Chinese frequented ancient Tamil Nadu; Huãn Tsu-Ãn visited the Pallavas in mid-6th century and has described that Kançipura was a major centre of learning. During Dutch occupation of the Coromandel (17th century) Chinese porcelain was imported via Pulicat port.
Settling of Chinese in India, however started in the 18th century. According to ethnographer Ellen Oxfeld, Yang Dazhao, a sailor, arrived in Calcutta from Guangdong Province in the 1770s. As the story goes, by outwitting Warren Hastings, Dazhao won a large tract of land on the Hooghly as gift; he recruited workers from China to raise sugarcane. Chinese settling in India was always routed through Calcutta. Jennifer Liang disputes Oxfeld. The population of Chinese that came to Calcutta through Dazhao’s initiative vanished due to either return of people to China or death. Small groups of Chinese arrived in Bombay in early XIX century. A majority of these were craftsmen, who saw growing Bombay as an economic opportunity. In the 1901 Census of India, by 1838 a large market in Bombay Fort area was China Bazaar. However, due to different reasons, a majority of the Chinese residents in Bombay returned to China by 1880. By 1900s, the Chinese population once again surged in Calcutta.
Chinese residents in both Bombay and Calcutta came from Santung, Guandong, Hubei provinces, and the Southern provinces. Occupational specialties of the immigrant Chinese were representative of the regions they came from: carpenters from Sze Yap Cantonese, tanners and shoemakers from the Hakkas, and teeth setters from the Hubei province. Descendents of people from Hubei proclaimed themselves dentists in later years. Because of their skills in shoemaking, some of them took to brokerage in the skin-and-hide trade in Calcutta. Because of religious considerations the local Hindu merchants were comfortable with the Chinese brokers operating between them and the Muslim merchants. The English East-India Company (EEIC) was keen on importing silk and porcelain from China. This interest provoked sea trips to China from India in the first half of the 17th century and the Company merchants got permission to trade at Amoy, Canton and Chusan. EEIC’s trade with China started in 1762 with a factory established in Canton. Opium was sought after by the Chinese and in 1773 the Company took over opium cultivation in Bengal. Because the Company ships were not allowed to carry opium, it was smuggled by traders into China.
In the 1870s labour to work in the newly-established cinchona plantations in the Nilgiri-s was scarce. The government utilised prisoners and some of them were Chinese, who were shifted to Madras from the British Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang, Malacca). These Chinese labourers, after their sentences, settled in Naduvattam working as market gardeners and dairymen, raised families marrying local women; obviously they never returned to the Malay Peninsula. Historical records indicate that these Malay Chinese established a Chinese village in Naduvattam.
A bazaar along the Fort’s north walls in Madras, with the name China Bazaar, exists in the 1758 Madras records. After the siege of Madras by French Commander Comte de Lally Marquis de Bussy–Castelnau (Lally) in 1758–1759, this bazaar moved westward. This market should have got the name because it sold porcelain imported from China. At least up to the 1970s, several Chinese ‘dentists’ practiced in this part of Madras. Near the Jewish Cemetery in Lloyd’s Road, a Chinese cemetery exists, although in a bad condition. Many of these Chinese-Indians, unfortunately, came under severe physical threat during the Sino-Indian war in Madras in 1962. Much remains to be known about Chinese in Madras and the role they played in the economy and social structure of Madras.
(The author is a senior lecturer in Ecological Agriculture at Charles Sturt University, Orange, New South Wales, Australia)