The entrance-way to 6, Tangra Road, through one of the back alleys of Kolkata’s Chinatown, is unassuming. It has a red and white sign at the top which holds the vestiges of former elegance, but clearly lacks maintenance at present. The Mandarin calligraphy on it reads ‘Chinese Tannery Owner Association’.
Leather tanning has been outlawed in this part of the city owing to successive Supreme Court and Calcutta High Court rulings in the late 90s deeming the industry dangerously pollutive. Prior to the rulings, it used to be the centre of a thriving leather business, with more than 500 big and small tanneries back in the day. But now, 6, Tangra Road houses something very different: the only Chinese language newspaper in India.
“When tanning was still a practice in these parts, the newspaper office always reeked of raw hide,” says Jessica Lee, who looks after the Hot-Wok Village restaurant nearby. It was her grandfather, Lee Youn Chin, who singlehandedly started a renewed revolution in tannery when he set up his leather business in the 20s. In March of 1969, he established the The Overseas Chinese Commerce of India. Initially, it was a medium to publish and procure tannery-related news, but over time, it expanded — eventually incorporating news about the local community as a whole.
The newspaper’s office is situated next to an open space that was used by local tanners to dry animal skin — and is unusually quiet. There is a long hall filled with antique furniture and mounds of old editions, piled on top of each other. This is the “archives” section, and it does not have a digital counterpart.
But before one can proceed any further, they must encounter Kevin Ciu. The longtime caretaker and delivery manager isn’t the most amiable person. He speaks fluent Hindi, but only a few words in English. Yet it is enough for him to convey his message: the editor is very busy and won’t be able to meet anyone. His response remains the same, irrespective of when one chooses to visit.
“No interview, no picture,” Ciu says, then repeats it in Hindi. “Boss busy.”
It may be presumptuous to assume that they would be welcoming of strangers, especially journalists. Years ago (around 2003-04), a gunman killed two tannery owners here. The crime drew intrusive media coverage for several days, much to the ire of the area’s Chinese residents.
There are also larger historical factors at play, that may cause them to be wary of strangers. Despite the fact that the first people of Chinese origin arrived in the city in the late 18th century, Chinese immigrants have mostly been looked upon with a considerable amount of suspicion and subtle, ingrained racism. Many people still associate Chinese residents with the restaurant industry — a notion shaped by stereotypes. Not to mention, many of them had to live in a condition of statelessness for more than 50 years, before the Indian government formally recognised and granted them citizenship in 1999. Monica Liu is one of the most accomplished restaurateurs of Kolkata now, but she is also a survivor of the 1962 war. She had to spend a large part of her childhood in a jail and refugee camps in India, and there are many others who shared the same fate before 1999 finally changed their lives for the better.
It won’t come as a surprise then that Ciu relented to an audience with the editor only after a fair amount of pleading and stoic silence. As he leads the way to the editor’s office, he provides some rudimentary information about the workings of the paper.
According to him, The Overseas Chinese Commerce of India was handwritten in Mandarin calligraphy till 1988 and managed by a larger staff. It consisted of an editor and his assistant, an accountant who managed subscriptions, and a translator who looked up English language news from TV and radio outlets to repurpose them for the paper. There were a few others who worked remotely as correspondents and calligraphers from their homes. But all of that changed in 1988 with the arrival of a Chinese DTP machine from Taiwan. It was a gift from one of the residents of Tangra, who had subsequently moved there. The newspaper could finally print black and white images and not solely rely on intricate, hand-drawn illustrations.
At the end of the hallway, Ciu finally reaches the room which serves the current “bureau”. It is peopled by a bespectacled editor with a hearing aid in his late 70s — KT Chang — and his assistant Helen M Yang. Also in the room are two computers; standard HP desktop models, equipped with Windows 7.
Yang did not acknowledge any attempt at introduction, showing clear signs of discomfort. Chang was also hesitant, but polite. He asked me to speak loudly towards his right side (he wore the hearing aid in his right ear). Neither of them seemed to be very fond of talking, but reticently agreed to speak briefly between their busy schedule.
Yang says that the newspaper office is open from Monday to Saturday, from 7 am to 11 am. During those four hours, both of them are must select news online, translate it, design the four-page tabloid and proofread it. There is nothing remarkable with regard to its reporting, as there is hardly any original content; the news being mostly trivial. Chang added that they only focus on news from China, and especially headlines that concern the community as a whole.
The fourth page of the tabloid, however, consists of a column that is exclusively dedicated to news about the community in India. It reports on birthdays, obituaries, social events, marriage announcements, anniversaries or even when a member from the community establishes a new business.
Thomas Chen is a mechanical engineer by profession and also a singer/songwriter, having guest-performed on a couple of Bengali reality shows. He considers the newspaper to be a great platform to communicate with the Chinese community through this column. “It’s an effective way to pass on any information to the community at large, including invitations or information about community festivals,” he says, “Even if you don’t read the paper, the information trickles down gradually through immediate family and friends. Messages to convey condolences, congratulate or express gratitude are also passed sometimes.”
Although most of the printing costs are primarily sustained by advertisements from local Chinese restaurants, entrepreneurs and businesses, the publication is still put together using primitive methods. After the news is gathered and translated, a hand-drawn format for the tabloid is designed. It is usually a similar format for every edition, with little or no changes, except on a few occasions like the Chinese New Year. Then, all the characters are cut out from older newspaper editions with a ruler and a paper cutter. They are subsequently pasted on a translucent sheet of paper, over the initial handwritten design. Following this, the final design for the tabloid is made, which goes into the DTP for printing.
The delivery system is just as archaic. Ciu personally hand delivers a copy to each subscriber living in the area, which is priced at Rs 2.50 each. For those living a little further away, in areas like Topsia or Park Circus, he uses his bicycle for delivery. Some of the copies are taken to the local post office, where they are couriered to subscribers living in Mumbai and Chennai. The office doesn’t get these outstation subscriptions on a regular basis, but delivers via courier whenever they get an order.
The circulation, however, has drastically gone down to 180-200 copies per day. The figure stood at 900 a decade ago, which itself is a massive drop from around 3,500 in the 80s. This decline in readership can be directly attributed to at least two factors. The local Chinese population has been steadily dwindling since the ban on leather tanning. Owing to limited job prospects in Kolkata, a vast swathe of the community has been moving to other cities or even abroad, in search of better livelihoods. The other factor is that the younger generation lacks proper knowledge of the traditional Han script, which is the medium of the newspaper.
Cossy Rosario, who currently resides in Mumbai, feels that the language is a large deterrent. “Whether the current number of people who read and understand Mandarin is adequate to support the cost of publication needs to be assessed,” he says.
“The younger generation is not only rejecting their Chinese education, but also their city of birth,” says Sensei Chan Ting Lung, a retired teacher of Mandarin at the Pei Mei School in Tangra. “The newspaper is one of the few things left to keep our language alive, and call our own.” For Patrick Lee, who runs the Evergreen restaurant in Tangra, it serves as the only link to his Chinese past that he is largely removed from. He is the son-in-law of the current editor, Chang, and a loyal subscriber of the newspaper.
The harsh truth is that in an age where news is available on social media and online news portals at the click of a button, it is quite difficult for The Overseas Chinese Commerce of India to be able to sustain itself. It may be safe to assume that the newspaper is well in its last leg. “I don’t even buy a newspaper anymore,” says Rosario, “I have news apps on my cell phone and get my news from Google too.”
With only a few dedicated readers left, Lee is apprehensive about the future of the newspaper — and fairly certain that no one will continue the legacy once Chang is gone. “We are a very close-knit community and hope to keep the paper surviving for as long as we can,” he says. “I wouldn’t want this wonderful piece of Chinese history in India to fade away with my father-in-law.”
Chang, however, prefers to look on the brighter side. After 30-plus years on the job, he says he understands what this paper means to the community. “Even if there is one subscriber remaining,” he declares, “I will keep working for that person, for as long as I am able to.”