By Sutirtha Gupta/South Asian Monitor
The government of China has stepped up investment and trade in India’s eastern state of West Bengal. A Chinese consulate has recently been opened in Kolkata. And the oldest, in fact the only, Chinese school in India, is being reopened with Chinese assistance. There are, of course, a few other schools in Kolkata where Chinese is taught and some Chinese language institutes.
The Chinese community of Kolkata mostly lives in Tangra. This China town is a hot favourite for Chinese food. This is one place where authentic Chinese cuisine is available. The area is lined with innumerable Chinese restaurants. There used to be tanneries here too in the past.
It is in this area, Tangra, that the oldest Chinese school of India is located. The Pei Mei Middle School is being given a new lease of life. Walls are being repainted and the school is about to reopen after a seven-year closure. The newly formed school committee said that the Chinese consulate is extending assistance in this regard. Senior members of the Chinese community living for generations in India, say this initiative has been taken to create interest among the newer generation in their mother language.
The Chinese have been living in Kolkata for over two centuries. They originally came to work at the ports, but soon displayed their proficiency in leather goods, shoes in particular, and also in dentistry. Even now there are Chinese shoes shops and dental centres in Bentinck Street of Dharmatala. Over 20 thousand members of the Chinese community would live in and around Kolkata at one time, but with the passage of time, this number was dwindled to around 2500.
Things took a turn after the 1962 India-China war, when the Chinese were looked upon with suspicion. Some of the Chinese left and went back to mainland China and some to Taipei. There were several other upheavals after that too. The Chinese left Kolkata to return to their motherland. However, many of the Chinese consider India to be their motherland.
The Chinese in the past could neither avail jobs nor citizenship in India and would have to regularly report to the local police station. Their movements were restricted too. Then as relations between India and China gradually normalized, the situation began to change. In 1998 for the first time the Chinese were given naturalized Indian citizenship. A gateway was set up at the entrance of China Town in 2005, with the word ‘Welcome’ written in Chinese.
Though the number of Chinese in India has reduced drastically, the Chinese have always been active in preserving the Chinese language or Mandarin. The only Chinese newspaper of India is published from China Town. It is handwritten and then printed since the import of Chinese type is prohibited. The elderly persons of the community are thrilled to be able to receive a copy of the paper every day. They are virtually addicted to it.
The elderly are concerned about the new generation. The Chinese youth are studying in English medium schools. They are completely alienated from their mother tongue. That is why the community is so eager about reopening the school which had been closed for seven years.
The Vice President of the newly formed school committee Chu Ying Wah said, “The blood and sweat of our ancestors are in this school established nine decades ago. The Chinese were not at all wealthy at the time and the school was founded with donations. It is because of this school that we managed to hold on to our language and culture.” He said, “It is our moral duty to run this school so that our next generation is not deprived of the Chinese language and culture.”
The school was set up on a three bigha 13 katha plot of land. After the seventies, things took a nose dive. Then when the private Grace Ling Liang English medium school opened up in Tangra and became instantly popular, the Pei Mei school closed down.
The Pei Mei school committee has decided to initially open the school up to grade five as an English medium school. However, the school committee president stressed, importance will be given to Chinese and Indian culture.
Senior Chinese language teacher C T Lung feels that it is important to generate interest among the young generation of Chinese in their mother language and culture. He said, “All efforts are being made to teach Mandarin so that the youth come to know the language and culture of China. If they know the language, they will be interested in the literature too.”
A member of the school committee said, there is still a dilemma over what text will be taught initially. However, at the behest of the Indian Chinese Association for Culture, Welfare and Development and the Chinese embassy in India, a large amount of textbooks are being brought in from China and Taipei. Along with Mandarin language, the school curriculum will also include math and Chinese literature.
Many among the new generation are enthusiastic about studying their mother tongue. Student Selena Chang said that even though she is Indian, she is eager to know about her own culture and heritage. The new generation parents are also eager for their offspring to learn Chinese. They feel that everything should not be restricted to just the dragon festival on the Chinese New Year.
The school committee members all acknowledge the role of the Chinese consulate in reopening the Pei Mei School. The Chinese Consul General Wang Xuefeng said the school is being restarted so as to build a bond between India and Chinese culture.
The elderly Liu Guozhao has expressed gratitude to the Chinese Consul General for his personal initiative to reopen the school. He feels that it is not just the Chinese children who will benefit from the school, but Indian children too will be able to learn about Chinese culture too.
(The featured image at the top shows India’s only Chinese school (in Kolkata) now being assisted by the Chinese government)