KOLKATA, India — When Tony Liu was a child, a series of police raids in his hometown made him realize that some people saw him and his family as different from their fellow Indian citizens.
In 1962, Indian authorities went door to door, rounding up people of Chinese descent in his neighborhood of the city then known as Calcutta. The former British colonial capital remains one of India’s most diverse metropolises, home to the country’s largest Chinatown.
That’s where Liu, now 70, grew up. He’s a third-generation immigrant. His grandfather was born in China, but his parents were born in India and so was Liu. He’s an Indian citizen, and like most Indians, has never been to China.
Still, when India and China fought a border war in 1962, his community of ethnic Chinese Indians fell under suspicion. Thousands were detained and sent to an old British prison camp for months — and in some cases, years. Some died there.
“They arrested my Chinese teachers. I was barely 12 then,” Liu recalls. “My classmate’s parents were arrested too.”
It was a dark chapter in Indian history, for which survivors are still demanding an official apology from the government. It also spurred an exodus of Chinese Indians, mostly to the West.
Now, Liu fears history may be repeating itself. Last year, fresh clashes broke out along the India-China border. Anti-China sentiment in India has surged, and while Liu intends to stay, more of his neighbors may be packing up.
Chinese Indians are nervous they’ll fall under suspicion again, amid what may be the biggest change in India’s foreign policy since its 1947 independence from Britain. India stayed neutral through the Cold War. But now a new cold war is brewing between the West and China. And Washington has sought to convince India, the world’s largest democracy, to abandon its traditional neutrality and side with the U.S.
Some analysts say India is shifting already.
In June 2020, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat along a disputed border
India and China are the world’s two most populous countries. They share the world’s longest unmarked frontier, stretching more than 2,000 miles, much of it high in the Himalayas. They’ve been trying in vain to settle their border dispute since the early 1990s. In addition to the 1962 war, the countries engaged in another military standoff there in 2017.
Last year, in June, cross-border fighting erupted again in a remote area of the border called the Galwan Valley. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed, as were at least four Chinese troops. It was particularly brutal hand-to-hand combat. Indian media ran photos of nail-studded rods that Chinese troops allegedly brought to the fight.
Public anger raged. TV footage showed Indians tossing Chinese-made appliances off their balconies and stomping on the broken pieces.
The Indian government retaliated by banning dozens of Chinese-made apps, including TikTok. Nationalist politicians called for boycotts of other Chinese products. Indian and Chinese military officials engaged in deescalation talks, but those broke down this past October.
Chinese Indians were already feeling vulnerable amid a global wave of anti-Asian racism sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic’s alleged origins in Wuhan, China. The Galwan clashes exacerbated that racism, and reignited longstanding fears of persecution.
“If another war happens, what’ll happen to us?” asks Hoiwa Wu, a friend of Liu’s who is also Chinese Indian.
Liu and Wu, both 70, spoke to NPR at a Taoist temple in central Kolkata, where they had Chinese-language newspapers spread out on a table and there was a lunar calendar on the wall. Liu speaks several Chinese languages — Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka — as well as Hindi and Bengali.
“We were born in India. We have citizenship. But even though we are Indian, we are not seen as Indians,” Wu laments. “Why? Because of our yellow skin.”
He says he was often a victim of racist slurs in the street as a child. That abuse has returned, he says, since the June 2020 border fighting.
Kolkata’s Chinese Indian population is declining
Kolkata has two Chinatowns: Tiretti (sometimes also called Tiretta) Bazaar and Tangra. The former is where Susan Yee, 58, runs a popular café on a street lined with Chinese lanterns. Her grandparents’ black-and-white portraits hang on the wall. They immigrated to India and she grew up in Kolkata speaking Cantonese, Hindi, Bengali and English.
“We celebrate Chinese festivals. We celebrate Indian festivals also — and Christmas, New Year’s,” Yee says.
Within a few hundred yards of Yee’s café, there’s a Hindu shrine, a Muslim mosque and a Taoist temple. The diversity is typical for this city, a trading hub that for centuries has attracted immigrants from around the world, and ended up being shaped by them.
The Tangra Chinatown district is home to a temple where Hindus of Chinese descent worship the Hindu goddess Kali. Instead of presenting traditional offerings of South Asian sweets called laddoos, devotees bring bowls of Chinese noodles and chop suey.
But Yee says her Chinese Indian community is dwindling. The first wave of emigration happened after the 1962 war. Another is now underway. Yee’s daughter recently emigrated to New Zealand, seeking better economic opportunities.
Community leaders estimate that before the 1962 war, there were some 50,000 Chinese Indians in India, mostly in what was then called Calcutta. Now there are barely 4,000, they say.
Many of their ancestors first arrived in the late 18th century to work at Calcutta’s port. Chinese Indians went on to dominate the city’s leather trade. (Distinct from Chinese Indians, who are Indian citizens, there are also several thousand Chinese expatriates working in India, as well as around 100,000 Tibetans living in exile in India, who have special residency but are not Indian citizens.)
“Before, when I was small, we had a lot of Chinese neighbors,” Yee recalls. “But now they all have migrated. So they are all scattered. Some are dead and gone.”
While some Chinese Indians were deported to China in 1962, most have since left voluntarily for the West, where they hope to find better opportunities. Liu says some have also left India because of racism.
Indians of Chinese descent fear what a new cold war with China might mean for them
India has long been seen by the West as a democratic bulwark against communist China. The U.S. wants to make that official.
India has traditionally maintained a nonaligned position in foreign policy. But politicians in both the Trump and Biden administrations have said they would like to change that. Washington has sought to tap into recent tensions between New Delhi and Beijing to encourage a change in Indian foreign policy. While India and the U.S. maintain friendly relations, the two are not treaty allies.
Some analysts argue that India has already abandoned its neutrality and allied itself with the U.S. in practice, if not formally. It’s become a key player in the Quad, an informal anti-China grouping that includes the U.S., Australia and Japan. India conducts military exercises with the U.S. and others in the Asia-Pacific region, largely seen as aimed at countering China’s maritime powers.
But Bean-ching Law, who goes by Binny and heads the Chinese Indian Association, a community group, says he thinks India should exercise caution. He believes any formal alliance with the U.S. could imperil his community — which is still traumatized from 1962, he says.
“Indian police came knocking and said, ‘Pack up whatever you have.’ They put them on the train, not knowing when they would come back. Some were held for years,” Law explains. “They are still afraid of that knock on the door.”
A formal anti-China alliance could also imperil trade, Law says, affecting some Chinese Indian livelihoods. Despite last year’s border clashes, trade between India and China has grown. This year it crossed the $100 billion mark — a more than 22% increase over the same period last year. India has also been shrinking its trade imbalance by exporting more to China.
Law says he’s also worried about China’s much more powerful military, which has troops stationed across the 2,000-plus-mile border. India can’t physically withdraw from this conflict the way the U.S. did from Afghanistan last summer, he notes.
And speaking of that withdrawal, he’s just not sure the U.S. is a reliable partner.
“Particularly after what happened in Afghanistan, you know?” he says. “Afghanistan, the people, I’m sure they feel so betrayed.”
So Law hopes that India’s membership in the Quad is as far as New Delhi is willing to go when it comes to siding with Washington against China.
“Going into such an exclusive clique, it’s something that sounds good on paper, but you have to look after yourself first,” Law says. “That means not getting into cliques that maybe you can’t count on.”
How one Chinese Indian is building bridges
In a warehouse on the edge of Kolkata’s Tangra Chinatown, James Liao is teaching a workshop on Chinese martial arts and a traditional Chinese dragon dance. His students gather under a huge dragon costume, with some of them at the head and others at the tail. They coordinate their moves, dancing and leaping atop platforms and beams as others beat a rhythm on drums.
“My purpose is to build a bridge between China and India — to understand our cultures and know each other better,” Liao, 50, says.
He’s a Chinese Indian himself, born and raised in Kolkata. He’s traveled to China twice. “But no matter how Indian I am, I still look Chinese,” Liao says. And he’s suffered from racism because of it, he says. When he was a kid, he says classmates used to make fun of the shape of his eyes.
When NPR interviewed him in October, Liao was preparing to travel to Mumbai with his dance troupe, to perform on India’s Got Talent. But he was nervous. In Kolkata, the Chinese Indian community is well known. In other parts of India, Liao fears being mistaken for a Chinese tourist or businessman, and possibly being targeted with abuse.
Liao’s students used to come from his own community. But most young Chinese Indians have gone abroad, he says.
“There won’t be any [of us left],” he says. “We are the last people who are going to be here. So I feel sad.”
But he also sees a glimmer of hope. On the day NPR visited, his dragon dance class was full. Most of his students now are Indians who are curious about Chinese culture.
Liao says he feels heartened by that, because he’s not just teaching them the dragon dance. He’s also educating them about India’s diversity. And he says he hopes that can moderate attitudes on this side of the long India-China border.
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this story from Kolkata and Mumbai.