Just a few decades ago, Calcutta could boast of having several Chinese schools. But as Chinese Indians have either enrolled in English schools or moved out of Calcutta altogether, the schools shut down one by one. And now Calcutta’s last Chinese school, the Pei May, has also closed, according to The Telegraph. (Thanks to Calcutta’s Robert Hsu for the alert.)
I’d visited the Pei May in December, when I was in Calcutta (see my photos), and was struck both by the size of the school — huge and sprawling, it had enough classrooms to house several hundred pupils and a traditional temple on the roof — and by its emptiness. (You can see for yourself in this video of the school’s 80th anniversary celebration in February.) On the main road in Tangra I ran into an elderly Chinese man who immediately took me by the arm and led me on a tour of the town, winding through the dusty lanes and to the Pei May. His name was Lee Kar Shong, and he was Tangra’s calligrapher. He also spoke very little Mandarin and no English, so we mimed a lot as I tried to decipher his Hakka.
At the Pei May, a class of maybe a dozen students was in session, but otherwise, the classrooms were closed. Portraits of Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen hung side by side on the wall, a relic from a time when Taiwan vied with China for influence in India. I heard shouting coming from the field by the school, where neighborhood kids were playing cricket.
Suddenly it seemed like Tangra’s Chinese community, built from a wave of immigration that started more than a century ago, was destined to search again for a new home. Many of the immigrants were Hakkas, an ethnic group known for wandering (and for business acumen), and their descendants have left India, looking for more opportunities in places like Canada, the U.S. and Australia. Mostly, they’ve gone to Toronto. Alex Wu, a tannery owner I met at a restaurant in Tangra, told me that every Chinese family in Tangra has someone in Toronto. He estimated that there were 10,000 Chinese Calcuttans in Toronto. I wondered how he felt about all the departures. “You can’t help it,” he replied.
This part of Calcutta had been built largely by the Chinese tanners and leather workers, but now to that there were only a few thousand Chinese Indians left in Calcutta — two thousand? four thousand? Everyone had their own estimates — who knows what the future holds?
For more about the Chinese Calcuttan community, check out the Dhapa blog.