The last Chinese Indians of Kolkata
On slow reporting from the City of Joy, diaspora and belonging, and memorable encounters with language.
Well, let’s begin.
I’m Emily 👋, a freelance writer and photographer who likes nothing better than to roam for stories, and I’ve actually been thinking about starting a newsletter for a while—I’ve written intermittent blogs since I was a teenager but the fact that newsletters for writers became a thing with Tinyletter felt like a little push.
However, what held me back was the idea that what I wrote might reside forever in someone’s inbox, that I couldn’t just go back and hit edit if it made me cringe later. Or if I just wanted to restructure a sentence. Or if I just wanted to swap a word for another that was more precise, less cliched. Nothing nefarious, just a writer’s OCD and perfectionism. The fantasy of constant revisionism.
So I held out, until now. That particular anxiety hasn’t quite gone away, but I’ve managed to suppress it just enough to start. I guess I like the idea of a certain intimacy in public correspondence more than I am anxious about its inconvenient posterity. And I’ve capitulated to Substack because of its clean writing interface, and because Tinyletter’s future seems uncertain now that it’s owned by Mailchimp. Patreon offers more flexibility in its subscription permutations, but unlike Substack, it doesn’t feel like a dedicated writing tool. The prospects Substack offers for monetising select posts and hosting a podcast in tandem is also enticing, though I’m not likely to do either for a while.
Still, it would mean the world to me to get to a point, eventually, where I’m able to rally a personal readership that I can carry with me around the things I’m interested in exploring. So, stick around, won’t you?
Circling back to Kolkata
When I received confirmation in November last year that I would be participating in a journalism workshop in Kolkata, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and led by Paul Salopek of Out of Eden Walk—an estimated ten-year journey on foot to retrace our human ancestors’ migration out of Africa during the Stone Age, through stories—it felt like coming a tiny full circle.
Back in 2012, I was supposed to have spent six months in Kolkata to report on criminal justice in the West Bengal region for a global charity. I remember how excited I had been to be paired with an American photographer a few years older, who I’d just thought was so cool because she had photographed bears in the wild. I’d also made contact with the criminal lawyer I was supposed to shadow and was excited to get to work, to throw myself into the deep end. I poured over travel guides and blogs, fantasised about making a temporary home of a hostel room I’d found—from pictures, it looked a little worse for wear, but I chose to imagine it as poetically ascetic. I imagined hanging out with other aspiring journalists on the dingy rooftop of the faded building under the night sky, made warm with the camaraderie of like-minded people. It would have been my first real experience of international reporting, but it didn’t happen.
About a month before I was supposed to leave for Kolkata, I fell ill. I had a recurring high fever, and the lymph nodes on my neck swelled up. I did some tests and biopsies. The doctor woke me up one morning with a phone call and told me bluntly that I might have lymphoma, that I would have to do more tests. It was a particularly bad time to hear that, as my cousin’s wife, only in her thirties, had died recently of the same cancer. The doctor said it was best I didn’t go to India, and the NGO couldn’t wait; the American photographer needed a reporting partner. So another journalist took my place, and I, with much difficulty, put Kolkata behind me.
Thankfully, whatever I had turned out not to be lymphoma, and it wasn’t something a short course of steroids couldn’t fix. (Anyone heard of Kikuchi?) But I’ve always wondered, in passing, how the trajectory of my life might have been different, in even the smallest way, had I spent those six months in Kolkata then. Would I have ended up living a life that revolved around India? Would I have ended up committing to foreign correspondence earlier? Who knows?
Still, it felt right that the next time—the first time—I went to India, it was to Kolkata, and on a reporting trip. I wanted really badly to apply for the Out of Eden Walk workshop, having followed Paul Salopek’s journey since he started, even though I only found out about it a few days before the deadline and hadn’t yet secured a story commission that was the prerequisite for acceptance.
But luckily, everything fell into place in the end. And then I was there. And I found another rooftop for breezy, albeit polluted, afternoons.
Notes on seeing
As with most workshops where you’re tasked with producing a story by the end of it, this one was short but fairly exhausting: waking up at 6 a.m. to catch the best light for photography, pounding the pavements till 7 p.m., then writing up drafts till 3 a.m. and getting just a few hours of shut-eye before doing it over again. But I appreciated how intense and single-minded it was. It felt liberating, for a little while, not to have to think about any other work at the same time. During that preciously carved out time, this was all I had to focus on.
The workshop’s four mentors—Paul Salopek, Don Belt, Prem Panicker, and Arati Kumar-Rao—were all encouraging and approachable, and working alongside a group of like-minded fellow journalists felt reassuring. I think I’ll definitely look back on this experience, though short, as having been defining in some way.
It’s deepened my resolve to pursue deep-dive stories in a world that largely revolves around blaring headlines and catchy sound bites. Such a pursuit feels more possible and more validated now, simply because I’ve met more people who want to do it too. I was encouraged by the close feedback and advice, which one doesn’t always get as a freelancer. It was a welcome opportunity to reflect on how I’ve been doing, assess if I’ve managed to find my own way, in the past few years.
Here are some of my takeaways from the workshop—in words paraphrased from the mentors, mixed in with my own notes:
Slow journalism is not inefficient journalism. Streamlining processes—like taking solid field notes so you don’t need to spend too much time transcribing after—matter. This workshop, though it cultivates slow journalism, has showed me how much can be done towards a longform piece in even just two days on the ground, and that has been confidence-boosting. Slow journalism is a more immersive approach to reporting. It’s observing a place and its people deeply—if possible, over a period of time. To paraphrase: fast journalism is about information, slow journalism is about meaning.
Don’t give the art of storytelling too much power. The words “story”, “storytelling”, and “narrative” are deployed far too indiscriminately these days. Don’t make it out to be too mystical; it’s sweat and blood.
Make sure the connections you make in your story aren’t contrived. Readers can tell when you’re stretching it.
Besides just asking questions, set some time out just to sit and observe. How do your subjects interact with the world? How does the world treat them?
In finding stories, pay attention to what you find most compelling. When something moves you, there’s a good chance there’s something there.
There’s value in telling the stories of people who don’t make the news, but who make societies work. If there are places that seem silent to you, it’s not because nothing’s happening; it’s because no one’s listening. This reminds me of a passage from Barbarian Days, a surfing memoir by William Finnegan:
You can use literary techniques to tell true stories, without making stuff up.
Don’t just report intellectually. Use all your senses, inhabit the landscape with your body. It might be useful to think about your editor as being blind. How do you tell a story to make them see? Don’t tell them it’s raining. Make them feel it.
Allow for serendipity. Sometimes you can be so focused looking for what you’re looking for that you miss other things. Be alert to what’s happening in real time. Don’t think so much about the final destination.
A writer’s identity is inescapable while reporting. And every writer will come to a story differently. The best you can do is be honest about who you are.
When interviewing your subjects, let them dictate the energy of your exchange. Let them lead you.
When someone needs to think about a question you ask them, that’s a good sign. Something that spills out of someone’s mouth may not be very valuable.
If you’re asking hard questions of someone in an interview, do it in the middle. You want to end on a good note, so that the door is open for you to come back to them and ask more questions. (I’ve heard differing advice on this, but to each their own.)
Trace things back to their origins. People too. Everyone has an origin story.
In your observations for a story, think about whether there are any quiet moments that say something about the human condition.
There are some stories you might choose to withhold, even if the story has the potential to change the world, because of the trust your subject has put in you. Basically, be a decent human being. Not all stories are yours to tell.
Write cinematically. There’s plenty to learn about good storytelling from the movies. Screenings during the workshop included scenes from Wong Kar Wai’s films and The Godfather.
Being a writer just means being someone who writes, writes, writes.
All that aside, what I appreciated most about the workshop was how it offered ways of thinking and being that are both practical and poetic.
There’s so much to do going forward, and I’m excited to get to all of it.
Hanging out as reporting
I spent about a full week pounding the pavements in Kolkata’s two Chinatowns—the original one in Tiretti Bazaar, and the other one in Tangra—to draw out a story about cultural survival through diversity, contentious histories, and what makes a Chinatown in this modern age in light of the drastically dwindled numbers of Chinese in the city. I made calls, wandered the streets, dropped in on the places where people socialise, and wrangled (unobtrusively, I hope) invitations to people’s homes.
I had been told that the Chinese community in India—well, anywhere actually—can be a closed community, that they generally like to keep themselves to themselves due to India’s history with China: you don’t ask me questions, I won’t ask you questions, that kind of thing. It’s true, and I did encounter some resistance initially, and some declined to speak with me. But most were generally welcoming of a curious stranger. I’m sure being ethnically Chinese myself helped, but I also think they were curious about my curiosity. Once people see you return day after day, that you’re genuinely interested, they tend to relent and let their guard down.
I’m grateful to the many people I’ve met for their hospitality, for letting a stranger poke into their daily lives to better understand a story—and occasionally, for letting me in, so frankly, on the intimate details of their inner worlds, even their love lives. As a girl, I grew up wanting to write fiction, but there’s nothing quite so rewarding as writing nonfiction, and this is why. You get to see the world through so many people’s eyes.
Thanks to all the families who invited me into their homes, and everyone who was willing to take time to chat, and who sent me along to more people I could speak to. I feel like I’ve seen so many different aspects of Kolkata just by following this one community: from the city centre, to the tanneries in Tangra, to the spruced-up neighbourhoods in the northeast like Salt Lake City (apparently so named because it used to be a salt marsh)—known for its prevalence of software companies, and where there’s even a “Big Ben”.
Not everyone I’ve met nor everything I’ve seen and heard will make it into my final story, but I’m grateful for all of it.
Memorable encounters with language
1. — What many Chinese Indians said to me: “Wait, you don’t speak Cantonese? But you’re from Malaysia! Aren’t most of the Chinese there Cantonese?”
Most Chinese Indians here speak English, but I’ve found myself in the funny situation of not being able to communicate with some of the older-generation Chinese here who don’t speak English, nor Mandarin, which I’m passably fluent in. Almost all Chinese here, however, speak fluent Hindi, even to each other in all-Chinese social settings; they tend only to use Chinese dialects at home with family. So, while speaking to John Wu here at Sea Ip, one of the five remaining Chinese social clubs, I asked Rangan Datta, a local blogger who has visited the community often, to act as a translator.
I’ve got a thirty-minute audio recording of John Wu talking, and admittedly I don’t know the language, but his speech sounds like music to me.
2. — As with any contentious period of history, you get people who want to keep talking about it, and people who think the past is best left in the past. The former think you should talk about it so future generations don’t make the same mistakes, while the latter think talking about it only resurrects old feuds and bitter memories. I think they’re both right. History can be wielded as a deterrent, or a weapon.
I spoke to some of the Chinese in Kolkata about the 1962 border war between India and China, which was responsible for an exodus from their community, with only about two thousand of them left now in a country where they once numbered in the tens of thousands. Lawrence Ho was eight years old when the war broke out, and he was sent along with his family to a desert camp in Rajasthan. He was generally reticent about the subject, though he did share with me some details about the experience. Someone also recited a Hindi proverb to me, basically: If you’re swimming in the river, don’t disturb the crocodile.
So, don’t stir up a hornet’s nest. Or, as my parents might say in English—translated bluntly from my father’s Foochow dialect—to my eighteen-year-old cousin before he went off to university in the U.S.: “Oi, don’t go sticking a worm up your arsehole.”
Yes, that’s apparently an actual Foochow saying 😆
3. — Some quirky turns of phrases I learned in my interviews:
“When they want to freak around, they will go out with their friends. There’s nothing for them to do here,” says Michael Ho about his children.
I think this might be more an individual quirk than something people generally say. But I love it!
Lawrence Ho puts it another way: “They like to chill their life, you know? That’s what they call it. Chill their life.”
Definitely add the chuckle you’re imagining.
Michael Chen, a mixed Indian Chinese, tells me about his home life: “We are more Chinese than Indian at home. Chinese, Chinese, maximum Chinese! Whatever food we cook here, all maximum Chinese!”
Seems to be used as a substitute for “most”/“mostly” quite a bit.
“My daddy expired.”
As in, passed away. Mostly, I hear this from the older generation.
“When I passed out of school…”
As in, graduate.
A spin around Tangra
There are many ways to see a city. Once, in Kolkata, from the back of a motorbike, hoping any cars slicing too close wouldn’t take my leg off.
Here’s a vignette of some footage I recorded. This is Christopher Chang, a 38-year-old dentist, who lives and works near Tangra—an area west of the city built on marshland known as “the other Chinatown” by virtue of the Chinese-owned tanneries that once dominated the area. I met him through people I met in Tiretti Bazaar, and he was kind enough to take me around Tangra on his morning off.
Christopher is a third-generation Chinese of Hubei origin. In India, perhaps because of the longevity of the caste system, many sons still do the work of their fathers and grandfathers—and most Hubeinese are dentists.
“Well, it’s easier, isn’t it?” he said, while we sat in the waiting room of an upstairs office selling dental supplies after taking a spin around Tangra. He was looking for a new supplier after a dispute with his regular one, who hadn’t appreciated being told there was something wrong with his equipment.
“Everything’s established already, and you don’t have to start over. I’ve inherited all my father’s clients.”
In Tangra, I also dropped by the office of the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India community paper, which was hard to find—tucked deep in a building without signs on the outside to call out to you, next to a graveyard. Founded in 1969, it’s one of the last Chinese papers left in Kolkata. It’s just a few pages long and boasts a readership of only about two hundred people. It contains some news, and announcements of births, deaths, marriages, and the like.
The editor, K.T. Chang, still makes much of the paper by hand. He prints out individual articles, which he then lays out manually into a broadsheet, using a short blade, a ruler, cellophane tape, and paperweights, before photocopying it for distribution. Even as I intruded, his focus never wavered when we spoke. He had a glass of yellow whisky at hand.
Tangra didn’t make it into my story in the end, but I hadn’t really intended it to from the outset, which meant that I explored it in more relaxed fashion and wasn’t so worried about reporting efficiently. Before I left, I walked into a Buddhist temple to say hello to a nun that Christopher had mentioned was his sifu. She would be good to talk to, he had said. We ended up talking for a good hour or so, and she ended up inviting me upstairs to lunch with her students and a visiting nun from Taiwan.
Truth is, I find it hard to be an “efficient” reporter. When you’re entering a community to understand it, sometimes, if you’re lucky, people will want to point you on to other people, and they will want to show you something, which sometimes has nothing to do with what you came looking for—and you need to develop a hunch on whether something might be in service of your story, or perhaps a different story, and also be okay with rejecting people’s hospitality when you really need to stay on track.
Several years back, when I was working at an online news website in Malaysia, the editor had a British media trainer shadow me for a few days while I worked. The trainer kept his distance, so as not to interfere with my reporting or make interviewees uncomfortable, and he observed me quietly to give me feedback on aspects I could improve on.
In the end, he told me that I was doing everything right, but that I spent too long talking to people. I believe he was referring specifically to an afternoon I spent doing vox pop interviews in Kampung Baru, a Malay neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur’s city centre, when I walked into a coffee shop and started asking questions and someone asked me to sit down and have a drink and chat—and that’s exactly what I did, while the trainer was thirty or so meters away, stealthily making evaluations. Before I knew it, almost two hours had passed. He said that as someone who had spent most of his career reporting news for TV, he would go into a story knowing exactly how many quotes he needed and from whom—two here, two there. Get in, get out.
I did learn to do that soon enough, but it’s no surprise that I’ve always gravitated towards features and longform writing. Still, in terms of the nuts and bolts of shoe-leather reporting, no experience has been so formative as the months I spent covering breaking news in the run-up to Malaysia’s thirteenth general election, and I’m forever grateful to my colleagues and editors from that time.
Kolkata in literature
I picked up Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury from a bookstore in the city, and highly recommend it. A passage:
Update: The published stories
“Growing up, we could make up two cricket teams with the young guys around here. Not anymore.”
Trevor Chen sits with his brother Stephen inside Sei Vui Club in Tiretti Bazaar, Kolkata’s old Chinatown. They’re waiting for the rest of the group to show up. They used to play gully cricket outside, Trevor says, when they had more friends. But now they’re down to just the handful of them, in their thirties and forties. “Almost all bachelors,” one of their friends would say later.
So it’s boys’ night some evenings after work, and tonight, in a hall upstairs decorated with portraits of Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen, they’ll be playing ping-pong. That, they have enough manpower for.
Here’s a message I received from one of the uncles of Kolkata’s Chinatown, post-publication, that really made my day:
Hi Emily. Thanks for the well written informative article. You have documented after of facts with empathy. The endurance as well as the resilience of the Indian Chinese who had gone through all the hardships. The adaptability and hope of the younger generation. Maybe this is because we have managed to survived as our Chinese culture had survived for thousands of years! Surely something good must be there!
When I’m writing more deeply to understand a community as an outsider, I always get a little nervous when I show members of that community my finished story. The matter of identity, and its portrayal, can be such a slippery, contradictory thing. What if they disagree with, or dislike, the way I see them? What if they think I’ve read into the “telling details” wrong?
Still, even when that happens, it’s not to say that the writer is necessarily wrong. Fact is, we don’t always see ourselves the most clearly. Sometimes, an outsider can see notice things we’ve taken for granted. Sometimes, the truth feels uncomfortable—that line in Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, “Nobody likes to be understood without warning”—or perhaps there are valid, even competing, truths on both sides. But as a reporter, it’s still a relief when how you see people and how they see themselves dovetail for the most part.
My Kolkata trip also led to another essay: Homing Pigeon for The Mekong Review’s May/June 2019 issue about how my interest in the idea of Chinatown began, which took me from London to Guatemala City to Kolkata:
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. The differences in the pedestrian, rather than the extraordinary, are more telling, right? I get it. I have a similar ritual: I go to Chinatown.
Being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. So please sign up if you would like to receive more letters like this in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity. Thank you! ❤️
A story I love
On a related note, this essay by Fae Myenne Ng about the “orphan bachelors” of San Francisco’s Chinatown is particularly evocative:
In our brief moment of childhood unity, Chinatown was a village with a hundred grandfathers, the remnants of Exclusion. I called out: Drink Whiskey Grandpa! Lame Leg Grandpa! Salty Grandpa! My father kept a wicker chair in our grocery store for any of them who wandered in.
The orphan bachelors shuffled along Dupont Avenue, our own Chinese-American song of everlasting sorrow. They hung out on street corners, perched on hydrants, and leaned against lampposts. At Hang Ah Tea Parlor, when their bowls of plain congee arrived, they pulled out pink paper cones from their tattered jacket pockets and sprinkled tidbits of meat into their gruel. Without family, they tried their luck at the mah-jongg hall; without wives, they sang love ballads in the underground music clubs and drank through the night at Red’s Place.
Which led me to these photographs of San Francisco Chinatown, 1896 to 1906, by Arnold Genthe.
Some words to live by
On aspiration, Joshua Rothman in The Art of Decision Making:
When we’re aspiring, inarticulateness isn’t a sign of unreasonableness or incapacity. In fact, the opposite may be true. [...] If we couldn’t aspire to changes that we struggle to describe, we’d be trapped within the ideas that we already have. Our inability to explain our reasons is a measure of how far we wish to travel. It’s only after an aspirant has reached her destination, [Agnes] Callard writes, that “she will say, ‘This was why.’”
Maria Popova in Reclaiming Friendship:
It is important to clarify here that the ideal self is not a counterpoint to the real self in the sense of being inauthentic. Unlike the seeming self, which springs from our impulse for self-display and which serves as a kind of deliberate mask, the ideal self arises from our authentic values and ideals. Although it represents an aspirational personhood, who we wish to be is invariably part of who we are—even if we aren’t always able to enact those ideals. In this sense, the gap between the ideal self and the real self is not one of insincerity but of human fallibility. The friend is one who embraces both and has generous patience for the rift between the two. A true friend holds us lovingly accountable to our own ideals, but is also able to forgive, over and over, the ways in which we fall short of them and can assure us that we are more than our stumbles, that we are shaped by them but not defined by them, that we will survive them with our personhood and the friendship intact.
Till the next.