Kolkata: Chinese footwear makers may lead the world with exports topping $9 billion (about Rs38,000 crore) a year, but what the famous Chinese shoe shops on Bentinck Street in central Kolkata are selling these days is almost entirely sourced from contract manufacturers in Uttar Pradesh.
Shoes produced by these stores, which were set up in the 1940s, were famous for their style, durability and affordability. The Hakkas, a sub-group of the Han Chinese, who migrated to Kolkata and wrested control of this business from local Muslims in the 1950s, lent a contemporary touch, and used secret techniques that made their footwear more comfortable and durable.
Hard times: Chinese shoe shops at Kolkata’s Bentinck Street. Sales at these stores that are struggling to keep up with shifting tastes and styles are falling by almost 10-15%.
“There used to be a time when people from all over Kolkata and the suburbs descended on Bentinck Street to buy shoes,” says Lim Chih Ju, the 78-year-old owner of shoe shop Ting Son and Co. Lim Chih bought the shop in 2001, after the original owner died and his only son, who inherited it, moved to Taiwan.
But now sales are falling by almost 10-15% year-on-year, according to Chinese shoemakers here. To cope, they have had to cut down on production. The city has 30-odd Chinese shoe shops, most of which’s owners have stopped making their own shoes. “Only about 25% of our stock is made by us,” admits Lim Chih, whose younger son Paul runs another 45-year-old shoe shop in Kolkata. His first son has moved to Canada. “Our younger generation is educated and doesn’t want to be in this business any more,” says Lim Chih.
The older generation is befuddled by the changing tastes and styles. “Just as we think we have got it right, young customers come in asking for something different,” says a bemused Lim Chih. This, coupled with the arrival of shopping malls, has hit the traditional Chinese shoemakers of Bentinck Street hard.
Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association, cites a few more reasons for the decline of Kolkata’s Chinese shoemakers. “There are far too many competitors now and our numbers are dwindling,” he says. “Plus, the whole citizenship issue has left the community confused and demoralized and the youngsters are all looking to leave.”
The Indian government refuses to grant citizenship to the Chinese, though almost all of them have either lived here for more than 50 years or were born in this country.
To make matters worse, the state government ordered the closure of tanneries in the Tangra-Topsia region, also known as Kolkata’s Chinatown. Almost all Chinese tanners refused to move to the leather complex in nearby Bantala, and two out of three decided to shut shop. There are about 10 Chinese tanners in business now. Others have turned their tanneries into restaurants. This has disrupted the backward linkage, which most Chinese shoemakers had with the tanneries.
“It was easier to operate with them as they knew what we wanted and vice versa,” says a shoemaker who identifies himself only as Leong.