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