Tangra – The Resilient Community

Few years ago, passing by the E.M. Bypass road would make Kolkatans cover their nose in disgust due to the pungent smell of the leather chemicals. But today, Kolkatans love the smell emitted from this little town called “Tangra” (China Town). Yes, it is the smell of the Chilly Chickens and the Manchurian Chickens that make them travel from all parts of the city and indulge in what they believe is the most authentic Chinese food they can get in India. Traffic would become hectic especially during the weekends as you see swarm of cars trying to enter into the small gullies where all the restaurants are situated.

“Nobody wanted to come to Tangra during the 1970s, it was unsafe and dirty … with no business opportunities apart from being a labourer at the leather factory for a meagre salary. Today, it has become a restaurant district!” recalls Mr. Chen who now owns one of the oldest restaurants in Tangra, Kafulok. Life was difficult for this little harmless Indian Chinese community especially when the Indo-Sino War broke out 1962; they were packed like herds and sent to detention camps in Rajasthan, some of the elderly Chinese who could not take the trauma died before they reached their destination. “There was a general suspicion against the Chinese though they had been settled in India for a very long time. They picked up all the Indian Chinese early one morning in November 1962 and packed us in a cowshed,” reminisces Mr. Chen, former Pei Moi schoolmaster, who was then seventeen years old and was sent to the persecution camp in Rajasthan and later deported back to China.

Nevertheless, this community survived its existence and have laboured hard to contribute to Bengal’s economy especially during the early 1990’s when the leather industries flourished. Tangra suddenly became a land of opportunities for many Indian workers from the neighbouring states like Bihar, employing over 10,000 workers, helping them make their ends meet.

There are two distinct Chinese areas in Calcutta. The ethnic Hakka settled into the eastern part, in Tangra, and went into shoemaking and leather-tanning; Bow Bazar, in the north, home to Cantonese beauty salons and restaurants, Toi-Sanese furniture factories, and Fukkianese dentists and merchants.

However, the birth of the new millennium came with another blow from the Bengal government that came down heavily on the operation of these tanneries and was forced to shift their tannery to ‘Bantala’, which is about 17 km away from Tangra with very poor infrastructure.

This civilisation survived yet again, this time it was in the form of food. Today, a sizable section of the Hakka Chinese people earn their livelihood from restaurants; many of them were converted from tanneries after the then Bengal government shut it down due to the strict environmental laws.

The Chinese people moved on with food, they brought in their culinary skills and habit and managed to flow the change. It is no surprise that Tangra Chinese today is associated with its delicious food that the Bengal people cannot resist. Ask any one in Kolkata where they can find great Chinese food and I am sure they will come up with ‘Tangra‘.

An interview with the head Chef of Taj Bengal, Chef Lian Yun Lei, revealed how much the Indian people love the Chinese food; “Indian people are very passionate about their food and Chinese cuisine is the most popular among the international cuisines present in this country” says Chef Lian who came to India from Shanghai 7 years ago, perhaps a reflection of how well his cooking has been embraced and cemented in this part of the country.

Even Chinese breakfast are very popular among the early risers of the city, who go to Teritti Bazaar (off the Western Street) early morning for some lip smacking Chinese breakfast. You will be spoilt for choice with items like Momos, Steam dumplings, Chinese buns, Fish balls, and the list goes on. It is similar to the night market you see in the oriental countries, except this happens in the early morning. Many Chinese women still earn their living by selling breakfast at the Chinese market in Tangra, 65 year old Mrs. Hou still continues to sell “Sou Mai” (fish and pork dim sum) which is very popular even among the Chinese community. Other Chinese family earn their livelihood through their family owned shops like dry cleaning, beauty parlours and shoe shops. There are even some who earn their living by practising acupuncture, dentistry and as Feng Shui consultants.

The Chinese people celebrate the Chinese New Year in a very vibrant and traditional way. Like the Durga Puja in Bengal, celebrations can go on for a week. If you happened to be in Kolkata during the month of January- February, do find out about when the Chinese New Year celebration occurs in that year. In Tangra, you will be able to see the traditional Chinese dragon dance which breathes an indescribable liveliness into the Chinese New Year celebrations ever year. The beating of drums echoes through the air, as the dancers sway ferociously to keep step with every beat. The crowd, comprising of both Indians and Chinese, are mesmerised by the effortless twisting and undulating of the giant dragon. The frenetic energy will make you move along with the music and soon you will realise that you are in the middle of the most important festival for the Chinese all over the world. During this time, Chinese who used to live in Kolkata but have migrated to some other countries would return to their home town to meet their families and join the fun that the Chinese New Year has to bring. There is also the two-day fete and of course, all the lip-smacking Chinese food to look forward to during this festival.

There are about 200 families that still live in Tangra today. Not many know that Tangra have the only hand written Indian Chinese news paper in the world named “Overseas Chinese Commerce of India”. The first issue hit the stands way back on March 10, 1969. Since then, it has carried news from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan which the diasporas, particularly elderly readers, savour at leisure. Articles and news reports are mainly culled from Taiwan’s Central Daily News and China’s People’s Daily. Another major source of news is Hong Kong radio stations. Apart from a popular column announcing births, marriages and deaths in the shrinking community, the newspaper also carries an occasional ad. Predominantly black and white, it goes red to mark the Lunar New Year and other special occasions.

Of course, you have various Buddhist temples situated in this small town since most Chinese are Buddhist by religion. Interestingly, there is even a Roman Catholic Church and a ‘Chinese Kali Temple’ in a Chinese populated area – an indication of how well this community has embraced the gift of secularism in India.

So, next time you visit Tangra (Chinatown) for your meals, do take a time out to explore this little town which is rich in its history and have become an integral part of Bengal over the years. Take a walk around the lanes and visit their homes, you might just be invited for some home-made rice wine! Cheers!

Compiled By : Benjamin Kuo

Source: https://www.facebook.com/notes/%E9%83%AD%E8%8B%B1%E9%B5%AC/china-town-tangra/392811077093