A personal journey through the Chinatowns of Kolkata, London, and Guatemala City.
Hello! I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Hello again, friends & readers!
While I work on putting the finishing touches to a few newsletter drafts, I’d like to share an essay I wrote a few years back about “Chinatowns” around the world, the different meanings they hold in different places, and the aspirations they represent for different people.
Enjoy reading ❤️
I know a friend who visits McDonald’s in every country he travels to. In doing so, he hopes that some nuance about each place will reveal itself, some nuance that lies in the difference between a McDonald’s that serves Nasi Lemak Burger and a McDonald’s that serves McAloo Tikki Burger. It’s the differences in the pedestrian, rather than the extraordinary, that’s more telling, right?
I get it. I have a similar ritual: I go to Chinatown.
Late last year, I was in Kolkata’s old Chinatown—a commercial quarter in the city centre known as Tiretti Bazaar—to research a story about India’s shrinking Chinese community. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kolkata had been the gateway to the subcontinent for new immigrants who came by sea; and the Chinese here represent the bulk of their settled population in the country.
I was taking pictures at Gee Hing, the only social club in the area that still gets mahjong games going, when a Chinese uncle came up to me. He looked bemused. “You’re a Chinese from Malaysia? Surely you have mahjong at home?”
We do, of course! But it’s the idea of “Chinatown” I’m interested in.
In all the Chinatowns I’ve been to, my curiosity has alternately been welcomed as natural or strange. On the one hand: Alright, you’re an ethnic Chinese. You’re here for a little bit of familiarity in a foreign place. On the other: Wait, you’re one of us. You know what we’re about. Why is this interesting to you?
Unlike in Kolkata, where the Chinese now only number an estimated 3,000, the Chinese in Malaysia are a large enough minority to be spread all over the country and its capital, where I live. I never grew up in Chinatown. My first real experience of Chinatown wasn’t even in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown,but London’s.
More than a decade ago, the many Chinese restaurants squeezed between Soho and Leicester Square in London were a fixture of my university life, by virtue of their five-pound duck rice and their ability to fit large, loud, and impromptu Malaysian student groups.
London’s Chinatown grew to feel familiar, and yet, I always felt inadequate there. Perhaps it was because my Mandarin, which I learnt for six years in school, was too rusty for banter, and though I understood well enough Chinese dialects like Cantonese, I couldn’t really converse in them. Like some Malaysians, English is my first language; I grew up on American and British pop culture.
My mother, on the other hand, always seemed at home when we dined in Chinatown during her visits. She knew the restaurant staff better than I did, knew which part of Malaysia they came from, knew which ones were working without visas, biding their time. I smiled and nodded and tried to follow their conversations. They knew me only as my mother’s daughter.
But rooted in that feeling I had between ease and unease, something took hold.
When I was a child, we lived in Ipoh, the capital of the Malaysian state of Perak. My mother used to frequent the salon of a woman named Mary to have her hair done. I remember the place for the vapour and whir of the perming machines, and for the stitches I had to get under my tongue after I zoomed around the room on a wheely stool, fell, and knocked my chin hard on the ground. By the time I was studying in London, Mary had migrated there too. She lived in Chinatown and had opened a salon there, and my mother visited her to have her hair done.
One summer, listless and casting about for a writing project, I thought of Mary.
I got in touch with her through my mother and asked if I could hang out at her salon for a few days and chat with her and her husband between customers, and if I could visit her home and speak to her two daughters. They graciously let me into their lives, and I ended up self-publishing a story about them online, to a small audience of friends and family.
Funnily enough, the thing that sticks in my mind now from those conversations is how Mary lamented her younger daughter’s lack of command of the Mandarin language, and her conflicted pride in certain ideas her elder daughter Shervonne had picked up from school.
“Wah, she tells me that we as parents cannot control this and that, and that we cannot scold them too much,” Mary told me. She couldn’t help laughing. “‘You cannot shang wo de xing,’ she said to me. Can you believe it?” You cannot hurt my feelings.
Recording our conversations then, I didn’t know what I was looking for, or why, or where it would lead beyond the story I had written. I didn’t have a sense yet of why their story mattered in the larger scheme of things. But that’s how it started.
The Chinatown I remember most fondly, though, is Guatemala City’s. At least, I think it was Chinatown.
I just remember a row of shop lots inhabited by Chinese people: restaurants downstairs catering to local tastes, living quarters upstairs—and the distinct difference in the food served on both levels. I remember pot-bellied guards with guns sitting outside the restaurants.
I had ended up there sometime after graduation, when I had begun wanting to experience something of the world unmediated by friends and family—to see it, truly, for myself. And I thought the way to do that would be to go backpacking on my own in Central America.
It was a region that I knew nothing about beyond Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution and the Contra War, which I had learnt about in Public International Law at university. It was a region I had zero connections to, except for the fact that I had studied some basic Spanish. And that was the whole point.
But the day I touched down in the city at 4 a.m. on a flight via San Francisco, I suddenly felt more foreign, more conspicuous, than I had anticipated. And I hate to admit it now, but I found comfort in the only Chinese faces I saw on the plane: two elderly ladies.
Mrs. Chang and Mrs. Liang were horrified at the prospect of a girl my age wandering anywhere in Central America alone. “There are better places to travel to, you know. Like Europe,” they said. After raging for thirty-six years, the Guatemalan Civil War had ended only a little more than a decade ago. They ended up taking me home with them.
Ana, Mrs. Chang’s Latina-Chinese granddaughter, who was about my age, looked bewildered to see me when we emerged from the airport’s arrival gate. Still, she ushered me politely into the backseat of her car, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
They brought me along with them to reunions of friends and family, while I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. They brought me along shopping. They brought me along house-hunting with a newly engaged couple. At times, I felt like I was visiting my own relatives—except that Mrs. Chang and her family could speak fluent Spanish to one another. When confronted with quizzical looks, they simply said, “Oh, she’s a friend of Ana’s.”
The first night, Mrs. Chang dusted off her old room in her old apartment for me to stay. She had lived in Guatemala City for about forty years before her husband died; now, she was living with her daughter in San Francisco, and was just back for a short visit.
When she tested the taps and no water came, she and Mrs. Liang tightly sandwiched me across the street—It’s dangerous here!—to another aunty’s place, where they were staying, so I could use the shower. I remember we giggled the whole way, thick as thieves, until we were once again behind closed doors.
But despite the fear the aunties impressed upon me, living with them also made me think about how, in many ways, life in Guatemala City wasn’t so different from life back home.
I stayed with them for a few days before realising that I had to go if I hoped to find my own feet. I held on to what Ana had told me with a knowing smile: “It’s not as bad as they say it is.” Had I stayed any longer, I might have been too afraid to leave.
But maybe this is how it begins. Maybe you need to remind yourself of something familiar in order to give yourself over to the unknown.
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The first recorded Chinese settler in India is a man known as Tong Atchew, who founded a sugar mill some twenty miles outside Kolkata in the late eighteenth century. The Chinese in India call him Achi Appa (“father”). He’s why the word for “sugar” in India is chini.
Like Atchew, most Indian Chinese trace their ancestry to China’s Guangzhou province. Political upheavals in China like the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, its invasion by Japan during World War Two, and Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 sent subsequent waves of Chinese to Kolkata. Today, there are two Chinatowns in the city: the original one around Tiretti Bazaar, and the other on the city’s eastern periphery, known as Tangra.
But the tide turned in 1962, when India and China fought a border war in the Himalayas. Overnight, the Chinese Indians became outsiders in a place they had called home. Thousands returned voluntarily to China or were deported. Thousands were interned—some for years—at a desert camp in Rajasthan. Many more fled in the following years to other countries—more so when new environmental restrictions in the 1990s threatened the existence of the Chinese tanneries that had come to dominate Tangra. Today, there are more Chinese Indians in Toronto than there are in Kolkata.
As a tiny minority in India, the Chinese Indians seem, in some ways, to stand apart from the rest of Indian society. For many, especially of the older generation, life still revolves closely around their respective clan associations and social clubs—at least, those that have survived. Bean Ching Law, the president of the Chinese Indian Association, told me, “Here, because people have lost the link to China, they carry on the traditions of olden days that is probably not being followed in China itself.”
At the same time, as their numbers have dwindled, they’ve also been pressed into closer proximity with other communities. Most Chinese Indians speak Hindi fluently, even to each other, and save their Chinese dialects for the home. Many are intermarried or of mixed ethnicities. And Indian-style Chinese food is something everyone can agree on. You’ll find variations of chow mein everywhere from the famous Sunday Market to Chinese restaurants to Indian roadside dhabas. “Every second person knows how to cook it,” said Trevor Chen, one of the few of the younger generation who still lives in Tiretti Bazaar.
But more than that, the Chinese Indians have also come to depend on other communities for their survival—there are simply not enough of them left. Some clubs have opened up restaurants on their premises or rented out space to schools, catering mostly to Indians and Muslims, to earn revenue to sustain themselves.
In fact, what was now a larger Chinatown is now dominated by Muslims. One evening, looking out from the window of a Chinese apartment on the second floor of a building in Tiretti Bazaar, I heard the meditating strains of the ritual adhan coming from the mosques nearby.
I had started out reporting expecting to find a story about a community on its last legs; instead, I found a story about a community that is finding ways to carry on.
There’s a story I heard while I was studying in London that I’ve never forgotten. It’s one of those stories that act like a portal, through which one can imagine a whole other world.
A young Bolivian who was working as an undocumented person in the city told me how he made ends meet working for restaurants and catering companies. Sometimes he worked in the mornings and in the evenings, and in between he couldn’t afford to spend money to make the journey home and rest. If he was lucky, he would get the occasional gig to babysit an eight-year-old boy, and the boy’s parents would give him money to take him to the cinema. There, he would be able to take a nap.
Other days, he might go to Chinatown. He had eaten there often enough and had made the acquaintance of a young Chinese waitress at a restaurant. Once, tired, he had asked her, “Do you think I could take a nap here before I go to work?” He was half jesting.
But it was that window between lunch and dinner, and there weren’t many customers around. To his surprise, she nodded and pointed him downstairs to a corner obscured with stacks of chairs.
They were just two people from different places trying to get by in a city they had dreamed of, and Chinatown was where their paths crossed.
P.S. This piece was first published in Mekong Review, which has given me space for essays that might not otherwise have found a home. Subscribe and support ❤️
But many years later, I did write something about the recent developments in KL’s “Chinatown” for South China Morning Post. The Petaling Street area has undergone further changes since; still, the story will give you a bit of an idea of the area’s history and character.
Actually, Monica’s—of the aforementioned newly engaged couple. For the sake of brevity, I conflated the two of them here, only in this specific instance. Just noting this for consistency’s sake, as I’m a little hesitant about nonfiction authors using composite characters too freely!