and debates in quaint Chinese tea houses over simmering cups of
green tea in the snaking lanes of Kolkata's Chinatown may soon be
a reality. A project aimed at preserving the heritage of the
Indian Chinese community in the city and to create an eco-friendly
and economically viable arts-heritage-food hub will provide a
much-needed facelift to Chinatown.
Titled 'The Cha Project' or tea project, the venture will help
preserve Old Chinatown (Tiretti Bazaar) and will focus on
developing the New Chinatown (Tangra) that houses Kolkata's 4,000
strong Chinese community, the largest in the country.
"It will be an urban regeneration initiative as well as a tourism
opportunity. It will not only attract tourists but people from the
city itself. Basically, it will recreate the old Chinatown days,"
G.M. Kapur, state convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and
Cultural Heritage (INTACH), told IANS.
The Chinese have been coming to India from the time of scholars Fa
Hien (4th century) and Huen Tsang (7th century) - some might even
have settled in India, making it their home. But it was not until
the 1700s that the Chinese began settling in discernible numbers.
Written documents from 1778 mention the first Chinese settler in
India - a man named Atchew.
Atchew set up a sugar mill in Achipur with 110 Chinese men. The
British not only encouraged Atchew to settle in the suburbs of
what was then Calcutta, but also gave him and his group all kinds
The first Chinese to start settling in the city were runaway
sailors and the indentured servants mentioned in a letter from
Atchew to Governor General Warren Hastings. The city, being a
major port, played host to many Chinese sailors on their way to,
or returning from, foreign lands.
They would stop in the city and wait for the ships to carry them
to their destination. Journeys by sea were slow and the ships
infrequent, so many months had to be spent ashore. While they
waited for their ships, they looked for work in the city. Some of
them might have eventually stopped their seafaring ways and
settled in the city.
As part of the initiative by INTACH and the sate government,
quaint traditional Chinese tea houses will be built across
Chinatown to boost the culture of the community.
"There are plans of building tea houses which will serve as
cultural centres," Paul Chung, president of the Indian Chinese
Association, told IANS.
Art and crafts trademarks of the Chinese like carpentry, leather
tanneries, shoemaking, hairstyling and the like will be
revitalised to provide business opportunities.
The most striking features of the proposal are heritage centres
and a museum that will showcase the history of the Indian Chinese
through series of architectural reconstructions, dioramas and
layered photographic backdrops, all enhanced by audiovisuals using
photographs from different periods.
"We do not have a place to display our history....our people are
keen to have a museum in Old Chinatown," Chung said.
Displays of personal everyday objects and old documents and
records, contributed by members of the community, will serve as
artefacts in themselves.
The landmark Toong-on temple on Blackburn lane in old Chinatown,
built in the 1920s, that had the very popular Nanking restaurant
(shut down for more than a decade) as one of its tenants, might
also be converted to a heritage centre.
"We are awaiting the go-ahead of the state government. The concept
has been designed and proposal has been submitted," Kapur said.
In 1910, the Chinese community was pushed to the fringes of the
city, where they established leather gardens for the tanning
industry. This place would later become known as Tangra, (also
known as Dhapa or New Chinatown).
Periods of disorder in China - the First Opium War in (1840) and
the revolution (1911) - saw waves of Chinese migrating to India.
By the 1930s, the number of women and children in the community
increased considerably. Chinese men were now bringing their
families with them.
There was also a burgeoning Indian tea industry that needed
trained workers, which led to a further increase in Chinese
immigrants. Soon the Chinese, though essentially an insular
community, became part of the city's, and to a lesser extent
Bombay's (now Mumbai), melting pot.
Hakka tanners and shoemakers, Hupeh dentists, Cantonese carpenters
and restaurateurs, all left their lasting stamp on both cities.
In 1939 the Japanese air raids on the Calcutta docks caused
considerable damage and loss of life. World War II in Asia saw an
interruption in the flow of Chinese migrants to the city.
During the Calcutta riots of 1946, the Chinese played a
conciliatory role, keeping violence under check in old Chinatown.
The Sino-Indian war in 1962 changed the equation forever. This
period saw the Chinese diaspora being arrested, restrictions
placed on free movement, the Indian citizenship of those
who had acquired it being revoked and other clamps on civil
For the city's Chinese, life in every way - social, cultural,
religious and most important, economic - was disrupted. There was
even a stop to traditional ways of celebrating festivals - dragon
and lion dances disappeared from the streets for many years - and
marriages were low key.
Chinese temples, burial grounds, clubs, schools lay neglected as a
blanket of fear and insecurity enveloped the community.
However, with time, things have improved. "We are no longer viewed
with suspicion. Many of us have become Indian citizens and vote
regularly in elections", Chung said.
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at email@example.com)