Hidden in the hyphen
Taking stock of 'Indian-Chinese' in Kolkata, where two of the last Chinatowns in South Asia continue to survive against all odds
It's an odd meeting point, where wide Rabindra Street intersects narrow Sun Yat Sen Street to form a perfect T. The former is named after Rabindranath Tagore, India's - and Asia's - first Nobel Laureate; the latter after the first President and founding father of the Republic of China. At this Sino-Indian junction, Ah Wui opens his aluminium steamer of piping hot baos early every morning. As smoke wafts into a hazy winter morning and gently attaches itself to the electric cables hanging ominously above, it heralds the grand opening of an unrecognised heritage of the city of the Kolkata: the roadside breakfast in Old Chinatown.
China and India, two ancient civilisations that have nestled against each other for centuries, have drifted apart in recent years ever since the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Strangely, while the Chinese population has slowly dwindled in South Asia, Kolkata, the city of dreadful night, continues to host not one, but the last two Chinatowns in the subcontinent. The 2,000-odd Chinese-Indians left ensure that the serpentine bylanes of Tiretta Bazaar and Tangra still witness the Dragon Dance on Chinese New Year.
Exploring this co-existence at a time when these two neighbours are increasingly finding the world too small takes us to Lu Shun Sarani - named and misspelt in honour of the acclaimed Chinese author Lu Xun - near Tiretta. We talk to Dominic Lee, the owner of Pou Chong, a sauce manufacturing company based out of Kolkata. In his back office, surrounded by cardboard cartons packed with bottled plum, soy and chilli sauces, Dominic, who is fourth-generation Hakka Chinese, reveals a Chinese contribution to Indian culinary history unknown to many. When the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act was enforced in 1954, and various colouring agents for chilli sauce were banned, his father Lee Shih Cheung used fresh green chillies to invent the green chilli sauce - now ubiquitous in eateries across India.
Like the crooked alleys of the city, the history of the Chinese-Indian community in Kolkata meanders through oral testimonies and historical archives. However, the story is deemed to begin with Yang Da Zhao (better known as Tong Atchew), who propitiously landed here in the late 18th century and set up the first refined sugar factory in India. The Bengali and Hindi word for refined sugar "cheeni", derived from the Hindi-Bengali word "Cheen" for China, celebrates a centuries-old Sino-Indian linguistic connection, and Tong Atchew acquired significant wealth and patronage which allowed him to settle a small Chinese population on the outskirts of Kolkata.
Unlike Atchew, though, most of the Chinese who settled here did not have the luxury of being opportunistic migrants. Kolkata was a refuge from war and conflict. Their desperate struggle for survival meant finding work disdained by the locals. Sugar factories used cow bone chars to bleach sugar, and concerns of caste and purity also kept Hindu workers away from the leather industry. The need for leather skyrocketed during World War II, and skilled Chinese workers were in high demand at the Tangra tanneries. Soon after, the British began to leave and most of Kolkata's tanneries were left to the management and ownership of the Chinese community. Sadly, the violence that the Chinese had hoped to escape in their homeland appeared right at their doorstep in their newfound home. Several elderly Chinese-Indians recall how, when pre-Partition riots in 1946 - and the blood-soaked 72 hours that left behind 4,000 corpses on city streets and remembered today as the Great Calcutta Killings - threatened to wash into Chinatown, their community refused entry to armed groups seeking to clash with Dalit leather workers in Tangra, thereby creating a small strip of refuge and saving a number of lives.
Tangra, located on the eastern marshy fringe of the city, was the new Chinatown of industry and possibility, while Tiretta was the residential area of the older settlers, the two long divided by ethnicity. Old Chinatown was mostly Cantonese, while Tangra was exclusively Hakka. "Earlier, marriage between Cantonese and Hakka families was impossible, but those barriers have long since disappeared," says Dominic. The Chinese in Kolkata had started marrying outside their community since Tong Atchew, who was rumoured to have married a Muslim Bengali girl. Writing about the Chinese community in the 1980s, noted Kolkata chronicler Sripantha mentions how Bengalis perceived the Chinese as insular, though they were quite the opposite, speaking the Bengali language and nourishing a love for Bollywood music and Indian cuisine.
At Ho Yok Ho's Bhawanipur residence in south Kolkata, we talk about her community's relationship with the city while sipping on a delicious white fungus soup. Yok Ho is third-generation Cantonese Chinese; she left her job to start an authentic home-cooked Chinese takeaway. Her grandfather Ho Yee Kow set up a shop in Tiretta Bazaar, specialising in items whose recipes remain a family secret. The business now has downsized significantly, but Yok Ho seeks to continue the tradition of cooking the family recipes she learnt from her aunt. She has a Bengali husband and her daughter, Arianna Mei Ling Choudhury, is half-Bengali and half-Cantonese, epitomising how inseparable the two communities have become in recent years.
Unfortunately, most literary and celluloid depictions of the Chinese community in India played into predictable Orientalist norms, where vice found more screen time than virtue. In much Bengali detective fiction, Chinatown is a space of opium dens, smuggling, prostitution and murder. In Howrah Bridge (1958), Helen dancing to "Mera naam Chin Chin Chu" promoted an essentialist stereotyping that carried on in Chinatown (1962) and many other films, all the way up to Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). A notable exception was the 1959 classic Neel Akasher Neechey. Directed by Kolkata's own auteur Mrinal Sen, it sensitively depicted the struggle of a Chinese street hawker and his platonic relationship with a female Bengali political activist. Unfortunately, this was the first film in Indian history to be banned by the censor board. Sen's portrayal of the everyday harassment faced by a Chinese worker in India was seen to embarrass the country.
The real embarrassment, hidden for decades in government files, was the arrest and forced internment of thousands of Chinese-Indians, a majority of them from Kolkata, during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The war lasted exactly a month, but its psychological dissonances bleed into Kolkata's geography even today. Entire families of ethnically Chinese-Indians, from factory workers to stevedores and children, were transported and interned in camps in Deoli in Rajasthan for years after the war - the last prisoners being released in 1967 - and their properties in Kolkata seized. The aftermath is visible at the roadside Chinese breakfast market, which once thronged with Chinese-Indian vendors and buyers. It now finds itself trickling into a tired exotica, as the few Chinese-Indian vendors share space and camera-toting customers with local butchers, greengrocers and the rubbish heaps of north Kolkata.
Yet, in an anachronistic testament to the city, the Chinese who had lovingly made this their home over a century ago, still remain the single-largest ethnic minority in Kolkata. The Parsis have dwindled to almost 500, the Armenians less than a hundred, and with the Jewish population now standing at approximately 20 or so, the ethnic minorities of Kolkata, who contributed significantly to the syncretic culture of the city, have almost disappeared from the landscape. There are only a few thousand Chinese-Indians left here, but they refuse to let go.
The young generation of Chinese-Indians is now unburdened by the past, and aspiring to a future that promises mobility and opportunity. Fa Mulan - perhaps the only all-woman Dragon Dance group in the world - is based in Kolkata. When it was getting difficult to find enough young men to perform the Dragon Dance, a group of young Chinese-Indian girls took the opportunity to storm a male-dominated cultural form and etched themselves permanently into diaspora narratives of survival and change.
Outside the Chinese Kali Temple in Tangra, the only one of its kind, John Cheng hands out noodles, offered to the Hindu goddess, as prasad to the devotees who throng the temple in the morning. Indeed, the synthesis of Bengali and Chinese is, more often than not, visualised culinarily. Steamed wontons, their exhaust enveloping most Chinese restaurants, are referred to, in the Chinese-Indian's own loving act of linguistic appropriation, as shingara (the Bengali version of samosa, that age-old fried envelope of savoury filling and acid reflux). But despite divine and gustatory blessings, Chinatown is dying. Real estate developers gobble up the old properties in Tangra to build malls and unaffordable housing as the city cannibalises its own heritage.
The hyphen in Chinese-Indian both conjugates and divides. The war and the internment have brought in a perceptible sense of statelessness in everyday existence. Yet, the community continues to consider Kolkata its home. Somehow, this famously dying city, which has thus far avoided making demands of homogeneity on food, culture, language and religion, has provided much needed succour for a life which gets increasingly difficult to find in the rest of the country. With conflict brewing again at the Indo-Chinese border, and angry voices calling for the boycott of Chinese goods, the ghosts of war have returned to haunt the subcontinent.
But the history of the Chinese-Indians in Kolkata is a powerful oppositional narrative of peaceful coexistence and neighbourliness. Sadly, with its ethnic minorities slowly dwindling, Kolkata is less of a cultural kaleidoscope than it used to be. With every departure, the city loses a shade of its character and, more worryingly, a slice of its soul. And slowly, the sun sets on what remains of the east in South Asia.