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Indian Chinese in Mumbai

India’s Chinese community has been in steady decline in recent decades, but in Mumbai there still exists traces of the Far East

In the early 19th century, hundreds of Chinese labourers joined the East India Company, working as welders, fitters, carpenters and cooks at its operations in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bombay (now Mumbai). The Company used to hire mainly Cantonese from Hong Kong, who were brought by ship to India, while others crossed the border into India from Burma.

In 1820, Kolkata was home to an estimated 50,000 Chinese nationals. In those simpler times, there was no need for passports and visas, and skilled people could migrate to wherever they found employment.

The Chinese in India came from all over the Middle Kingdom — Canton (now Guangdong) in the south; Hupeh (Hubei), a central province; the Hakka, who were originally from the northern provinces, but later migrated all over China; and Shantung (now Shandong), an eastern province.

But almost 200 years after large-scale migration of Chinese began to India, the community has dwindled significantly. According to Tulun Chen, Mumbai-based chairman of the Maharashtra Chinese Association, there are just around 3,500 Chinese in Mumbai, down from an estimated 15,000 in the mid-1960s.

Kolkata is home to over 10,000 Chinese. But Bangalore, the country’s IT capital, is one of the few cities to have seen a sharp growth in the number of Chinese. According to Chen, there are about 3,000 Chinese-Indians in India’s Silicon Valley, up from just 800 a quarter century ago. Cities in Maharashtra, including Nagpur, Kolhapur and Solapur, have a sprinkling of Chinese families.

Sadly, while bustling Chinatowns can be found in many parts of the world — including the US — in India, they are on the decline. Mumbai does not have a Chinatown as it did at the time of Independence. The Chinese who came to Mumbai in the early part of the 19th century settled around the Mazgaon docks area in south-central Mumbai, even establishing a temple (the Kwan Tai Shek) and a cemetery. By the 1850s, the Chinese moved to other localities, including Byculla and Kamathipura. The latter became a notorious red light district, and is today one of the largest and oldest in Asia. Shuklaji Street was once the city’s Chinatown.

Tangra in east Kolkata — which used to house over 350 tanneries — was once the most vibrant Chinatown in India. Today, Tangra has less than a quarter of its original Chinese population, while Shuklaji street has just a handful of Chinese families living there.

The Chinese-Indian community has traditionally specialised in a handful of professions, and even today most of the surviving members can be found in these crafts: foods and beverages (restaurants), dentistry, hair salons and shoemaking.

Says Ryan Tham, 27, a descendant of a prominent Chinese-Indian family: “There are about four families in Mumbai that run Chinese restaurants: the Wangs, the Chens, the Nankings and the Thams.”

Tham’s grandfather was born in Kolkata, and moved to Mumbai about 60 years ago. In 1962, he launched Kokwah, the first cabaret venue in India. Later, he opened the Mandarin, near the Gateway of India. His son Henry, who married a Bengali, sent his two sons — Ryan and Keenan — to Australia for higher studies. For several years, the family also ran the famous Thams salon, near the Taj Mahal hotel. Henry and his two sons now run Henry Tham, a fine-dining resto-bar in Colaba.

“We have been in the food and beverages business for the past 50 years,” explains the young Tham, who is often seen in celebrity circles and exclusive parties. “But I consider myself more Indian than Chinese. I am fluent in Hindi and Marathi and completed my schooling in Mumbai.”

Agnes Chen is another third-generation Chinese-Indian who feels more Indian than Chinese. Born in Kolkata, she was educated at the Loreto Convent and is fluent in Bengali, English, Hindi and French. “We are Chinese genetically, but in all other respects we are Indian,” says Agnes, who moved to Mumbai 13 years ago. “About 70 per cent of the younger generation Chinese-Indians have migrated to countries like Canada, the US and Australia,” explains Anges.

“I was too busy with my career and did not get the time to migrate,” she smiles. A hairstylist and dresser, she has worked for several multinationals, including L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Wella. She has lived in London and Paris, travelled across the world organising hair fashion shows, and has also trained over 10,000 hairdressers.

Today, she runs her own hair salon, Butterfly Pond, located in the over-100-year-old heritage building, Royal Terrace. Agnes points out that the overseas Chinese community is usually very enterprising, and most Chinese-Indians have set up their own businesses. Unlike many Chinese-Indians, she entered into an arranged marriage with another Chinese from Kolkata. Her nine-year-old daughter, a fourth-generation Chinese, was born in Mumbai.

Edward Wang, another young third-generation Chinese-Indian, is also extremely busy, expanding and modernising the restaurant — China Garden — which his father started in Mumbai. What does he think about young Chinese in India and their social interactions? “I don’t have a single Chinese friend, though I have a few acquaintances,” explains the 32-year-old. According to him, there is an increasing trend of Chinese marrying Indians

“Two sons of one my employees married Indian girls. Another employee’s son married a Nepali girl,” says Wang, who is single. His father, Nelson Wang, started life as a shoemaker in Hyderabad. He came to Mumbai with less than Rs50, and began working at a restaurant. He pioneered the concept of Indian-Chinese cuisine, creating dishes like Chicken Manchurian. Other restaurateurs have honed these skills, churning out meals like Gobi Manchurian, Chinese-bhel and chilli-fried tofu.

While many young Chinese-Indians have chosen to migrate to the West or Australia and New Zealand, there is a clutch of professionals who continue to thrive in India and have no plans to leave the land their forefathers made their home 200 years ago.

Mumbai’s China Syndrome
Nithin Belle
nithin@khaleejtimes.com

Comments

  1. jimmy chen says:

    I am the old friend of Mr. Nelson Wang, I want to say Hello to him thru this E-mail. Thanks

  2. vivek says:

    There was an interesting incidence in mumbai, as me and my fren driving through mumbai we spent some time in beach candy after that we went straight and came to china garden, i believe it belong to the gentle man named above, anyway thats beside the point. we were casually dress my fren was wearing shorts and we were on sandals but clean. It was late around 10pm we thought lets try the food in CG. heard a lot about the place, so we went. As we enter the gate the receptionist looked at us as if we were beggar came for collection, anyway we told them that we were looking for a table for two. A steward came to us and told us politely that there is no table available, My fren pointed out in the corner there were few tables empty, he told us those were booked, The steward told us there is a waiting room outside if you can sit there. I thought we have to wait for a while for the table to be free. So we went an sit, The steward got the menu and asked us if we can have the food here. We got mad but didnt say anything, felt like saying that we have enough monies in our pocket to hire him for a month to do house chore, anyway i knew he wouldnt agree. Glade there was a nice chinese restaurnt on the other side of the bridge, food was also very good, forgot the name.

  3. ycl1688 says:

    Vivek,

    This kind of restaurant refusing customers should not survive. I know some restaurants mention without shirts and footwear they have the rights to refuse service. Well you did the right time. Japanese business man once said ‘ you can chase a customer easy, but gaining one customer is hard’.

  4. lee Sen says:

    Maybe the beggar in mumbai are well dressed enough to look like both of you, just joke!
    yes ycl they survived because there is not enough compitition in there business, other wise they have to put big banner saying ‘Coustomer Is Our God’. have you’ll seen it in indian shops ?

  5. ron says:

    vivek & all,

    you should feel happy with your uninviting experience at china garden in mumbai when you hear mine & others’ similar experiences at a chinese restaurant in london chinatown (leister square) by the name of wang kee. this is a “world” famous eatery and everyone will share the same experience there no matter who you are.

    the restaurant is mediocre with 3 floors of seating area in an old rundown typical english building with a basement. because the prices of food are cheap and come in big plates, it is a good eating place for overseas chinese students who find good value for monies. however, it is mostly patronized by locals and office goers in the vicinity.

    during lunch time, it is virtually packed. do you know how they serve you ? the plates, saucer, cup, spoon, fork, knives and chopsticks are flung on to you at the table. if you have heart ailment, you may instantly have heart attacks. they don’t entertain you for additional serving items like extra spoons, forks etc and the attitude of all waiters is the same, i.e. extremely hyper.

    you are very lucky to get a seat to sit and share your table with others.

    the restaurant is also called: upstairs and downstairs restaurant. please read on.

    Upon entering the restaurant, you will be met by very rude waiters who will bark at you to say: upstairs. So here you go to the first floor, then you will be told: upstair again. the same thing happens as you move from first, second and third floor. so when you are in third floor and when there is still no seating there, then the waiter will say: downstairs. again, the same thing happens all over until you reach the ground floor when you will be told to go to the basement.

    lastly, as you come up from the basement still with no seating available. the waiter on the ground floor will then tell you: out you go.

    isn’t that a great adventure in order to get some chinese food. by the time when you are out in the street, you will feel so humiliated and disgusted that you don’t even have any more mood to eat because your stomach is already filled with anger of defeat.

    so that is wang kee. remember to try it when you travel to london next time.

    bon appetit.

  6. ycl1688 says:

    Ron,

    Thanks for your warning. Since you mentioned the restaurant in Chinatown, once I read in travel books mentioning ‘Honolulu chinatown is the friendliest chinatowns of the world’. Yes, seeing is believing, the attitude is different. I know in hawaii, people have lots of aloha spirit-goodwill to others. No offense to cantonese, it is the attitude of Hong Kong people, that give the chinatowns the bad name. Sometimes you feel like you are begging for their food. They treat customers like dirt.

  7. ron says:

    hi vivek,

    want to share a strict dress-code experience i had with my indian chinese friend at an indian restaurant in singapore. this friend was seconded to singapore from u.s. by mnc.

    this indian restaurant is well-kinown and is within a 6-star hotel (sorry, it’s too long ago, i forgot their names – restaurant & hotel). in hot, sunny and humid singapore, as usual, we went there in polo t, shorts and sandals.

    we have to walk through several floors of branded shops in a smart shopping mall annexed to the hotel.

    upon arrival, we were greeted by two indian waiters who checked on our dress, which we did not know that they have a dress-code requirement. before we left for another restaurant, the waiters asked us if we would not mind wearing their lungi dhoti provided to enter the restaurant, which we did – covering on top of our shorts.

    so, on that basis, we had our lunch there. however, the food was so so to me, comparing to the total bill.

    dress code is a requirement in many restaurants nowadays in the far east. especially for dinners, some restaurants need gentlemen to be in suit & ties with jacket. some may even require wearing a tuxedo.

  8. ycl1688 says:

    vivek,

    ever try these in mumbai ? how good it is ? let’s us know.

    http://www.geobeats.com/videoclips/india/mumbai/street-food

  9. vivek says:

    mmmmmmmmmm made my mouth water ycl. thanks my favourite topic.
    love the paw bhaji of mumbai, I have been sampling the street food in vivekananda park (evening) near southen avenue now meghnad saha road. which is 15 min drive from my place. Spicy aloo dum is hot, dahi puri was similar to the curry puri of mumbai with dahi on top of the puris……
    In olden days we used to go very often, in a quest to discover new street food. Well have to tell you the truth, we had to sample a lot of not so tasty one before laying our tongue in a good one.
    I request readers to share info on street food so that, we dont have to sample every thing to find something nice.
    Thanks ron for the information im sure it will be very useful when i travel to UK and singapore. Definitely i will keep a lungi handy as indan food is hard to find abroad.

  10. vivek says:

    Hey guys misinterpreted the curry puri= dahi puri of mumbai is similar to kolkata.

  11. ycl1688 says:

    Vivek,

    Good to know your liking for good food. The Admin of this blog has been so good to us. He has created forum for us to discuss any topic except certain obscene topics to our content. So kindly click on to the forum on top, we will go from there. There we have more room, I will set up more mouth watering dishes articles, videos and pictures. This much I can guarantee you.

  12. vivek says:

    Firstly i would like to apologise to every one and ycl. I agree that my language went offtrack, i thought it would add some spice to the topic. This has become a common trend in tv commercial and often i see it in other entertainment media. if i can remember it started with AXE perfume commercial, after its success many followed just recently i saw a KFC commercial launch their Krusher Drink commercial with the same concept.
    Sorry to everyone and ycl i hope there is room for forgiveness.

  13. vivek says:

    Hi guys here is the link for KFC Krusher ad!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkH-lFUBejQ
    i hope it justify’s

  14. ycl1688 says:

    Vivek,

    Do not apologize for not doing anything wrong. I guess my write up is Forum is the way to go. Keep up your good work.

  15. Alex says:

    Hi vivek,
    Nice ad by KFC, Like the concept, you should have seen those in europe, they are more provocative. Some of them is so wierd that u will be wondering what was the product they r promoting. Still feel indian ad r much better.

  16. lee Sen says:

    Hi vivek,
    Talk about sharing favourite street food spot, you should try the morning market in tarita market near central, you will get chinese dumplings, soups etc (be there before7am). it has been a long time since i was in kolkata but im confident it is still available. Curry puri is also available, its call kamla puchka and you will only find it there no where else in india i guess.
    ycl dont be so hard on vivek, Im sure you have scared the hell out of him. Poor guy is a big fan of chinese food,
    Even i have notice that aloha spirit is lacking in the people, thats why they got a bad name, you are right.

  17. lee Sen says:

    Hi everyone,
    I have found this commercial topic interesting.
    here are some of the outrageously funny commercial from the west.
    viewer discretion is adviced.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DvBfLeOY2Y
    Enjoy….

  18. ycl1688 says:

    Lee Sen,

    I have no intention to hurt anybody’s feeling. I do not bite and do not claw.
    All I am asking everyone is there is lot more room in Forum section (above caption has Forum) to discuss more topics.

    Wherever you are Vivek, you are such a talented writer, hope you do not waste your talent and write more. I know you love all things chinese, that is what we want to hear from you. Here Lee sen has recommended more goody from Tirette.

  19. vivek says:

    Hi ycl thanks for the high opinion, Sorry I was away bcos had some professional work and was tied up with it. Thanks lee for the info i will try to get there, when i get the chance its a bit early and quite far from my place.
    It might appear from my writing to everyone that im trying to outsmart everyone. Honestly that is not true, only an idiot and stupid will try to outsmart others, im here to gain knowledge and learn some chinese culture which im very impress with and have very high regards. So there is no doubt it is the best.

  20. ycl1688 says:

    Hi vivek,

    Kamla puchka selling morning puri in the market area, while at evening around 5-7pm he has another roadside stall behind welland goldsmith school selling puchka, by the gully leads to chinatown. it is the best of the best, for decades amongst the chinese community it is considered the most famous puchka. started by two brothers this is the second generation. It is not ordinary puchka, it is finger licking good ( to borrow from KFC ad).

  21. vivek says:

    Thanks ycl again, i will visit on sunday its the only day i can go, being busy on weekdays. Something i have to try since you have mention its the best of the best. my mouth is already watering.

  22. SUPROTIM PAKRASI says:

    Hi,

    I wish to get in touch with Mr. Pin San Chen (I hope I have got the spelling right). He was affectionately called Chang. Chang & I were classmates in Don Bosco High School, Matunga, Mumbai. We passed SSC in 1978 but since then I have lost contact with him.

    Thanks
    Supro

  23. simon says:

    Hi everyone, recently I was in mumbai and discovered that custard is available in most of the restaurant. I have found in every restaurant in have visited. They are really delicious. Anyone travelling to mumbai should try it.
    Just thought it can be a useful information.

  24. Rupali says:

    Hi,

    We are a Construction Company and currenlty looking out for a person who can interpert Chinese Language into Hindi or English.

    can please help in this.

    Please call for the same on 9623447086

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