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India's oldest Chinese community faces the impact of the two country's tensions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

India and China are the world's two most populous countries and share a more-than-2,000-mile border. And they have fought wars over it in the past, with skirmishes breaking out just two summers ago. Tensions have been high, especially in India's Chinese community.

NPR's Lauren Frayer sends this postcard from India's largest Chinatown, in the eastern city of Kolkata.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD BEING STIRRED)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: And this is something veg Szechuan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the bestselling...

SUSAN YEE: Yeah. It says on - that is spicy - very, very spicy.

FRAYER: Susan Yee runs a popular cafe on a Kolkata street lined with Chinese lanterns. There are black-and-white portraits on the wall...

YEE: Grandfather, grandmother.

FRAYER: ...Of her Chinese grandparents, who came to India in the early 20th century. Susan grew up speaking Cantonese and Hindi and English and Bengali.

YEE: We celebrate Chinese festival. We celebrate Indian festival, also. And Christmas, New Year - we also celebrate.

FRAYER: It's typical for this city once known as Calcutta, India's colonial capital, a trading hub that for centuries attracted immigrants and was shaped by them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: Bells ring at a Taoist temple across from a mosque, blaring the Muslim call to prayer. Susan says the Chinese community here is dwindling.

YEE: Before, when I was small, yeah, we had a lot of Chinese neighbors. But now they all are - all have migrated.

FRAYER: Over the years, many have left, seeking better opportunities abroad, mostly in the West. But more may leave now amid a wave of anti-China sentiment sparked by the pandemic and by the latest tensions between Delhi and Beijing. The Taoist temple is now empty, except for two elderly men.

TONY LIU: I am Tony Liu.

FRAYER: Tony Lu.

LIU: Liu - L-I-U - Liu.

FRAYER: L-I-U - are you...

LIU: I born in India.

FRAYER: Born in...

Tony Liu has learned since childhood to constantly remind people he's Indian, even though he's of Chinese descent. He first felt the need back in 1962, when India and China fought a border war.

LIU: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: Tony recalls how Indian police went door to door, rounding up people of Chinese descent. His teacher was arrested. So were the parents of a classmate. They were shipped off to detention camps in northern India. Fast-forward to last year, and Tony feared history was repeating itself. Clashes broke out on the India-China border. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed. There was lots of public anger. The Indian government banned Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok. TV footage at the time...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling in Hindi).

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLIANCE CRASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling in Hindi).

FRAYER: ...Showed Indians throwing their Chinese-made appliances out their windows and stomping on the broken pieces.

HOIWA WU: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "If another war happens, what'll happen to us?" asks Tony's friend, another Chinese Indian, named Hoiwa Wu.

The anti-China sentiment these men are witnessing mirrors what may be the biggest shift in India's foreign policy since its independence from Britain. India stayed neutral through the Cold War. But now there's a new Cold War brewing between the West and China. And Washington wants the world's biggest democracy, India, to take its side.

BINNY LAW: Well, I think it's foolish. And I don't think India would go for that.

FRAYER: Binny Law is the president of the Chinese Indian Association. He says that if India were to make a formal alliance with the U.S. against China, it would put his community in peril. And he thinks it's just risky to trust the U.S. to have your back.

LAW: Particularly after what happened in Afghanistan, you know? - Afghanistan - the people - I'm sure they feel so betrayed.

FRAYER: India is already a member of the Quad, an anti-China grouping that also includes the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Law says he hopes that's as far as India is willing to go, though.

LAW: Going into such an exclusive clique is something that sounds good on paper. But you have to look after yourself first. That means not getting into cliques that maybe you can't count on (laughter).

FRAYER: China is right on India's border. That means India has to be cautious, he says. And despite recent tensions, India-China trade has actually been growing. Many in his community do business with China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SCREECHING)

FRAYER: In a warehouse on the edge of Kolkata, James Liao is teaching a traditional Chinese dragon dance.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES LIAO: My purpose is to build a bridge between the China and India to understand our cultures and to know each other better.

FRAYER: He's a Chinese Indian himself. His students used to be from his own community. But most of the young ones have gone abroad, he says.

LIAO: There won't be any, I think. Like, you know, it's going to be lesser and lesser, like, you know, we are the last people who's going to be here.

FRAYER: His dragon dance class is full, though, with other Indians curious about Chinese culture. And James says he's heartened by that because he's not just teaching them the dragon dance; he's also teaching them about India's diversity. And he hopes that can help moderate attitudes on this side of the long India-China border.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Kolkata, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARSH KALE'S "MILAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.