The Charm of China Town in Kolkata
"Today I witnessed two very strange men in the streets of Kolkata. They are yellow-complexioned. Eyes are too little and nose is too flat. They have no brows, beards or moustache. You cannot differentiate between those two men. They look like just twins. They have come from a country called China..." A male character of the widely acclaimed Bengali novel Shey Shomoi (Those Days) by reputed author Sunil Ganguli thus describes the migration of the Chinese people in Kolkata, India during the early British colonial regime. Against the backdrop of today's perspective, the afore-mentioned dialogue sounds quite racist and hence offensive but the dialogue is relevant if we consider it told by some Bengali man of the early-nineteenth century who had never before seen a Chinese person in his life.
Sons and daughters of the great Chinese race have migrated to different countries and continents of the world in course of the centuries. Even in Bangladesh, there is a small Chinese community who are mostly occupied in different sorts of professions such as running beauty parlours, hotel and restaurant businesses, martial art training and so on. The Chinese people are mostly famous for different sorts of skills, their particular life-style and of course their cuisine which is popular all over the world. This July on a visit to Kolkata I was determined to visit this curious place, my interest being ignited after reading the novel.
Scroll painting of an ancestor.
'We have been living in the China Town of Kolkata for the last three generations", says 23 year old Susan, a young Chinese woman who works at Grace Ling Liang English school. "My father is a leather businessman. We are two brothers and two sisters. I have been working as an accountant in this school for last one year after my graduation".
Fifty-three-year-old Xie Ying Xing and owner of a famous Chinese restaurant seems to us the most knowledgeable person we meet on our short trip. "I came to Kolkata in 1956. I know the whereabouts of 24 generations of our lineage and this scroll painting of the man above my head is of my 18th ancestor. His name was also Xie", Xie Ying Xing tells us.
We learnt from Mr. Xie Ying Xing that at present around 7,000 Chinese people live in Kolkata. Of them, 2,000 people live in the China Town area alone and the rest are scattered over other different parts of the city.
"Around 230 years' ago, a number of Chinese people first came to Kolkata and settled in Achipur suburb of the city. You need just one hour drive to reach there. Later we shifted from that area and Achipur is now a Muslim dominated area," informs Xie.
Xie comes from the province of Kwang Tong and speaks Hakka language of China. "Most of our community people in China Town speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka. Younger generation use a mixed language of English, Hindi and the Chinese languages,' he mentions.
Chinese children learning their mother tongue.
Xie Ying also tells us that they have a Chinese Cultural Association which arranges festivals like Spring Festival or Chinese New Year celebrations during the end of January to the end of February. Although older generations have adhered to the Buddhist faith, many young Chinese are Christian.
"I am Buddhist with reverence and trust in the words of Confucius and my ancestors but my son is a Christian" says Xie. "And, we co-exist in a family with no chaos. Over the course of time, some Chinese have adopted Hinduism and some have again converted to Islam" he adds.
Most of the Chinese people in China Town earn a living from hotel and restaurant chains, shoe shops, tanneries, sugar mills and beauty parlours. A majority of them are engaged in private business while a handful have joined government services. One of Xie's friends was promoted up to the rank of Assistant Commissioner in the Police Service of West Bengal government.
Although Chinese people of this area have settled here over the generations, they are keen on practicing their mother languages. "Chinese language is hard to grasp" says Mrs. Liang, the head teacher of the 80 year's old school in China Town. "You need to learn 400 characters for simple communication and at least 2000 characters if you want to be a writer or scholar. To uphold our mother language and tradition, we have set up this Pi Mei school, a school solely established to teach Chinese to the Chinese students."
The school has two shifts. The morning shift is open for both Chinese and non-Chinese students up to grade V. The day shift is meant to teach only the Chinese language to Chinese students of primary to ICSE (10th grade) and ISE (12th grade) students. The 10th and 12th grade Chinese students who come here are students of different Indian schools. Here they come just to learn the mother tongue for their exams so that they can obtain a better marks in Chinese rather than trying a hand in Hindi or Bengali as a second language besides English. A number of pre-schoolers were seen taking lessons in Chinese.
Interestingly enough, both the Chinese and non-Chinese people of the vicinity tell us to visit a Chinese Kali mandir or temple of Hindu goddess Kali set up by the Chinese people who have adopted Hinduism as their faith. We meet 47 year old Chung Kuo Shing and 50 year old Leo Pao Shing before the temple. They are workers in some nearby leather factories. "We are Hindu Chinese", they tell us. They seem relatively poorer in comparison to the schoolteachers or staff and the hotel owners. Chen, 55, another Hindu Chinese, however is wealthy and he is the owner of a leather factory. These days there is more intermarriage between Chinese and Indians and parents on either side are quite accepting of such marriages.
Kolkata is a city immersed in history and tradition and the Chinese community is very much part of its heritage and charm.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009