potatoes and chicken manchurians were rustled up alongside mixed fried rices and hakka chow meins. The original Chinatown, located in Central Kolkata, is almost gone now, having being cleaned up by city planners in the 1960s. The area now looks like any other Calcutta neighbourhood.

The flight of the Chinese signals, as if any more signs were needed, the decline of Kolkata from metropolitan to mofussil. It is a bitter present. But for two-odd hours, at least, you can escape it, as you watch Byomkesh crack a case in the old, thriving Calcutta of 1943.