Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Will the Dragon Dance Again?

Kolkata's Chinatown, the oldest in India, has been in decline for decades. An ambitious revival project now aims to alter the community's future

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 8, 2016 06:44:42 AM IST
Updated: Jun 8, 2017 05:35:24 PM IST
Will the Dragon Dance Again?
Image: Jayanta Shaw / Reuters
‘Ethnic Chinese perform a lion dance to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Kolkata. The Indian Chinese Association revived the tradition a few years ago to bring the community together

Note: This story won the prestigious National RedInk Award for Excellence in Journalism – 2017 in the ‘Lifestyle & Entertainment (Print)' category.


Much before the rest of the city begins its Sunday, a lane behind Lalbazar, the police headquarters in central Kolkata, stirs awake with the clank of cookware and the aroma of food. The sleepy pavements on either side of Chhatawala Galli spring into action as makeshift stalls—a few rickety tables and chairs—are propped up. Someone dunks a long-handled ladle into a simmering pot of fishball stew and stirs it. Somebody else keeps plates of momos ready. As day breaks, the din of visitors rises, and huddles form around items on sale. A man in his twenties haggles for speckled pork sausages, while his companion bites alternately into a pau (a steamed bun with a filling of chicken, pork or shrimp) and a crunchy spring roll. Shutterbugs snake through the crowds, capturing what could just be the last images of a decades-old tradition.

Welcome to the Chinese breakfast market in Kolkata’s Tiretti Bazaar, home to the oldest Chinatown in India. (See box on how the community settled in Kolkata.) The home-cooked Chinese meals served here come with spoonfuls of nostalgia. And for many of those who have frequented the market since childhood, nostalgia is perhaps all that remains.

“The Chinese breakfast market hardly has any Chinese people these days,” says Sam, 70, a third-generation Chinese who has been coming to the market for the last 20 years.

Like most other Chinese businesses in the city—shoe and furniture stores, beauty parlours—the breakfast market is a pale shadow of its past. Not only has it shrunk, with many stalls now being run by Indians who’ve taken over from their emigrating Chinese employers, the market is also no longer a daily affair. Says Brenda, a second-generation Chinese-Kolkatan, as she lays out her stock of rice noodles, shrimp wafers and silk peds, “Pehle chalne ki jaiga nahin tha [earlier there would not be enough space to walk]. Now, there are hardly any Chinese stalls. And the market barely functions through the rest of the week.”

Will the Dragon Dance Again?
It’s a similar picture at Bentinck Street. Once known to the local Chinese as ‘shoe road’, it was where Kolkata’s old-timers headed for authentic, handmade footwear.

Now you can count the number of Chinese-run shops on your fingers. CH Ku, owner of Eong Soon, recalls: “The downfall started when some of the shoemakers started getting cheap, machine-made shoes from Agra and Kanpur. Besides, we could not keep up with modern chains like Sreeleathers or Bata.” With businesses on the wane, the younger generation has lost interest. Ku doesn’t think his children will continue to run his shop. “I’ll have to take it to my grave it seems,” he says.

Not too far from Bentinck Street, and a couple of lanes from the breakfast market, is 22 Blackburn Lane, a two-storey building that once housed Nanking restaurant, which by many accounts was Kolkata’s first fine-dining Chinese restaurant set up in 1924. In its heydays, says Dominic Lee, the CEO of Pou Chong Sauces, Nanking was a playground of the rich and famous. “This is where British officers, and later film stars—the Raj Kapoors and the Dilip Kumars—would come for authentic Chinese food. Horse-drawn carriages would bring the elite, and violinists would welcome the guests,” says Lee. He recounts how the stars would wave at the throng of fans from the balcony. “One such gathering was refusing to let Pran leave, so the actor threw some money and when the fans rushed to collect it, he slunk away.”

The restaurant shut some time in the mid-1970s. Its illustrious history is now ransom to a pile of garbage and tarpaulin shanties crowding its entrance. Travel writer and blogger Rangan Datta says that in 2011 he had to crawl through the shanties to reach the building. “I would say there has been a marginal improvement with the garbage removal in five years. But there is still a long way to go,” he adds.
A new beginning

The removal of the garbage is perhaps symbolic of the seeds of a revival plan that have now been sown for the 200-year-old Chinese community in Kolkata.

It probably began in 2008, when a legal tussle arose involving the trustees of the Toong On Church, on the first floor of Nanking’s building, and the family that owned the restaurant. It ended with the then municipal commissioner Alapan Bandyopadhyay declaring the building a heritage structure.

Around the same time, Dominic Lee had been making presentations at several seminars of a blueprint to renovate Chinese temples in Tiretti Bazaar, where some of the idols and artefacts date back to the 1830s. The proposal found resonance with some conservation enthusiasts, one of them being Rinkoo Bhowmik, the director of BuzzzMedia, a Singapore-based communications firm.

Will the Dragon Dance Again?
Image: Tulu Sinha for Forbes India
The Chinese breakfast market in Tiretti Bazaar. With the dwindling Chinese population, the market is today just a pale shadow of its past

Bhowmik, who was born in Kolkata, consequently conceived the Cha Project in which she brought together a motley team of academics, designers and architects to implement Lee’s project. “A heritage renovation project in Kolkata had always been on my mind. When I moved to Singapore, I saw that a lot of ideas that had been in my head had been implemented [in Singapore]. That was the start of the Cha Project,” says Bhowmik.

Inspired by the Singapore model, the Rs 100-crore Cha Project approached the West Bengal tourism department and, in August 2014, submitted a detailed project report (DPR) to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. According to the DPR, Tiretti Bazaar’s renovation wouldn’t merely be a cosmetic intervention with tiled pavements, ornamental lighting and Chinese motifs, but an economic revival that would begin with transforming the breakfast market into an all-day food street. “We felt this could be a showcase project for urban regeneration in the city. Besides the food street, the six temples in the area could also form a heritage walk trail to add economic sustainability,” says GM Kapur, the Cha Project’s India partner and head of the Kolkata regional chapter of Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).

The project has brought on board, in various capacities, global experts such as James Shen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Beijing’s People’s Architecture Office, an award-winning design company, along with Lukas Pauer from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Fulbright scholar and conservation architect Kamalika Bose and Columbia University graduate Abhimanyu Prakash. “In the ’70s, Singapore made its Chinatown super-touristy, displacing inhabitants and killing its flavour. It was only after they were brought back that the area became bustling again. We don’t want to repeat that mistake,” says Bhowmik.  

Apart from attracting tourists, to the area, the Cha Project hopes to give local Chinese households better earning opportunities and stem the flow of migration that started with the 1962 Sino-Indian war. According to numbers quoted by Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese Association, there remain only about 2,500 Chinese in Kolkata, down from more than 80,000 before the war.
War and its vestiges

The year 1962 was a watershed moment for the Chinese in Kolkata. As Tansen Sen, professor of history at the City University of New York and director, New York University’s Center for Global Asia in Shanghai, says, “Many were persecuted, deported or interned. Many businesses were shut and properties confiscated. That started the story of a total decline for the community and that’s what made them look at every outsider with suspicion.”

The insularity of the Chinese community in Kolkata contrasts with the fact that it had initially been an exception among its global counterparts in the way it had co-existed with other migrant communities in the Calcutta of the 19th century. “The development of Chinatowns around the world has been a racial process. Hence, most Chinatowns became an exclusionary urban space. Their touristy interface came later. The older Chinatown in Kolkata, on the other hand, existed in close proximity to the Anglo-Indian, Armenian, Jewish, Parsi and all other communities,” says Jayani Bonnerjee, a cultural geographer and an assistant professor at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities in Sonipat, Haryana.   
That, however, changed in the early decades of the 20th century, when the Hakka Chinese started leather tanning and, because of environmental reasons, had to relocate to Tangra, on the eastern fringes of the city. The boundary walls that the tanning units built for security concerns triggered a ghettoisation that the community hadn’t seen before. Tangra, Kolkata’s second Chinatown, hence, had the look and feel of a walled community, an identity that was consciously imbibed by the Chinese to stick together when the war broke out in 1962.

At that time, Kolkata-born Ming Tung Tsieh was a schoolboy in Darjeeling, where his father had a shoe shop. “In the middle of the night, we were picked up and kept in Darjeeling jail for 10 days. When a sufficient number of Chinese people were gathered, we were sent to Siliguri. Then one full special train of Chinese detainees were sent to Deoli in Rajasthan,” says Tsieh, who has authored a book, A Lost Tribe, on his Deoli experience. The Tsieh family stayed in the camp for two years. “We were not tortured. But food was insufficient. Living conditions were bad. We were packed in army barracks with six people in one room.”

Will the Dragon Dance Again?
The Toong On Church at 22 Blackburn Lane Kolkata

Monica Liu turned a teenager at the Deoli camp; she recalls that more than 10,000 people from the camp left for China. “They left in three batches. Each ship carried more than 3,000 people. But we faced the worst when we returned. We had no business or house. I overheard my dad telling mum that he had only Rs 24 in his pocket. That wasn’t sufficient for our family of seven for more than a week,” says Liu, who now owns five restaurants and a beauty parlour in the city.  

The war also set off a cycle of persecution that haunted the Chinese long after the last detainee was released from Deoli. They were not allowed to return to five sensitive border districts in India, uprooting many like Tsieh from their homes for good. He went to stay with his sister in Pune and started working in a restaurant, but was stopped from coming to Mumbai for better business prospects. “I was asked to get permission from the central government. Many of our friends started migrating at this point,” he says.

Li Yang Hsiung’s grandfather, who escaped detention, came to face a lot of restrictions; he was threatened with arrest if he stepped out of Tangra and moved towards central Kolkata. “My maternal uncles were left without a job. They had to sign an undertaking that they will never return to India. Subsequently, they joined the merchant navy and settled abroad,” says Hsiung, who runs an organic manure business in Tangra.

Compounding these effects of the war was the political and economic churn of the ’70s and ’80s in Kolkata. The Naxalbari movement had made the city restive and the industrial slump later sent the economy in a downward spiral. As employment opportunities dried up, citizens started fleeing Kolkata. The Chinese were no exception.     

In 1975, 19-year-old Joe Li, the son of a shoe shop owner, borrowed $500 from his grandmother and took a flight to Tehran. From there, via a series of buses and trains, he reached Sweden to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. “There were no job opportunities and I saw my parents were routinely harassed for being of Chinese descent. I knew I had to leave,” says Li, who continued to work in the Swedish city of Boden before migrating to Canada in 1985. He adds that the hostilities towards the Chinese continued even later. In 1979, when he returned to meet his wife-to-be, “just because I looked Chinese, the customs officer at Mumbai airport questioned me about how I held an Indian passport. I felt so angry that I didn’t come back to India till 1994,” says Li, now the regional councillor of Markham in Canada.

If the lingering aftermath of the war was not enough, the community at Tangra was dealt a death blow by the Supreme Court with a series of orders in the 90s to shut the tanneries and move them to Bantala, 16 km away. It not only affected their business, but also their lifestyle. Most Chinese families in Tangra lived in the same house as their tanneries. “Some could move the tanneries, but many couldn’t due to economic and social reasons. Some of those who couldn’t are still trying to do some work or are leasing out the factory to others to continue tanning surreptitiously. They are always wary of being harassed and exploited, as their forefathers probably were. That’s why the community in Tangra is not forthcoming and tries to keep to themselves,” says Bean Ching ‘Binny’ Law, president of the Chinese Indian Association.
Internal hurdles

This seclusion is proving to be a huge impediment for the Cha Project, points out Sen. The project’s plan to set up a cultural centre, which would house a museum on Chinese history, in place of the Nanking restaurant, faced several hitches in its early days due to the community’s reluctance to share details.

Besides, in a community already riven by sub-ethnic and economic divisions, members were not even willing to share information with each other. Says Sen, “One of the main issues for Chinatown’s revival was whether the people would help revive themselves.”

The community’s cynicism, borne out of persecution and economic hardships, is reflected in their attitude towards the Cha Project as well. The owner of a restaurant, who refused to be identified, called the revival efforts “a joke, a waste of money”. “Will the government dole out any capital? Does it have any inkling about what the Chinese community wants? The project will just make a Chinatown without the Chinese,” he said. Another restaurant owner wondered whether any revival project can give the locals a life on par with that in the US or Canada. Only then would it stem the flow of migration, he said. “How much can you earn from the food market? Rs 15,000? Rs 20,000 a month? Can you run a family with that?” he asked.

Will the Dragon Dance Again?
High rise buildups inside Tangra’s Chinatown show a spurt in real estate

While the Cha Project hasn’t yet drawn up a plan for the revival of Tangra—“It’s a tricky issue because of the furious real estate development taking place there,” says Sen—doubts are already creeping in among the locals. “Clean our sewage first, give us streetlights, restore law and order. Fancy things can come later,” says a local refusing to give his name. Another asks derisively, “What revival? Another [ornamental] gate?”, referring to an imposing structure on a road that runs past Tangra that an NGO is said to have launched amid fanfare and then vamoosed.

This is where a few individuals like Dominic Lee, Binny Law and Paul Chung have stepped in. With them, the Cha Project has found entry points into the community, particularly with its youth who, says Sen, have been key players in raising awareness.  

Bhowmik went a step further and said the Cha Project has been able to bring down some of the internecine walls. In January 2014, her colleague Nandini Ghoshal had organised a community engagement workshop, bringing together 24 representatives of sparring Chinese clubs, temples and trusts. “Initially, they were cagey. But once the right questions were asked, they all opened up. At the end of the workshop, it broke the ice. They were all laughing and having tea together,” she says.    

The fact that the Cha Project has progressed at snail’s pace has also contributed to the community’s anger. Surojit Bose, joint director of the state’s tourism department, says it is willing to fund the infrastructure for the food street through the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), but stakeholders have hit a stumbling block with an issue as minor as the garbage removal mechanism from around the Nanking building.

Hope shines
But Bhowmik isn’t giving up. If all goes well, she says, the food street will be launched with an Asian food festival in December 2016 or January 2017. Singaporean street food guru KF Seetoh is being roped in to mentor the locals and a mega restoration-cleanup-training-rebranding drive will be organised in the lead-up to the event.

Ming Tung Hsieh, a former Deoli detainee, is trying to be hopeful about the project, but he keeps asking himself if too little is being done too late.

The fact that migrating to the West is no longer as easy as it was in the past—given the financial hardships post-recession and stricter immigration policies—is forcing the community to look for opportunities within the city. John Liao, who runs a restaurant, feels establishing oneself as an entrepreneur abroad is difficult. “To run a business there and save up for one’s retirement is impossible,” says Liao.

Janice Lee, who went off to study in Canada when she was 12 and returned to India in 2013 to join her family business, feels the revival plan will boost the local economy as well as tourism. Robert Hsu, 37, a web and app designer, and the secretary of the Indian Chinese Association, says a lot of youngsters with better educational qualifications than their forefathers are opting to stay back, given the exponential rise in employment opportunities in sectors like IT and hospitality.

Paul Chung, whose Indian Chinese Association organised the traditional lion dance some years ago and the first dragon boat festival in 2015, speaks highly of the young ones too. “In all these, it’s the young people who took the lead. They did all the hard work. They give me hope. I don’t think that the Chinese in Kolkata are going to wither away.”

As the community steps into the Year of the Monkey on February 8, that would perhaps be its most heartening takeaway.

(This story appears in the 19 February, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)