Development strategies for Chinatown, Tangra, Kolkata

Author is a post graduate of IIT Kharagpur. This article is based on detail study, analysis and research done by author for her Masters of City Planning Dissertation “Development strategies for Chinatown, Tangra, Kolkata”, in 2009,under guidance of Dr. Sanghamitra Basu

China Town – Tangra, Kolkata: Needs A Holistic Development Approach
By Banasree Mandal

It has come at head line many a times in recent days how Kolkata’s age old heritage Chinatown can be revived. Associations and organizations from in and abroad have shown interest in different times to take initiation for restoring and beautifying our Chinatown. Some effort in piecemeal way has already been made for beautification of Chinatown and some thoughts are in pipe line – which shows a hopeful and positive indication of city’s concern for reviving our Chinatown. In this context it is essential to comprehend that Chinatown needs a holistic development approach rather than in piece meal way, with a goal of sustainable revival.

Vibrant Lion dance during Chinese New Year Celebration, Chinatown Tangra,

photograph by Banasree M

After Indo-Sino war in 1962 the number of Indo-Chinese population has reduced drastically and has become only a few thousands at present. Young generation of Chinese Indians hardly see any hope here in India where their ancestors came for bright future. In this context any development approach for Chinatown should concentrate to do something which can stop out migration of Indo Chinese population. Because there will be literally no ‘Chinatown’ if Chinese community choose to leave the place. Only a development approach which takes care of all four aspects of redevelopment – Socio cultural, Economic, Physical and Skill development can make the solution.

Shifting order of tanneries from this area due to environmental reason has resulted in creation of abundant vacant space that is likely to come under new uses. It’s crucial location in the close proximity of E. M. Bypass and Park Circus Connector, which are the most rapidly changing development corridors in or near Kolkata, demands development of high end commercial activities to take place over the area of Chinatown. Low rise, unmaintained urban structures of Chinatown are totally incompatible with the surrounding high end residential and commercial development, Milan mela trade fair centre, Science city, hotel ITC Sonar Bangla and many more to name. In this present situation Chinatown cannot sustain long this way unless planning intervention can take place which fulfills City’s expectation from this place in terms of economic profit and at the same time can create a sustainable habitat for the Chinese.

Low rise unmaintained structures of Chinatown Tangra, photograph by Banasree M in 2009
Assessment of Development options for Chinatown, Tangra

Chinatown all over the world shows different characteristics. Somewhere it is an ethnic ghetto, somewhere it has no distinct existence – almost mixed with the local community, somewhere it is a living come working community with discrete cultural character and somewhere it plays a crucial role in country’s economy and a major attraction for world tourists.

Author has compared development approach for Two Major Chinatowns of the world where planning intervention has taken place – One is Singapore Chinatown – A commercial tourism district another is New York Chinatown – A symbiosis of commercial tourism and living come working neighborhood.
History says in 1960’s some improvement attempts were taken for betterment of deteriorated living condition of overpopulated Chinatown of Singapore : like cleaning hawkers off the streets and relocating them to new hawkers square, relocating Chinese population to some other part of city, construction of new residential flats demolishing dilapidated Chinese shop houses. These development efforts did not take any initiation for conservation. In 1980’s conservation was considered incompatible in urban development authority’s vision for Singapore as a modern metropolis. Minister for National Development declared that “it is not practical to preserve most of the buildings in Chinatown because of their poor structural condition”. It is in 1990’s when revival of Chinatown was taken as ‘Crucial economic case’ due to sudden decline in tourist footfall and subsequent impact on hospitality industry. ‘Tourism 21 initiative’ was launched in 1995 that aimed at creating an artificial Chinese ambiance for attracting tourists. Motto was to establish Singapore as a Tourism Capital for the 21st century, and Chinatown was marked as an opportunity area. Critics call this ‘new’ Chinatown as an artificial Chinese theme park in which locals have no place, except as paid employees.

Singapore Chinatown – emphasizes on profit tourism

On contrary New York follows a sustainable development approach for its Chinatown that takes care of heritage preservation, public realm improvement, convenient transport and pedestrian comfort, affordable housing, fusion between Asian- American and traditional – modern art and architecture, up gradation of declining garment industry, promoting hospitality and healthcare sector as alternative economic source, training program for garment industry workers and healthcare industry workers, language training, promoting youth college with flexible timing along with profit making cultural tourism and water front recreational area development.

New York Chinatown – follows a sustainable revitalization approach


An expert opinion survey was conducted by the author to assess the development options for Chinatown, Tangra. Analysis of experts’ responses through Decision Making Tool directs Kolkata’s Chinatown should adopt a development approach that is in line of New York Chinatown, thus making it a sustainable living come working cultural tourism district rather than to make it a commercial tourism led theme park.
Delineation of planning area:
There are few slums, vacant lands, water bodies and marshy lands lying adjacent to Chinese inhabited area at Tangra, which due to their close proximity to rapid growing development corridor E. M. Bypass are definitely going to come under other profit making development in near future. These areas can also be thought of taking into planning intervention and can be altered to part of future cultural tourism district at Chinatown.
Proposed economic activities:
Employment generation initiatives can include promoting industries and commercial development giving due consideration to three aspects – a) recent business trend in the area, b) skill of Chinese people and c) economic activities in the other China towns and feasible in the context of Chinatown at Tangra. Shoe and other leather goods industry along with retail outlet of leather products, Food processing industry specially sauce factory along with food product outlets, Chinese handicraft industry along with artifact shops, Restaurant, Catering business can be promoted as future industries and commercial activities. Nature therapy and spa, Beauty salons, Dental clinics can be promoted as healthcare and hospitality business. With gradual growth of tourism Chinese can also run guest houses in Chinatown.

Restaurants are the most prominent recent business trend and the major attraction for visitors in Chinatown Tangra, photograph by Banasree M in 2009
Open display of foods in restaurant fronts rather than closed restaurants, street vendors for Chinese food and artifacts, small open takeaways, display in artifact shop along the street can create a picturesque ambiance. Along with these, Specialty restaurants, Student led restaurants with cooking school can be promoted to upscale shopping and dining. Few popular branded shops can also be proposed to attract footfall in Chinatown. Careful facade treatment integrating Chinese architectural elements, ritual symbols, use of emphasized red and yellow colour can add a lot to urbanscape.
Building entries accentuated with Chinese ritual symbols and emphasized red colour,Chinatown Tangra, photograph by Banasree M in 2009

Improvement of physical infrastructure and neighborhood facilities:

Repairing narrow ill conditioned streets, providing proper sewerage disposal system, solid waste and garbage disposal system is utmost important to cure the poor and unhygienic living condition of the area and also to attract more footfall in Chinatown. Sanitation gets highest development priority in a visitors’ survey outcome. An analysis shows Nursery Schools, Community room and meeting place, Parks & Playgrounds are needed as neighborhood improvement facilities at Chinatown,Tangra.

Water logging in mild rain, Chinatown Tangra, photograph by Banasree M in 2009
Lack of sanitation, Chinatown Tangra, photograph by Banasree M in 2009

Promoting Tourism and new Recreational facilities:

Visitors’ opinion survey in Chinatown reveals some interesting facts. Approximately 93% visitors come for dining in the authentic restaurants in Chinatown. 24% visitors visit Chinatown once a month. Approximately 60% visitors are from adolescence, young age group and early middle age group. About 80% visitors show their willingness to pay for new recreational activities and 67% visitors are willing to pay for parking.
All these facts show a high potential for developing new recreational activities. Martial art, Chinese folk dance, Chinese opera, Chinese acrobatics and Chinese cooking course gets highest vote as tourist attracting facilities in visitors’ opinion survey.
Chinese Performing art and Visual art can be promoted as major tourist attracting events
An interactive Chinese museum, Chinese theme garden, Chinese cultural centre along with opera hall, auditorium and exhibition hall for regular display of Chinese visual arts and handicrafts can be thought of launching as new tourist attracting facilities.
Present route of Dragon dance parade – the main cultural activity during Chinese New year, is unkempt and too narrow for huge gathering during the festival.
A new wider and longer route for dragon dance parade can be drawn and a pedestrian plaza with recreational activities can be created to house the crowd during festivals. Waterfront recreational area can be thought of making proper utilization of existing water body adjacent to that.
Most of the restaurants are located along the main two busiest roads of the Chinatown – Matheswartala road & Christopher road. These two roads can be developed as mixed use residential commercial zone. Organized parking spaces, pavement along the busiest road to accommodate street side vendors and sprawl from street side shops, defining slow vehicle speed, providing vehicle barrier and speed breaker at proper locations are required for easy and safe movement of vehicles and pedestrians. Paid parking plaza can also be a source of revenue. Mostly the Chinese inhabited living come working area can be developed with adoptive re use and adjacent slum, vacant land and marshy land can be utilized for accommodating new uses.

A new entrance to Chinatown can be created from the road adjacent to Milan Mela complex to access proposed new recreation activities and tourist attracting facilities on the eastern part of the planning area. Accentuated by a Chinese gate and with a Chinese temple at vista end this entry can offer a grand welcome to the tourists coming to the Chinatown.

Maintaining proper percentage of different land uses is essential to keep balance in development. Landuse percentage followed in any Chinatown which is a successful symbiosis of working-living neighborhood and commercial tourism can be replicated in Chinatown at Tangra only with contextual alteration.
Proposed Model:
New development activities that attract tourists, require least intervention to the existing structures and has to go least problem regarding land issues would come on first phase development. Overall development should follow a comprehensive and detailed phasing plan.
Skill development programs:
Skill development of community people is equally important. Professional courses for management and entrepreneurship, training school for Chinese language, Chinese art and culture that are to be promoted , Chinese cooking school, beautician course, dental course and vocational training for future industries like leather goods processing, Chinese artifacts, food product processing are required. A visitors’ opinion survey result shows a large demand for beautician courses, language courses, cooking courses in non Chinese visitors as well. New York Chinatowns youth college with flexible timing model can be followed. A cultural and training program calendar can be prepared taking consideration of four factors – Chinese festivals, other festivals of Kolkata, vacation and weather.
View of proposed Pedestrian Plaza at Chinatown Tangra
Regulatory bodies:
Representative bodies and regulatory bodies are required for proper functioning and maintenance of tourist facilities and cultural activities. There already exists Chinese associations like Welfare and Mutual Aid Association, South Tangra Youth club, Indian Chinese Association for culture, welfare and development, Restaurant owners’ association and Tannery owners’ association which can play the role in collaboration with tourism board and development authorities of Kolkata. A trade representative body from the community is also required for marketing of leather goods, Chinese artifact, and food products etc. to be produced at Chinatown. Tannery owners’ association and Restaurant owners’ association under the supervision of concerned representatives from government can play this role. West Bengal Tourism Development Board can play the role of organizing body for various theme tourism packages at Chinatown. A Chinatown trade centre will also be required in future to market industrial goods and manage business activities.
If proper economic activities can be planned in available land and abandoned vacant floor space in the Chinatown area, a moderate number of Indo Chinese population expected to be maintained which is essential for endurance of our Chinatown. An analysis says it can even create a considerable number (more than 17000) of employment generation for non Chinese people as well resulting a healthy mix of Chinese and non Chinese.
With right priorities and commitment, with the help of systematic studies of the existing conditions as well as objective assessment of various alternatives, it is possible to redirect the path of development of a derelict urban quarter like Chinatown, Tangra. With the participation of local community and all the stakeholders, commercial gains can be integrated with benefits of the community so as to ensure a holistic revitalization program. In spite of its smell and garbage, pathetic condition of roads and unhygienic environment Chinatown attracts everyday a huge number of visitors from in and outside Kolkata. A proper planning approach can boost it up and we can dream for a Chinatown which would have potential for attracting even World tourists and at the same time can make home for Indian Chinese community.

Share by the author Banasree Mandal & the original post can be found at http://banasreemandal.blogspot.in/