Willi Li emailed this articled to me, I find it very interesting because it is about China town in Calcutta (name chaged to Kolkata some years ago), India. I was born there, but only have a vague memory of it since my family left when I was a year old. My memory of it are from my 2 visits when I was about 9 and 11 years old. I remember the stench of rotting cow hide and chemicals used to process leather. I remember savouring on chinese food, I mean real chinese food. Anyhow, below is the article.
THE FORBIDDING CITY
No Kolkata locality is as neglected as Tangra, and no community as alienated as the Chinese. In spite of its overflowing gutters and filthy alleys, Chinatown still holds its charm in the city of joy. But it?s time to look beyond its chilli chicken and chowmein, says Subhro Niyogi
Dark alleys, overflowing drains, w at e rl o g g e d streets, heaps of garbage, filthy water, foul smell ? it?s hardly a place you would like to drive through, much less stop by. But over 10,000 people do just that every day. They drive down to the hell hole… to dine! That?s Tangra, one of the city’s most popular food destinations. The 38 Chinese restaurants in Chinatown have, over decades, retained a customer base loyal enough to brave the odds for a taste of the exotic. Tangra is also home to some tanneries that continue to operate illegally despite an order to shift out. Operating on smoke-belching generators, the toxic chemicals, used to treat hides at these leather units flow into the open drains of the locality. The stink is appaling. There is just one metalled road that runs through the Chinese settlement. South Tangra Road (now renamed Matheswar Tala Road) is the lifeline for the 3,000 odd
Chinese and nearly 100,000 more who work and live in the congested ghetto. The road has no prominent approach. Two alleys, hemmed between high factory walls, connect it to Christopher Road off the Park Circus connector. Big restaurants like Beijing, Big Boss, Hot Wok and Kim Ling are located along this road that is barely wide enough for two vehicles. With most customers parking their cars on the road, it is a nightmare to drive through in the evenings. It gets much worse in the monsoon, when the mildest of showers leaves Tangra in knee-deep water. The drainage system is not worth a mention. The serpentine bylanes and alleys off Tangra Road are veritable hell holes. The kuchha gulleys turn into water channels. When the water eventually dries out days after the
shower, it leaves behind a slippery, stinking slush that becomes impossible to negotiate.
With four open drains, the pungent stench of chemicals and waste hangs heavy over Tangra all year round. The drains are nearly always filled to the brim. A heavy run-off from one of the factories
or a light shower triggers an overflow. The muck from the drains simply empties out into a stretch of wasteland to the east of the colony and stagnates forever. A breeding ground for mosquitoes, the slush seeps into the watertable, contaminating the only source of drinking water for people in the colony. Since there is no conservancy service, garbage piles up till a restaurant or factory owner personally pays to get it cleared.
With KMC turning a blind eye to Tangra?s needs, the Chinese have themselves concretised a few alleys, mostly those leading to popular restaurants or big leather factories. There are no street lights here and the dingy lanes become dark and scary after dusk. Even Tangra Road is ill-lit. KMC?s neglect has led to the mushrooming of illegal constructions in the locality, which flout every possible norm in the book. The worst, though, is the total lack of adherence to fire safety. If a fire were to happen in Tangra, it would turn into a death trap.
Ironically, infrastructure should never have been a concern in Tangra. Spread across three wards ? 58, 59 and 66 ? it should have attracted enough development funds from councillors and MLAs to make the place more liveable. Instead, it remains one of the filthiest localities in the KMC area. Even some slums are perhaps better off.
Divided house crumbles from within The biggest stumbling block to development of Tangra is the community itself. Living in cocooned existence for nearly a century, the present generation Chinese in Kolkata is stuck at crossroads.
The community needs to come out in the open and speak up. We must express our aspirations to be understood by others. Though Chinese restaurants and shoe-shops are extremely popular, interaction with the non-Chinese has always been restricted to business transactions. It has rarely transcended into daily life. On the other hand, communities like Parsis and Bangladeshis have managed to become a part of the social milieu,? says Paul Chung, president of Indian Chinese Association for Culture, Welfare & Development. Now, with most youths migrating to the West and threatening the very existence of Kolkata?s Chinese Diaspora, many in the community feel the time has come to
act decisively. But what prevents them from doing so is their introvert nature,inherent sense of mistrust (thanks to years of alienation after the 1962 India-China war) and reluctance to take risks.
?The community was united till faced with the tannery shift issue. Then, a section of the people, who represented the Chinese at negotiations with the government badly let us down by agreeing to shift without compensation. It drove many tanners out of business and created a deep rift in the close-knit
community,? explains restaurateur Hsieh Ying Hsing.
With the house divided, there is no clear leader in the community. And that is a huge problem when it comes to taking major decisions. Mistrust, egos and differences scuttle most initiatives. ?A lot of people would be interested in the development of Tangra but are hesitant. We desperately need a leader to pull everyone together,? says Huan Bao Tannery Owners’ Council (HBTOC) secretary general Chu Yin Wah. Such is the level of mistrust that if someone wants to do something good, others will whisper about his or her ulterior motive, residents say. ?It is extremely discouraging. The youths are disillusioned because in the Chinese family system, the young ones are not encouraged to speak,? says Chung.
A few years ago, Hsieh attempted to float the idea of transforming Tangra into Chinatown with pagoda style gates, Indo-Chinese museum and Chinese garden. The idea was to transform Tangra from a place where one could enjoy Chinese food to one where one could get the Chinese experience. But few attended the meeting,he recalls.
HBTOC honourary director and former WTO consultant Ajit Kumar Sen feels it’s high time the Chinese set their house in order. ?Chinese businesses have always lacked transparency. Most of them do business worth crores of Rupees but fail to appoint chartered accountants. With business so central to their existence, once they develop good practice in trade, it will transcend to daily life,? he
JOURNEY TO CHINATOWN
The first record of travel from China is provided in the travelogue of Fa-Hien who visited Tampralipta (Tamluk now) in the 5th Century AD. Many words in Bengali ? like chini (sugar) ? can be attributed to Chinese influence. The first person of Chinese origin to arrive in Calcutta was Yang Tai Chow, in1778. He worked in a sugar mill hoping to save enough to start a tea trade.
Calcutta was the easiest accessible metropolitan area from China by land. Many of the earliest immigrants worked in the Kidderpore docks. A police report in 1788 mentions a sizeable Chinese population settled in the vicinity of Bow Bazaar Street.
During the time of Warren Hastings, the first governorgeneral of British India, a Chinese businessman, Tong Achi, established a steel mill at Achipur, 33 km from Calcutta, on the banks of Hooghly river. A temple and grave of Tong Achi still remain and are visited by many Chinese during the Chinese New Year. The first Chinese-owned tanneries sprung up around the time of World War I. In1961, there were close to 7,000. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 ended further
immigration from China. An unknown number left, mostly to Australia, Canada, and the US
Those that remained were often branded enemies, detained and sent to an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, between 1962 and 1968. The Chinese population in Kolkata dwindled from 20,000
to 10,000. Those who remained were deprived of right to free movement and dismissed from jobs in private and govt enterprises. The only occupations left for the Chinese were in the restaurant business, tanning and shoemaking. The treatment of Chinese residents and their isolation after the war were recounted in Rafeeq Ellias’s documentary TheLegend of Fat Mama India and China resumed diplomatic relations in 1976 but it was not until 1998 that ethnic Chinese were allowed naturalised Indian citizenship.
In 2005, the first road sign in Chinese characters was put up in Tangra Fusion of Chinese (esp Hakka) and Indian cuisine has given rise to Indian Chinese cuisine