An oriental mix

Kolkata's Chinatown

An oriental mix
Almost every big city in the world has a Chinatown — San Francisco, London, New York — proving how the Chinese travelled through the centuries and carved out their niche corners, stamping them with their distinctive culture and food.

In India, to look at a Chinatown, you could come to Kolkata. In the heart of the city, in the Tiretta Bazaar area off the Central Avenue, a conclave of Chinese-origin people was a common sight even a few decades ago. Quite a few families live here today, but they are old-timers. Most of the young have migrated to Australia, Canada and the UK.

During the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, all the Chinese with Chinese passport had to register themselves and follow travel restrictions. This also created mistrust, and many preferred to migrate. Today, of course, those restrictions are long gone, and the people of the new generation are Indian citizens.

Several moves

From Tiretta Bazaar, a large population also moved to Tangra, the new Chinatown in the city’s eastern flank. Most of them congregated here due to the flourishing hand-made shoe business, in which they excelled. But as the Eastern Bypass Road was developed to link the city’s east and south, the stink of curing hides with chemicals and pollution of the water bodies, a part of Kolkata’s wetland, made the pollution board order the units to move to another dedicated area. Many of the Chinese, unwilling to shift, turned their units into restaurants. Today, Tangra is a hub for authentic Chinese food. Chinese food, especially chow-mein, has become such an ubiquitous dish in Kolkata’s food plate that every street corner has fast food joints serving it.

Old Chinatown is famous for something unique — a Chinese breakfast served by street-side vendors at Sun Yat Sen Street. One has to arrive early to enjoy a meal here because the stalls wrap up by ‘office time’ as the area lies on a busy thoroughfare to the office area.

Here, Chinese women sit on stools and serve their home-cooked food, hot and fresh. The steamed bao (often mispronounced as ‘pao’) — soft Chinese buns stuffed with a variety of fillings — is in great demand. Wu yang (salted yam) and lope yang (rounds of savouries stuffed with turnip or radish) are unique in taste but hard to find in tony restaurants. There are also sweet snacks like chintoy (sticky rice dumplings topped with white sesame seeds), soft inside and golden-brown outside.

Around here is a shop called Hap Hing, opened in 1934 by a Chinese from the Canton province. All around the shop are symbols of Chinese culture and mementoes, deities, calendars, even an abacus. Home-made rice noodles, sauces of various kinds, ginseng, authentic herbs and jasmine tea imported from China are on sale.

At one time, one could find many Chinese shoe shops in New Market and Bentinck Street. Now they are few, having changed hands to non-Chinese proprietors.

Chinese women hairstylists were in demand a few years ago. Today, if you don’t find many exclusively Chinese parlours, it’s due to the dwindling number of Chinese people. Carpentry was another Chinese speciality. The British employed them for shipbuilding, but few still remain in the profession. The same is true of traditional dentists, once famous for their skill, who belonged to the Hupek community of China.

The Chinese (not accounting for sporadic travellers and traders earlier) first came to India to work in the Calcutta port when the city was the capital of British Indian Empire.

However, the first Chinese to arrive in Kolkata is said to be Yang Tai Chow, who came in 1778 to start a sugar mill and tea trade. The British gave him land by the Hooghly river, which now lies in suburban Kolkata. Chow established the first Chinese temple in the city. Old-timers say that locals could not pronounce his name and that Yang Tai Chow’s name became Tong Ochhu. Eventually, the place was called Achipur.

For Kolkata’s Chinese, the place has a special significance. They go to the temple during Chinese New Year to pay respect to their ancestors. Though most of Kolkata’s Chinese are Christians, they celebrate Chinese New Year with gusto.

War effect

During World War II, Kolkata’s Chinese community was about 10,000 strong. Post-cultural revolution in China also saw a great many Chinese joining their relatives here, swelling it to three times, by one account. Even now, there are six functional Chinese temples in Kolkata started by these immigrants. The century-old Kun Yam (goddess of mercy) Temple, established by seafarers working in the port, displays antique furniture brought from China.

One of the most interesting temples is the Chinese Kali Temple in Tangra that  reflects a merger of a migrant community’s belief with local culture. Eastern India is a seat of Shakti (goddess of female energy) worship, epitomised by Goddess Kali. During the autumn festival of Goddess Shakti, this temple also holds regular puja.

While accepting local mores, preserving old traditions is important for these Chinese. The South Tangra Chinese Youth Club tries to maintain the link with home culture while not neglecting the Indian connection. Members of the club were proud when the Chinese dragon dance was included in the Republic Day parade a few years ago.

A new development is also taking place that the old-timers harked on earlier. With most parents sending their children to English-medium schools, 70% of the new generation can’t read or write Mandarin, so they lamented. Now with the rise of China’s economic power, there is demand for learning Mandarin by young people hoping for better prospects in the mainland, and classes are held regularly in Tangra. Another good tiding is the CHA (Calcutta Heritage Alliance) Project in the offing. The Kolkata chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and BuzzMedia, Singapore are collaborating on reviving the Tiretta Bazaar area. The project is so named because ‘cha’ (tea) is a common word in both Bengali and Mandarin, and it features in their everyday life.
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