Dr. Sucheta Mazumdar

Editor’s note; Dr. Sucheta Mazumdar is Associate Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA in 1984. Her research has focused on the Chinese and Indian diaspora, and she has taught Asian American studies, women’s studies, and offers a transnational view of race and gender. She is author of Sugar and Society in China: Peasants, Technology and the World Market (Harvard, 1998), since translated to the Chinese language. She is also co-author of From Orientalism to Postcolonialism: Asia, Europe and the Lineages of Differences (Routledge, 2009).

Lunar New Year at Kolkata’s Tangra Chinatown in 2008. Courtesy of Flickr’s jliptoid.

Chinese Connections in Kolkata

My family is Bengali. With the 1947 Partition, Hindu families relocated to India. My grandfather received refugee resettlement in Calcutta – now Kolkata. My grandfather and parents, although based in Delhi and other parts of northern India for work, passionately identified with Bengal and Kolkata which formed their cultural home. The extended family of aunts and cousins all lived in Kolkata. When we visited, like other middle-class Bengalis in Kolkata, the family went out to eat Chinese food on Sundays. And this is how the two defining intellectual passions of my life, Chinese and Indian history, and Asian American studies came together.

Bengal had many levels of relations with China through the Southwestern Silk Roads from Qin dynasty. Schools of Buddhism connected Sichuan, Tibet, and Bengal with migrations and crossings between the borders. New connections accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

When Calcutta became the capital of British India from 1772-1911, British India-China trade increased. Kolkata is unique in having two Chinatowns. In 1778, one of the first Chinese to arrive was Tong Achi (Atchew, Yang Dazhao), from Guangdong. A trader, he came bearing gifts of tea to the British governor. Given land near the harbor to set up a sugar mill, Tong Achi imported tea and white sugar from China, preferred by the British over the local Indian brown sugar. Tong Achi also built a Chinese temple, and was allowed to bring over 110 Chinese to Calcutta. This area, Achipur, still has a red horse-shoe shaped symbolic tomb of Tong Achi. Cantonese and Hokkien sailors, tea traders, and the much-esteemed Taishan Hakka carpenters and leather tanners arrived next.

A regular steamer service started between Calcutta and Hong Kong in the 1840s. Tiretta Bazaar in Central Calcutta, became the first Cheenapara or Chinese neighborhood. Hakka immigrants expanded tanneries in Tangra in East Calcutta and that became their neighborhood. During the 1940s, when many Chinese fled from WWII and the Japanese invasion, there were as many as 20,000-30,000 Chinese living in Calcutta. Then, the 1962 China-India War changed everything.

The Indian government carried out forced relocation and internment of the Chinese-Indians. The community scattered, and many left to go to China and Taiwan. Other Hakka-Indians from Tangra relocated to Toronto and London, where they run Chindian restaurants. Now, only about 2,500-3,000 people live in the two Kolkata Chinatowns.

But there are still eight Chinese temples and churches, the sound of the older generation playing mahjong, a Chinese language newspaper, and a growing Hakka Chindian community as some families have returned from abroad. Tangra Chinatown has the ceremonial arch, and the New Year’s Lion Dance is held in both Chinatowns. Tiretta Bazaar Chinatown has been recognized as a World Heritage Site, and preservation is underway. On Sun Yat Sen Street, one can get dim sum, wonton, noodles, bao, and prawn spring rolls and buy lap cheong on Sundays. And of course, visit one of the many Chinese restaurants in town.

In 1968, when my family and I finally arrived in Los Angeles after a year in England and another in upstate New York getting our immigration papers, in true Calcutta Bengali fashion, we headed off to North Spring Street in L.A. Chinatown to sightsee and eat Chinese food. We ordered our favorites of sweet and sour pork and chop suey. But why did the chop suey taste so different? Why did it not come with stir-fried vegetables in a hot spicy sauce, the way the Cantonese restaurants served it in Calcutta?

As I learned later, Cantonese tsap seui 杂碎, born in America, had been retranslated in Kolkata. American servicemen stationed in Calcutta during WWII, asked for chop suey in the local Chinese restaurants. But no Indian would touch the bland stuff.  The spicy Tangra Hakka Chindian style of cuisine has since come to be known by the exotic label of “Manchurian” and Chindian dishes, a staple in trendy Indian restaurants the world over.

In 1968, my own journey to learning Chinese had just begun. At UCLA, I felt a little bit guilty for deciding to specialize in Chinese studies instead of Japanese for that would have pleased my grandfather. My grandfather had traveled via Hong Kong and Shanghai to Tokyo in 1905, when he was part of the first group of sixteen students from Bengal sent to learn new industrial technologies of manufacture for goods that were imported from Britain. The poet Rabindranath Tagore and his associates paid for the students and his son to study in Japan for five years as part of a nationalist Indian anti-colonial project of building self-sufficiency.

Eventually around two hundred students were sent from India to study in Japan. My grandfather studied porcelain manufacture and started the first ceramic factory in India after his return. As a result, we always had Japanese and Chinese colleagues of my grandfather’s coming to visit our factory-home in Delhi, and my grandfather spoke Japanese with them. One of the visitors from Hong Kong gave me a children’s English language version of Journey to the West. I was hooked!

Tagore’s vision, and that of his associates, was a hope for Asia-led cultural and literary revival that would sponsor a new international humanism. Tagore used his Nobel Prize money to set up Shantiniketan University near Kolkata. The Japanese invasion of China was widely condemned and connections terminated. But Chinese studies flourished from the 1930s as did connections with Southeast Asia.

Tagore invited Chinese scholars to teach Chinese language art and literature, and recruited noted Chinese Confucian and Buddhist studies scholar, Tan Yunshan, to head up the program. Chinese from China, Singapore, Malaya, and Rangoon contributed to the new Chinese-style building and donated 100,000 Chinese books. Many of the graduates of that program went on to teach Chinese studies and Chinese history at various Indian universities. The Bengal School of Modern Art drew on Chinese ink brush painting styles and turned out many famous Indian artists. With 1937, the Chinese Studies Institute, Cheena Bhavana, became a center for both cultural studies and diplomatic initiatives between the Chinese government and Indian government that started with Chiang Kai-shek’s visit in 1942 and continued all the way down to Zhou Enlai’s visit in 1957. After high school, I planned to study at Shantiniketan. As it happened, I began my college education at UCLA.

Chinese and Asian American Studies at UCLA

As a Chinese language major, I also learned Japanese, French and Russian, worked with fellow students to put in petitions for courses in Korean, and took every course on any and every part of Asia offered at UCLA. But as I finished my undergrad education, I started to encounter severe opposition to further studies from my family. I was told that Chinese studies as a hobby was fine, but that I did not need a Ph.D. and needed, instead, to settle down. Nobody expected me to succeed. Then I learned I received the Chancellor’s Fellowship to earn a Ph.D. in the UCLA History Department. After that, I struck out on my own.

I went on to Taiwan to study in 1975 and then again in 1977, lived and ate with Chinese families, took courses in classical and modern Chinese, and tutored English. I learned about sugarcane cultivation and Chinese agriculture by visiting villages as I had decided to make the study of sugar – chini चीनी – in China and India and China’s trade to British India the focus of my dissertation, which then became a book.

Even before 1970, when I was able to formally enroll at UCLA, I used to hang around Campbell Hall. At the time, African American issues were more familiar to me than Asian American issues. There was wide coverage of Dr. Martin Luther King in India for his use of Gandhian techniques of non-violence. As a kid, I had joined people lining the streets with flowers and flags welcoming MLK to Delhi in 1959. With “Whites Only” signs still up in Calcutta clubs and swimming pools, we did not need second introductions. There was wide coverage in Delhi newspapers of the Birmingham church bombings in 1963, the March on Washington, and the assassination of Malcolm X. Wandering around UCLA campus in 1969 until I could formally enroll, I simply walked into courses where lots of students were gathering and so attended Angela Davis’ class and Ron Takaki’s class. After enrolling in 1970, I continued to hang around Campbell Hall, picked up copies of Gidra, went to anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, and had Japanese American friends who educated me about the internment camps. I attended Alex Saxton’s course on the Chinese farmworkers in California and wanted to write a paper on the history of the Punjabi farmworkers in California. He sent me to see Lucie Cheng. She and I had a nice chat. Lucie told me there was no one at the Center who could advise me on the topic. But she did not forget my interest.

In 1977, Lucie asked me to join the team on Labor Immigration Under Capitalism as a Research Assistant for their project to work on the Punjabi immigrants to California. I worked as a Research Assistant at the Asian American Studies Center for seven years until 1984, taking breaks in-between for studying in China at Zhongshan University 中山大学 in Guangzhou. I also worked part time with Susie Ling at Student Community Projects and Russell Leong as an Amerasia assistant. Lucie was on my dissertation reading committee. After I graduated with my Ph.D. and went to teach at Berkeley, Him Mark Lai and Russell Leong helped me travel to emigrant villages in Guangdong to further my studies.

While at the Center, I took the M.A. course with Tim Dong, studied with Lane Hirabayashi, shared an office with Gary Okihiro and John Liu, became friends with Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, joined the International Women’s Solidarity Coalition, volunteered at Everywoman’s Shelter run by Filipina Nilda Rimonte, and on Fridays, went out to the South African Consulate to demonstrate against apartheid with my African American friends. In 1981, with support from the Asian American Studies Center, Vasant Kaiwar (now my husband) and I founded the international journal South Asia Bulletin which became Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (Duke University Press).

The goal of bringing world regions and area studies into conversation and crossing the boundaries of academic practices, challenging and bridging ethno-national narratives of exclusivity that had started me on the road to Chinese studies and Asian American studies and linked migration histories still remains a goal. My experience at the Asian American Studies Center was transformative, as I transitioned to an even broader vision of the world than what I had arrived with.

I stood out in the hallways of Campbell Hall for I always wore a sari. That went back to my first days in England, when I was spat at as a “bloody Paki” (literally Pakistani but used for all South Asians). Some stores would not serve me, for they did not serve “Coloureds”. In England, and then in L.A., people talked about how our foods smelled and would not rent to us. Wearing Asian clothes became a sort of a litmus test: If people are racist, or ethno-nationalist and anti-foreigner, it shows in their eyes and faces when they look at a differently dressed person, not to mention a person of a different color. I still tend to wear a sari or a kurta, or a Chinese jacket or a Japanese hanten or an Indonesian ikat vest to announce who I am. And that is how the photo on the back cover of Linking Our Lives came to be.

Working on Linking Our Lives taught me first-hand the importance of doing and using oral histories as a fundamental part of learning and writing social history. As part of the Linking our Lives writing group, I saw how the multi-generational range and scope of the oral histories in the collection challenged and changed fundamental assumptions about twentieth century Chinese American history as well as Los Angeles history. Throughout my career of thirty years of teaching Asian American studies courses along with Chinese history courses at Duke, I have used the researching and writing of oral histories with older family members, teachers and community members as part of student assignments in Asian American studies courses. Doing an oral history is more than just doing a recording, for the experience of the interaction changes both the interviewee and the interviewer. To be Asian American is much more than being a number in a census category. It is to join the struggle to create a just and equitable future for not just one group, but all.