Welcome to Chinatown

Walk down the lanes of India’s only Chinese ghetto and explore heady mix of flavours of orient that it has nurtured in its 200 years of existence

Welcome to Chinatown
AS You head into Calcutta from the airport in the burbs, you can hardly miss the gigantic red gateway to the only existing Chin­atown in the country, mounted by a pagoda-like crest. Drive down that gate or just walk through the ill-kept narrow lanes of the hood, and you come across dozens of eateries ladling out platters of traditional Chinese delicacies in a heady mix of sights and smells before, at once, you come by its first decent Chinese joint. Dan Sin Quin, with its plush décor and eye-catching bar, stands out from other holes in the wall that are wrapped in time in this 200-year-old ghetto on the fringes of the city.

Its erstwhile owner, Dennis Chen, an ethnic Chinese from Kolkata, had been running the joint as China Haus for years, before he ran out of steam. And in stepped Jagruti Mehta an entrepreneur from outside the Town (or Chine Para, as it is popularly called), to paint it afresh with fareastern colours and run it aided by modern management techniques.

Chinatown, along the narrow streets of Tangra, bordered by upcoming high-rises, houses more than 30 Chinese restaurants of different sizes and scale. Indians successfully manage a few of them, much in the manner, China Haus is now. Chung Wah, once an oriental icon in the downtown area of Central Avenue far from Tangra, was the first major Chinese eatery to change hands over three decades ago, with the city’s once prosperous expatriate Chinese beginning to desert the country, leaving their quaint shoe shops, dental clinics and eateries in the hands of Indians eager to make a fast buck in the bargain.

For almost two centuries now, most of it under colonial rule, ethnic Chinese have contributed to the city’s cosmopolitan heritage, leaving their mark on Calcutta’s social and economic fabric as shoemakers, dentists and “Chinese chow” sellers. But then, beginning with the 1960s, as the city went into decline, so did its expatriate communities, a vibrant mix of Afghans, Armenians, Jews, Iranians, Chinese and of course, the Anglo-Indians. The Chinese survived and prospered longer than the others, but now, their population is down to just about 5,000 or so, from over 50,000 once.

Yet, as an elderly Chinaman — as the residents were once known — who has seen many ups and downs in the area said, “You cannot say that the Chinese population in Kolkata is dwindling. It has been stagnating for the past few years. Those who had to leave have mostly left.” And those still leaving, are not heading to Mainland China, but to Canada, Sweden, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and elsewhere, where fortune awaits the hardy.

Calcutta’s ethnic Chinese originally landed in Tangra in the 19th century, building their fortunes mostly in the tannery business. Their skills with leather were also showcased in the quaint Chinese footwear store on Bentinck Street. That was then. In 2001, the West Bengal government banned tanneries in and around Chinatown through a legal order on environmental ground, forcing the tanneries to relocate to far-off Bantala. Some of the Chinese moved out, but most resisted, abandoning businesses they had nurtured down two or three generations. Losing out to the financially stronger Muslim community that now dominates the business, and partly discouraged by harsh working conditions in leather factories, the younger lot opted for try their luck abroad, with many NextGen Chinese educated in some of the city’s best English schools.

While most of the younger generation are also fluent in Hindi and Bengali, few know any Mandarin at all. Small wonder then, an unusually large proportion of students at The School, the city’s only academy offering courses in Chinese language, rituals, customs and behaviour for Indian jobseekers in the Mainland, are NextGen Chinese.

“We thought we would be imparting training on Chinese language to Indians, but to my great amusement, we are now getting an increasingly larger number of Chinese youth who want to pick up Mandarin,” says Madan Saraff, founder-director, The School and Chini Adda.

Meanwhile, savouring bekti paturi made in Chinese way, fish cake, phad gabraw gai, squid pepper salt, chicken shu mai (dimsums), sliced fish in chilli mustard sauce, pot rice, corn cakes, stuffed mushroom garlic pepper and veg-lemon coriander soup at Tangra’s best-known eatery, the most nagging question that comes to mind is: “Was Chinatown always like this? Or is the Dan Sin Quin experience only the beginning of the signs of times to come?”

Mehta has bigger plans up her sleeve. For now, she has only given us a peep into her phase one plan, made operational with 80 seats and a 20-seat private dining area, equipped with karaoke on level one. The phase II will see her add 60 more seats on the ground floor for single guests, while phase III will offer 90 covers with a jazz bar, an exclusive kids zone and a separate kids menu. All these have been unheard of in Chinatown so far.

On paper, her plan is in sync the state government’s ambitious strategy to convert Chinatown into one of the city’s main tourist attractions, offering exotic dining experience. Some three years ago, the state tourism department had teamed up with the city municipality and drawn up an ambitious programme to give Chinatown a facelift. And so, plans were drawn up to erect two large pagoda topped entrances besides a giant gate in oriental Chinese design on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass-Park Circus connector; Chinese illumination all over Tangra, with signages and a schematic map of Chinatown; beside general beautification.

To do so, the tourism department also engaged well-known Chinese architect Zhang Bo from Kunming province of the People’s Republic and city-based architect Partho Das. But what has come up on ground zero is the solitary China Gate with the pagoda-like crest on the EM Bypass connector. Forget cosmetic value adds, the locality’s roads and sewerage are in appalling condition. Civic officials are apologetic. “They (the ethnic Chinese community) want to live in seclusion. They don’t want us to enter the area and carry out development work,” they claim. Res­taurant owners, on their part, contest this and say, “The unwritten convention here is that restaurant owners will have to build and maintain roads in front of their eateries. As a result, you will find few pockets of no-man’s land, marked by dirt tracks and filthy pot-holed roads where there are no restaurants. Virtually no one is responsible,” said an owner of one of the bigger Chinese restaurants in the area, requesting anonymity.

Actually, a much bigger issue is at play. The ethnic Chinese population — whether in Kolkata or elsewhere in India — was sort of ostracised during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. There are still murmurs of India’s Chinese being sent to concentration camps or deported across the border during that humiliating war half-a-century ago.

A prominent leader of Kolkata’s Chinese community, who refused to disclose his identity said, “We know that it’s not going to come so easily and there are so many other issues, but we would be happy if there is a small ‘sorry’ from the government. Mind you, this is not our demand, but wish. It would certainly help us mingle with the mainstream much better and help us explore various options to build our fortune in the city we call home. We do not want to leave the city; we were born and brought up here. Yet, at the same time, we have to think of our future generations too.”

There have also been rumours of divisions and factions within Kolkata’s Chinese community, though these are not so strong to detract from Chinatown’s wide range of lip-smacking delicacies, offering great value for money.

For, as a famous and old Chinese saying goes: Naixin Xuyao Shinjin. Have patience, everything takes time.

So, welcome to Chinatown, riding on hope.



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