The first thing that hits one on entering the office of the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India is the overpowering smell of drying animal skins, damp walls and musty, brittle copies of the newspaper laid out on one of the many tables in the deserted hall. The second is the gorgon who comes buzzing out of her lair. “No, no, no, no, no,” is all she says, nipping in the bud any attempt at introductions.
Vintage manuscript: Copies of the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India from the days when it was handwritten. Photograph: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint.
Not the most congenial welcome to the home of India’s last remaining Chinese language newspaper, deep in Tangra, the tannery neighbourhood of Kolkata. “We are down to 190 copies from about 700-800 a decade ago,” says an elderly gentleman, who identifies himself only as Akung, apologizing profusely for the behaviour of his junior. “She speaks no Hindi and only a few English words, and is very wary of strangers,” he adds, looking up from the sheets of translucent paper with Chinese characters that he is putting together with cellophane tape.
“Earlier, we would have to write all the characters in calligraphy,” explains Akung, who has been helping out with production after retiring from a local tannery. However, the gift of a complete Chinese DTP set from Taiwan has made life easier for the three-member production staff of the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India.
What has not changed is the excessive secrecy that shrouds the workings of the paper, like most things associated with the Chinese community in Kolkata. “There is a feeling of fear and insecurity among the community, which makes it feel as if it’s besieged,” says Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association. “I have often advised those who run the newspaper to open up, but they shun publicity as they think it amounts to interference,” he rues.
Chung, 67, who retired as the assistant principal of the Don Bosco School in neighbouring Howrah district, represents the growing minority within the community that advocates greater openness and integration with the mainstream. “Our future doesn’t lie in Canada or Taiwan but here, in India,” says Chung, who was born in India but had to wait 58 years before he got his citizenship in 1999. “Till then, I was a stateless citizen,” chuckles the English teacher, who now teaches elementary Mandarin to Indian Army soldiers headed for duty on the border with China.
The daily, started in March 1969 by Lee Youn Chin, a community leader and an eminent tanner, carries stories selected from national and international papers and translated into Chinese by Chen Ling, 25, the youngest of the editorial trio. The paper also receives direct feeds from Chinese papers and news agencies as well as the Chinese embassy. Relevant news items are also picked up from television or radio. “Anything that is relevant to the community finds a place in the four pages of the newspaper,” says Akung. “There isn’t too much local news, the emphasis being on China and Taiwan,” he adds.
Hands on: Senior staffer Akung working on an edition. Photograph: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint.
The Overseas Chinese Commerce of India also acts as a newsletter for the 3,500-odd Chinese living in the city as well as those scattered in other parts of India. “Births, deaths, engagements, marriages and other social events are all advertised in our paper,” says Akung. These and other advertisements keep the paper, priced at Rs2.50 per copy, going.
The dwindling number of Kolkata Chinese, as well as the younger generation’s lack of knowledge of the traditional script used in the newspaper, explain the plummeting circulation figures. “Many of the youngsters don’t know the Han script that we use, and hence don’t read the paper,” says Akung. A steady stream of Chinese started leaving the country after the India-China war of 1962.
“We were looked upon with suspicion. Perhaps, in some quarters, we still are,” says Chung, who says his forefathers came from the Kwantung region of China by just hopping onto the direct steamer service and getting off at the Kidderpore docks. “We work hard to earn money, and have nothing to do with politics,” he says, adding: “Whenever we see trouble, either we bear quietly or move away equally quietly. This is what the Kolkata Chinese have always done.”