After spending six years as a student in Taiwan, Clifford Li returned to rutted roads, open drains with decay and disease, and an air of pessimism. Tangra, his home in east Kolkata, had not changed.
Now, like many friends before him, Clifford is thinking of emigrating to “Canada or maybe China”. “It’s good that the government plans to turn this into a tourist spot,” says the 26-year-old, leaning against the intimidating red grilled gates of his house in a Tangra bylane, bounded by the characteristic high plastered walls. “But if the Chinese themselves are leaving the place, I wonder what will be left of Chinatown.”
New masks: (clockwise from top left) Dancing dragons at Chinese New Year celebrations at Tangra; the Chinese cemetery near Baishali; guards Ramchandra Das (left) and Jeet Bahadur at Pei May School, Tangra; architect Partha Das’ blueprint of the pagoda-style gate to be built as part of the project. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Close to eight decades after the first Chinese families and tannery owners settled in Tangra—turning the once malaria-infested marshland into a leather hub and a prosperous Chinatown—the West Bengal tourism ministry in February launched a Rs1 crore beautification project for the area. The plan is to build, in traditional Chinese architectural styles, a 50ft-tall tower in the area and a 30ft-high gate at the EM Bypass entrance to what is probably India’s only full-fledged Chinese township. “The technical work is done and construction will begin soon. The project involves authentic Chinese architecture where expertise is required,” says state tourism minister Manab Mukherjee.
“We want to showcase Chinatown in Kolkata as a place unique in India, much like similar places in San Francisco and Liverpool,” says Partha Das, the project architect, who is collaborating with a Chinese architect on the design.
Absent: The only Chinese school in Tangra has been forced to close for want of students. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“The Chinese community in the city hasn’t been duly recognized for their role in society and hopefully this will be a symbolic acceptance,” Das adds.
For a community that tends to feel excluded, “symbolism” is not enough—but it’s a start. According to their own estimates, Tangra’s population of over 10,000 three decades ago is down to around 2,000 today. The Tangra Chinese have migrated to countries such as Canada, Taiwan and Australia—mainly owing to fewer professional and employment opportunities, particularly after a Supreme Court order in 2002 led to the closure or shifting of polluting tanneries. Politics within the community has only worsened the situation.
Most admit Chinatown still has all it takes to be a self-contained cocoon. They have their own industries, including Chinese sauce manufacturing units, temples, schools, Chinese learning centres, a newspaper, dragon dance and cultural troupes, flourishing restaurants. But “it’s just that the Supreme Court order on tanneries has dealt a big blow,” says M. Hossain, who operates the Wing Sing Tannery in Tangra on behalf of the Chinese owners—the tannery doesn’t use polluting chemicals, he says.
“Chinatown requires proper drainage, roads and street lights above all. But considering that this (the beautification plan) is the first such government initiative here, I’m optimistic,” says Xie Ying Xing, owner of Big Boss restaurant and a community spokesperson.
Xie has reason to hope. Big Boss, established in 2003 and now one of the biggest Chinese cuisine restaurants in Kolkata, is among the 40-odd Chinese-speciality restaurants along and off the main Tangra road, many of them where tanneries used to be. The 300-seater Big Boss is big business for Xie, who was 8 when he migrated to India from China in 1956.
Xie says he is the fifth generation of his family to settle in Kolkata. His roots in the city go back to Hsieh Khui Chong, a Chinese trader and leader who settled in Kolkata around 1860, when the city attracted settlers as one of the largest trading outposts in Asia.
Members of the Chinese community made a name for themselves as dentists, beauticians, shoemakers and leather manufacturers, as well as for their carpentry and culinary skills. They survived the effects of the 1962 war with China, when movement was restricted and they were viewed with suspicion.
Over the years, however, they’ve lost ground in many of these professions, either because they haven’t kept up technologically or because the younger generation is not interested. And many haven’t been able to find a viable alternative to the tannery business, still on clandestinely in parts of Tangra.
The sense of grievance is evident. As Xie strides down the main road, he says the community has received little in return for its contribution: a couple of municipal corporation boards with Tangra/Chinatown written in Chinese, the recent inclusion of Chinatown on the official government tourist map. And he starts thinking of more such instances. It is when we turn a corner that he starts rejoicing—five lamp posts have been erected earlier that day along the main approach road to Tangra, where dim lights barely did the work earlier. “There, see,” he is elated, “they are finally doing something.”
Is it too little, too late? For years, Ramchandra Das stood guard at the Pei May School, reportedly the only Chinese school in the country till it stopped holding classes earlier this year for want of students. One of the two guards at the school, Das sticks to his routine: He comes in at 8am, changes into his uniform, and keeps watch over nothing “but the empty three-storeyed building”. As he speaks, Hindi film music filters out from his room and the sound ricochets within vacant halls. During hot afternoons, the FM radio is his only relief from the dullness of duty.
The school, set up in 1929, was meant exclusively for Chinese children, and was maintained with funds collected by the community. When Jeet Bahadur, the other guard, joined 43 years back, it used to cackle with the chatter of 1,300 students. When it closed, it had just five students—even turning it into an English-medium school could not stave off the inevitable, says Bahadur.
“Most young Chinese are leaving India and nobody is interested in learning Chinese in schools any more. It’s English and Hindi,” says K.T. Chang, the editor of Overseas Chinese Commerce of India, a four-pager that is the only Chinese daily newspaper published in India. Chang is part of a team of three, each member individually responsible for composing, sourcing news from the Internet and printing and photocopying editions for distribution. Circulation figures are down from 700 copies in the 1970s to 190 copies. “In Tangra, the beautification project can only be seen as tokenism,” he notes.
Leon Lin, the 28-year-old Taiwan-educated moderator of Tangra and Chinese community website Dhapa.com, is hopeful, though. He has noticed the “high level of Indo-China bilateral trade” and is currently busy with one such project, besides finding occasional work as coordinator with the recently reopened Chinese consulate in Kolkata. “Because we are so few left, the differences among the Chinese community is not an issue. From here, it can only get better,” he says.
The last burial at the vast Chung Yee Tong Chinese cemetery took place three months back, says caretaker Zalil Ansari. It is only when family members come to exhume the remains for permanent burial under concrete tombs—a much-practised ritual—that the cemetery sees some activity. “Where did the Chinese disappear?” wonders the caretaker.
He may find his answer in the bazaar near the Chinese Kali Temple in Tangra. Both buyers and sellers here are of Chinese origin and most commodities sold would go well with an authentic Chinese meal. It is early morning and in one far corner of the market, a Chinese woman is selling fried pork innards. It’s pungent, spicy and alien. At any rate, definitely not the kind of Chinese food made palatable for Indian taste buds. The lady cackles: “This is real Chinese.” There is still hope.
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