How long will the lions keep dancing in Chinatown?
Earlier this week, noisy costumed lions roamed the back streets of Kolkata’s two Chinatowns to usher in the ‘Year of the Tiger’. Prancing in rhythm to the beat of drums and cymbals, they visited Chinese temples, businesses and homes to bestow prosperity and good fortune. A popular fixture on the city’s events calendar, Chinese New Year celebrations span several days, with live performances and food festivals at various venues.
Many people are surprised to learn of the existence of the centuries-old Chinese community in Kolkata, myself included. Wedged between the majestic structures of Kolkata’s colonial past and the faded glory of Bengali aristocratic mansions, lies one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the world. Known as the “Grey City”, an eclectic mix of foreign immigrants settled here from the late 18th century, attracted by the city’s thriving industrial growth and its grandeur as the capital of Europe. British India.
The various quarters of the district contain traces of approximately 16 different communities, including Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Portuguese and Parsis. The Chinese, along with the Anglo-Indians, are the only viable survivors, however. A guided walking tour of the area gives a good overview. Nestled close to Sun Yat Sen Street in Tiretta Bazaar, I came across welcoming red doors, strings of Chinese sausages hanging from shop windows, and a handful of Chinese temples that serve as social hubs. The most accessible of these, Sea IP Church, dates from 1882 and contains a fascinating array of ancient weapons of war, as well as statues of gods and goddesses.
Until recently, I was unaware that Mumbai also once had a thriving Chinese community and two Chinatowns, albeit smaller than Kolkata’s. As in Kolkata, the British brought in Chinese to work for the East India Company. Today, the last remnant of Mumbai’s Chinese community is a unique temple and cemetery.
The decline of the Chinese community in India began with the Sino-Indian War in 1962. Many Chinese were forced to leave when relations between the two countries deteriorated and negative feelings arose. Unexpectedly, some stayed here. After all, they are Indian citizens who regard India as their homeland. They became part of the Indian cultural fabric and contributed a lot to the process. Chinese cuisine, suitable for the Indian palate, is widely consumed and enjoyed throughout the country. In Kolkata, members of the Chinese community offer noodles and other traditional dishes like prasad to the city’s patron goddess, Kali, in the temple they built for her decades ago. The community takes care of the temple, performing daily Hindu rituals with Chinese touches, like Chinese incense sticks.
The Chinese Kali Temple in Kolkata is a testament to assimilation and unity. However, the ongoing conflict between India and China has perpetuated the distrust of the Chinese people and unfortunately the pandemic has added to this as well. Indians who see China as the enemy do not want to celebrate the new year of a hostile country. Unfortunately, it is the relationships between ordinary people that are suffering because of a policy that is beyond their control. In this case, despite being peaceful and not involved in government clashes, the Chinese community faces the full brunt of it because of their ethnicity. Many members are now choosing to migrate to other countries for better opportunities.
Prior to the pandemic, sweeping plans were underway to redevelop Kolkata’s declining Chinatowns into vibrant heritage and tourist hubs under Project Cha. Unfortunately, the slow project has stalled, but hopefully not forever. It would be a shame if the city’s unique Chinese heritage was lost through prejudice and neglect.
(The author is a travel writer from Down Under who has made Mumbai his home and tries to make sense of India one “just like this” at a time)