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    South Asia
     Mar 24, 2009
What's eating at Kolkata's Chinatown?
By Raja Murthy

KOLKATA - Chinese red lanterns are dimming in Kolkata's Tangra Chinatown, even as a new India-China rescue effort jointly plans a makeover to add Tangra to the list of famous Chinese communities in San Francisco, New York, Bangkok, Sydney, Toronto and London.

In fact, the February 2009 plans of the West Bengal state tourism board in Kolkata, eastern India, and its counterpart in Kunming, in Yunnan province, southeast China, have not reached many ears in Tangra yet.

"Everyone is going," said elderly caretaker Birasdutt near a faded

 
sign announcing "Chinese Tannery Owners Association" in Tangra.

For the past 25 years, many residents of Birasdutt's vanishing world have referred to their Chinese bosses relocating their lives, leaving behind questions of the future of South Asia's largest Chinatown.

Dhoti-clad Birasdutt sits in front of a stretch of tumbledown buildings with red-tiled roofs. He faces a patch of greenery dominated by an ancient, dusty Banyan tree looking bare and unhealthy, like a balding patient done in from decades of inhaling the toxic fumes of Tangra's leather tanneries.

According to the new Indo-Chinese plans, Tangra will have tourist attractions including two major gateways to its west near Christopher Road and in the south from Park Circus. The gateways will comprise two heavily ornamental Chinese pagodas built by artisans and designers from China.

If the two tourism boards use obvious potential, India's new version of the old Tangra Chinatown could rank among the closest cultural ties between the two neighbors - both ancient civilizations and 21st century economic giants.

For the past 50 of Kolkata's 300-year history, Tangra has hosted South Asia's largest concentration of Chinese restaurants, Chinese-owned leather factories, as well as the Hakka people, a conservative ethnic community tracing its origins to the Han ethnic group, said to be China's earliest settlers.

The restless Hakka Chinese have been migrating for over 2,000 years, from the Yellow River regions of northern China to the southern regions of Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong provinces. The Hakka, which means "guests", have migrated out of China, including to Kolkata and India, since the 18th century.

Young Atchew arrived in 1780 as the first known Chinese migrant to Kolkata. Atchew died three years later - heartbroken, according to legend, after a business failure - but not before opening India's gateway to thousands of migrating Chinese.

More Chinese refugees fled to India after Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, joining the Tibetan refugees fleeing from the Chinese invasion of their homeland.

Despite the exodus, India's Chinese population found themselves marginalized following the 1962 India-China war. The Chinese Embassy in Kolkata was closed and reopened only last year.

"The Chinese in India kept a low profile since they faced problems over Indian citizenship," said Ajoy John, a senior media professional and Kolkata resident for over 35 years. "Only recently have they been coming out more into the open, such as the Chinese food festival in Kolkata earlier this year [in January] that the Chinese government organized to celebrate the Chinese New Year."

Today, it is difficult to detect any celebratory airs in Tangra. The long, winding road from Kolkata's mid-town Park Circus quickly dissolves into a narrow river of greyish red, unpainted walls of houses and leather factories that wear a gloomy, derelict air even in the bright sunshine of midday in March.

Still, bright splashes of deep red oddly punctuate this grey world - red gates, red billboards, red Chinese letters on Tangra's grey cement walls, red lanterns, red ribbons and red restaurant signs. Red pictures of Tsai Shen Ye, the Chinese god of wealth, hang from entrances and cash boxes. The rich Chinatown red contrasts with drab unpainted walls, looking as remarkable as giant grey donkeys with red noses.

"It's not like the old days when 15 people used to be sitting here at a time, with a lot of life, chatter, activity and people coming and going all day," said Birasdutt, remembering the glory days in his deserted compound of the Chinese Tannery Owners' Association. "Now, when the shops are shut, even the road in front is deserted."

The emptying of Tangra was largely due to a Supreme Court order to control pollution from Kolkata's tanneries. As a result, 250 of the 538 tanneries in the Tangra, Topsia and Tiljala regions shifted to Bantala near Kolkata's Science City in 2002, and incorporated into the 486-hectare Calcutta Leather Complex - called the world's largest integrated leather facility.

Many Tangra tanneries were born again as restaurants, adding to the estimated 50 Chinese eateries in the area. Birasdutt's Chinese Tannery Owners' Association is also home to India's only Chinese-language daily newspaper.

Between 8.30am and 11.30am each day, 65-year-old editor and publisher K T Cheng, accompanied with two Chinese colleagues, dutifully marches in to produce the Overseas Chinese and Commerce of India.

Their four-page broadsheet carries news from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in large Chinese script sometimes interrupted with English job vacancy ads and social announcements. The March 15 edition, for instance, declares the matrimonial engagement of Mr Teng Shin Mein with Miss Wu Pu Liu in Hyderabad.

"We print only about 180 copies daily," Cheng told Asia Times Online. "But this newspaper is a primary form of connection between the entire Chinese community in India, many of whom are migrating to Canada, Europe, Hong Kong and Korea."

Cheng, who had a long career in a Tangra tannery, now works out of a large, murky room with ancient tables, a tall grandfather clock and framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Zhongshan, more well-known as Sun Yat-Sen, the respective founders of modern India and China.

The 40-year-old Chinese newspaper also finds its way to the Big Boss, perhaps the largest Chinese restaurant in Kolkata, India and South Asia. "We can seat 800 at a time," said Nobby Edwards, an Anglo-Indian waiter in Big Boss. "We have waiting queues over the weekends."

The sprawling Big Boss was once a tannery. It now represents the entrepreneurial spirit of local Chinese, many of whom have made the best of changing circumstances. "I have never seen any community as hardworking as the Chinese here," he said. "I don't know when my boss sleeps."

Yet a sleepy, languid air cloaks the long, winding road through Tangra.

Not many signs of life appear even near the famous Sing Cheung Sauce factory with its closed, formidable iron gates giving more the appearance of a prison than a 54-year-old manufacturer of pungent condiments.

Chinese food, usually sold bathed in such sauces, keeps Tangra alive. Chinese names abound here with an intensity unlike anywhere else in India. The Kim Pau and Kim Ling restaurants stand near the Chungwah cemetery, just beyond China Pearl, China Gate, Hot Wok Village and Shun-Li eateries.

"Nothing much has changed in Tangra in my lifetime," said Mathew Cheng, owner of the Shun-Li. "My family is fourth-generation Chinese born and brought up in India."

Cheng has an Indian passport, a document that was tough for Chinese residents in India to own even two decades ago. He visits China frequently, he says, during the course of which he first met Xiao Cheng, who became his wife Cheng Xiao Cheng.

According to Cheng, about 15,000 Chinese once lived in Tangra and Kolkata. But that number has dwindled so much in recent times that even 5,000 now seems an optimistic estimate. The survivors largely stick to the leather and food industries.

There is little doubt, however, that Chinese food has become Kolkata's favorite street food, more so than in any other Indian city. Almost every Kolkata cafe, including pushcart vendors, serve various and remarkable versions of noodles, called chow mein, and fried rice. An ample plateful costs US$0.25.

Further away from Cheng's Shun-Li, is Zhong Hua restaurant. The manager explains that the "owner is in Beijing", and adds helpfully, "If you go now, you can meet her there, sir." Beijing, of course, turns out to be another restaurant in Tangra Chinatown.

Nearly as big as a basketball court, Beijing has tables set more spaciously apart than its competitor Big Boss. "More Chinese in China want to come and settle down in India," said owner Monica Liu, defying the dire predictions for her dwindling community in Kolkata. "But they don't know how to apply."

Liu, a sharp-eyed, self-made businesswoman who says her working day starts at 5.30am and ends at midnight, was born in Kolkata after her parents migrated from Guangdong. "I speak Hakka, Cantonese, Mandarin, but when I go to China, the Chinese there know I am Chinese but not from China," she said. "We speak differently, dress differently and think differently than the Chinese in China."

Liu says the Tangra community is more conservative in outlook than the orthodox Hakka Chinese in China. "We will be opposed to our young people marrying Indians, for instance," she said, yet emphasizing she has always considered the country of her birth, India, as her home country, not China. "We are a minority community in India, and we have to preserve our identity."

Overseas Chinese and Tibetans in India share this generational struggle to protect cultural character, with the Tibetan version playing out in New Delhi, 1,400 kilometers away. While many Indian-born Tibetans say they wish to return to Tibet should China grant freedom to the province, few Chinese born in India intend to return to mainland China.

The intertwined India-China roots of Tangra Chinatown get more culturally entangled with each passing generation. Liu's two-year-old granddaughter shyly whispers to me that her name is "Preity Zinta", the name of a popular Indian actress, much to the mirth of all around. "Her name Jia Ye means 'pretty' in Chinese," laughed Liu. "But she tells everyone she is 'Preity Zinta'."

But the Bollywood-loving toddler won't be going to the local Chinese school in Tangra, the only one of its kind in India. Instead, Jia Ye will join her brother in La Martiniere, one of Kolkata's well-known English medium schools.

Liu's nephew, 25-year-old Thomas Hsu, said he was born and brought up in Kolkata and is happy to live here. His aunt, however, sternly insists he might disappear any day to join his brothers in Canada.

The remaining Tangra Chinese have set the China-India melting pot boiling. There is even a temple in Tangra called the "Chinese Kali Temple", perhaps the only Chinese temple named after the Hindu goddess in the world.

Inside the little temple's bright red gates are two idols of Kali next to the blue-colored idol of Shiva, the god who destroys evil.

Under the Chinese Kali Temple entrance sits Dilip Chakraborty selling guavas out of a cane basket for three and four rupees a fruit. "Tangra is in decline and I have been here for over 20 years," he said. "Many of the Chinese business are shutting down one by one, and people are going away."

Other Tangra Chinatown residents share Chakraborty's gloom, never mind development dreams being hatched in Indo-China tourism ministries. "Neither the state government, nor the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, have ever done anything for us and we live in the same neglect today as we did five decades ago when I arrived here," 65-year old P L Chen complained on "Dhapa", the Kolkata Chinese community blog.

Chen, one of Tangra's leather merchants, said he came to Kolkata's Dum Dum airport as a 13-year-old, arriving from Hong Kong squeezed into a small, crowded propeller plane.

"Almost all of us came from the Meihsien district in the [former] state of Canton. It was an arduous bus ride from Meihsien to Guangzhou, from where we took the boat to Hong Kong," remembered Chen, who calls India home for the past 52 years.

India's Kolkata and China's Kunming tourism boards' grand plans to develop Tangra Chinatown can't come too soon for Chen and his fellow Chinese in India, a rare hybrid community embracing two of humanity's oldest and richest cultures.

Restaurant owner Liu, however, has greater ambitions. "I want to enter politics, and stand for elections," she said. "I'm in discussions with a political party."

The idea of India's parliament resounding with an elected Chinese member's rousing speeches in Mandarin might have bemused Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat-Sen, and it could yet be Tangra Chinatown's future gift to India.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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