The Last Dragon Dance | Kwai-Yunli
Through the 1990s, Kolkata was an unchanging city —not one that gave even gifted young people a headstart in life. Salaries were abysmal in most fields; there weren’t many jobs. By then chief minister Jyoti Basu and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) had ruled West Bengal for about a decade; land reform was beginning to bear fruit in rural Bengal; Stalin’s portrait still hung on the walls of the party’s headquarters.
The metropolis, desperately in need of a financial and cultural boost, chugged along at the same slow pace even as the rest of the country got swept up in the wave of globalization. And nowhere was this neglect more blatantly visible than in the city’s famous Chinese quarters—Tangra. Its cobblestoned roads reeked of debris and squalor. Buildings were crumbling. Chinatown’s people hardly ever went beyond its peripheries.
The Last Dragon Dance:Penguin,122 pages, Rs199.
But ironically, it was also a neighbourhood that, in its own way, made up for the rest of the city’s torpor. Small enterprises flourished and the people always had an air of purpose and activity about them, typical of most immigrant communities. When restaurants in the city shut a little after 10pm, Tangra’s Chinese eateries did brisk business, late into the night.
The overpowering smell in Tangra—that of a combination of tanned leather, cooked pork, soya sauce and sesame oil—was revolting, but memorable. Something that the characters in Kwai-Yun Li’s The Last Dragon Dance were perhaps used to in the 1950s. The portrait of Kolkata’s Chinese neighbourhoods in the 1950s that Kwai-Yun conjures in this heartfelt but unsentimental novel could well be that of the same places 40 years later. The Chinese of Kolkata were, back then, the most marginalized community in the city—the worst sufferers in times of political and economic upheaval. Things are much the same, although in June this year the Bengal government announced a big-budget preservation plan.
Kwai-Yun’s book does not attempt any epic sweep. Its 11 chapters are vignettes of idiosyncratic characters who come and go—some of them Hindu, some Muslim and most of them Hakka Chinese, whose ancestors immigrated to work at the city’s port in the early 1700s. They populate Chattawalla Gully, a neighbourhood of tannery workers and shoe-shop owners. In most households, Mao is idolized and in some, the Dalai Lama is secretly worshipped.
The last legion: About 3,500 Chinese Indians now live in Kolkata
The book opens as a mother fixes her six-year-old daughter’s marriage to her neighbour’s son. The neighbour is a shrewd widow given to histrionics, who has converted a part of her house into a temple that receives donations from fellow Hakkas. Life in Chattawalla Gully unfolds through the memories of a woman who left home after she got married to a Chinese Canadian (Kwai-Yun herself grew up in Chinatown and later settled in Canada, where she now lives).
Many characters leave and the political landscape changes too, taking a tragic turn when the Indo-China war breaks out in 1962. A bookseller and her daughter Raindrop, the best friend of the girl whose voice tells us the story, are deported. Some tanneries are shut down, and its owners migrate to Canada, Australia and Europe. The few who are left behind, remain trapped in Chinatown’s decay.
One of the most beautiful chapters in the book is that of the dragon dance, a Chinese New Year’s Day ritual. It is the girl’s last dragon dance with her friend Raindrop. They follow the movements of a giant, multi-coloured dragon, suspended on poles by a group of men. The men lift, thrust and swing the pole, celebrating the ancient belief that the Chinese are descendants of the dragon. The girls clap and shout together as the dragon undulates and firecrackers flash around it. Li’s descriptions are meticulous and in parts poetic, and we see the two girls in a moment that encapsulates the fleeting nature of happiness in their lives.
The Last Dragon Dance is a quick read, some parts given to just about scratching the surface of characters and their situations. The subject could have done with a larger canvas, and more depth. Kolkata’s political backdrop and the looming shadow of Mao’s China are also not well etched. But Kwai-Yun’s concern and sympathy for little secrets and simple pleasures finally bring out an engaging portrait of the community.
For those who are familiar with Kolkata’s Chinese quarters, The Last Dragon Dance somewhat brings alive what is otherwise left to the imagination. If you ever wondered what worlds existed inside Tangra’s decaying buildings—covered by silk curtains with red and pink dragon prints—this book is worth the hour it would take to finish.