Complex Belongings: The Chinese Indian Community

15 Jan 2018

Tansen Sen | Lawrence Liang | Jayani Jeanne Bonnerjee | Rita Chowdhury | Severin Kuok | Piya Chakraborty | Bean Ching Law

Venue: Seminar Hall, Kamaladevi Complex, India International Centre, New Delhi
Time: 3:00 PM

Concept Note

The migration of the Chinese to various parts of South Asia since the late eighteenth century is one of the less known and studied aspects of Asian history. Some of the earliest Chinese settlements took place in the port cities of British colonial India, especially Kolkata and Mumbai. During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese migrants also started residing in places such as Dehradun, Mussourie, Kanpur, Lucknow, Siliguri, Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Makum, Bangalore, and so forth. The Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia in the late 1930s triggered the flow of ethnic Chinese as refugees from Malaya to British India. According to some estimates, there were between 15,000 and 20,000 ethnic Chinese from diverse regions of China and Southeast Asia speaking different dialects and sub-dialects in British India when World War II ended. These Chinese, who formed the largest non- South Asian migrant group in independent India, contributed to local societies through their niches in shoe-making, carpentry, and dentistry businesses. They are also credited for introducing the ubiquitous hand-pulled rickshaws and creating a new type of cuisine for the Indian palate that mixed Indian and Chinese ingredients.      
The 1950s witnessed major divisions within the Chinese communities because of the political changes taking place in China, and later in the decade due to the deteriorating political relations between India and China. Thousands of ethnic Chinese were either deported or interned. Severe restrictions were also placed on them with regard to movement and employment. As a consequence, the number of Chinese living in India dwindled rapidly. There are perhaps fewer than 3000 Chinese currently in India. A large number, estimated to be around 10,000, reside in Canada. There are also the “returnees,” who, after deportation from India, live in various towns and cities of China. Despite this dispersal, however, there are multiple networks and interests that bring them together for cultural gatherings and celebrations in places such as Hong Kong and Kolkata. For many of them the Chinese-Indian identity that they retain makes them distinct and unique, just like the cuisine they created when living in India. 

The Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in collaboration with the India International Centre (IIC) is organizing a half-day event on 15 January 2018 to explore various facets of the Chinese-Indian community. Titled “Complex Belongings: The Chinese Indian Community,” the aim of the event is not only to understand the history and vicissitudes of the Chinese-Indians as they created neighborhoods, religious spaces, and social and cultural networks in India, but also to examine the present condition of those still residing in India. It brings together academics, writers, and community members to analyze the issues of identity, memories, and the future of a community that has been largely forgotten in history and in the politics of nation-states. 
The event will begin with opening remarks by Director, ICS and a representative of the IIC and an overview of the theme by Prof. Tansen Sen. It will be followed by the screening of the documentary The Legend of Fat Mama and a panel discussion. 


About the Speakers 

Tansen Sen is Professor of history and the Director of the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai, and Global Network Professor at NYU in New York. He received his MA from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (2003; 2016) and India, China, and the World: A Connected History (2017). He has co-authored (with Victor H. Mair) Traditional China in Asian and World History (2012) and edited Buddhism Across Asia: Networks of Material, Cultural and Intellectual Exchange (2014). He is currently working on a book about Zheng He’s maritime expeditions in the early fifteenth century and co-editing (with Engseng Ho) the Cambridge History of the Indian Ocean, volume 1. He served on the Governing Board of the Nalanda University and taught at the City University of New York prior to joining NYU Shanghai.

Lawrence Liang is currently a Professor of Law, Governance and Citizenship at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is an ethnic Chinese who was born and brought up in Kolkata and has also resided in Bangalore for many years. He is a co-founder of the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) a non-profit collective that works on various aspects of law, legality and power. ALF provides legal services to various marginalized groups, focusing on access to the criminal justice system, issues of gender, disability and sexuality. Prof. Liang is also the cofounder of two open access video archives in India, Public Access Digital Media Archive ( and

Jayani Jeanne Bonnerjee is an Associate Professor, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities.  Bonnerjee is a cultural geographer with research and teaching interests in postcolonial urbanism and critical geographies of diaspora. She completed her PhD (Geography) from Queen Mary, University of London, focusing on issues of identity and belonging for Calcutta’s Chinese and Anglo-Indian communities. Building on this research, Jayani is currently working on a book on the Calcutta Chinese community and the idea of the cosmopolitan city. Her work has been published in the Journal of Intercultural Studies, South Asian Diaspora and Global Networks.

Rita Chowdhury is currently the Director of the National Book Trust, India. She holds Master’s degree in Political Science and Asamiya. She received her PhD from Guwahati University. Before joining the Trust, she was an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department, Cotton College, Guwahati. A prominent Asamiya novelist, poet and activist, Dr. Chowdhury’s oevre include the 2008 Sahitya Akademi Award winning novel Deo Langkhui, on the glorious Tiwa kingdom of Assam; Ei Xomoy Xei Xomey, a fictionalized account of the societal and political changes brought in by historic Assam Agitation against illegal immigration from Bangladesh to Assam; and Makam, a poignant portrayal of Assamese Indian community of Chinese origin. Makam (The Golden Horse) brought her national and international acclaim and this novel led to several critical discussions in national media on issues like Sino-India war, force migration in Post Partition India etc. The book has appeared in English as Chinatown Days.

Severin Kuok is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies (SLL&CS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. Her MPhil dissertation was titled “Chinese Diaspora of India: The Impact of 1962 and Search for Identity”. She is the recipient of the Harvard Yenching Institute-Institute of Chinese Studies Fellowship for 2014-15 and is currently engaged in conducting her research and fieldwork on her PhD thesis titled “The Chinese Diaspora in India: Negotiating Mobility and Belonging”. Severin is also an ethnic Chinese born and brought up in New Delhi.

Piya Chakraborty is a PhD research scholar currently pursuing her doctoral research in the Department of Sociology in Shiv Nadar University, India. Having completed both her Bachelor’s (Presidency College Kolkata) and Master’s degrees in Sociology (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), she went on to complete her M.Phil. degree in the field of Social Sciences (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta). Thereafter, she was employed as a researcher in an international sociological research project conducted by Umeå University, Sweden in collaboration with Global Change Research Kolkata. She was also employed as guest faculty in the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University for a brief period. She is currently conducting her doctoral research on the Indian Chinese community in India, specifically focusing on food, memory of war and their relationship with the construction of Indian Chinese subjectivity.

Bean Ching  Law is a third generation Chinese Indian. Mr. Law has pursued his early education in India and was a Gold Medallist in Architecture from IIT Roorkee. He then went on to do a Masters in Building Science from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Mr. Law has been the President of the Chinese Indian Association for the last three years. The Association has been engaged in trying to unite the Chinese Indians under one umbrella in order to protect the Chinese community in India, their cultural Chinese heritage properties, and unique culture. It has also been trying to give a unified voice to the various societal concerns that affect the larger society in general, and a few that affects the Chinese Indian community in particular. He is also a Managing Trustee of some of the heritage Chinese Buddhist and Confucian temples in Kolkata.  



Programme Sen's Presentation


  • The seminar was organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in collaboration with the India International Centre and OP Jindal Global University

  • The seminar was organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in collaboration with the India International Centre and OP Jindal Global University

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