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Chini in the mishti doi

Soumitra Das | Updated on April 27, 2018

In repose: Sea Voi Coon Koon cemetery on New Tangra Road is the one Kolkata’s Chinese community mainly uses for last rites, which have been simplified down the years   -  IMAGE: AMIT DATTA

Hymns and rhymes The opulent Nam Soon church on Damzen Lane dates back to 1820. A school for local children has operated out of it since 1943

Hymns and rhymes: The opulent Nam Soon church on Damzen Lane dates back to 1820. A school for local children has operated out of it since 1943   -  AMIT DATTA

Cheek by jowl with tiled-roof hovels and rundown offices in the heart of Kolkata are fragments of Chinese living heritage — opulent shrines that double as social clubs. Jealously guarded and preserved by the dwindling Indian-Chinese community, they hark back to a Chinatown where thriving businesses vied with gambling houses, opium dens and gangsters

Even 20 years ago, Chinese funeral processions were a familiar sight in central Kolkata’s Bentinck Street, Lalbazar and the Poddar Court areas — the brass bands, clanging cymbals, the next of kin in sackcloth trailing the hearse, and led by folks holding aloft pant and shirt pieces tied to bamboo poles. Like the vanishing Chinese shoe shops, these too are only found in photographs and memories of the city’s old Chinatown, a quarter that once throbbed with the mystery and romance of gambling houses, opium dens and gangsters.

Located behind Rabindra Sarani (earlier Lower Chitpur Road), the old Chinatown is still home to a handful of Chinese and their ways of living, 58 years after a malodorous warren of khola chal baris, or tiled-roof hovels, was razed to the ground by the Kolkata Improvement Trust (KIT) to make way for India Exchange Place Extension and the aspirational office buildings of the KIT and Calcutta Telephones. Their forefathers first arrived at Achipur in Budge Budge, on the southern periphery of the city, back when the East India Company had pocketed the Indian subcontinent, and Warren Hastings was its ruler. Kolkata was the capital, and people from all over the world came here to try their luck. New Chinatown came up in Tangra, on the city’s eastern fringes, long ago. However, if one is trying to trace the roots of the cultural heritage of the Indian-Chinese, one has to return to the heart of the city. Here, nestled amidst a network of lanes and roads with names like Phear’s Lane, Chhattawala Gali, Tiretta Bazar Street, Blackburn Lane and Damzen Lane, are the many Chinese temples that still serve as social clubs for a people whose lives were shrouded in secrecy, not uncommon among minorities who jealously guard their identity. Digging into their past, one gets a clearer picture of a once-cosmopolitan Kolkata of resident Jews, Armenians and the Chinese.

These temple-clubs are in Wards 43 and 44 of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) area, and five of them are Grade I heritage buildings. To quote the KMC guidelines: “No external change will be permissible. Use of the building should also be compatible with the category of the heritage buildings.”

Fortunately, though small, the Indian-Chinese community is well aware of its duty to preserve its heritage and, from time to time, the ancient temple-clubs are given facelifts. Their efforts to embalm their ancient legacy set a wonderful example for negligent mainstream communities.

Like Kolkata’s Jewish people, who also lived in this neighbourhood, its Chinese population peaked to at least 20,000 around World War II, the influx triggered by the Japanese invasion and civil war back home. The Cantonese from Guangdong, the Hakkas from Meixian county, the Hupeh and the Shangdong were the main groups that sought refuge in Kolkata.

There were several Hokkien families too, at one time, but their cemetery at Dhapa has today vanished. The factionalism spilt over from the home country and, on Chinese New Year, when the Lion Dance started, fights broke out among different groups.

Table for four: At the Gee Hing church on Blackburn Lane, afternoons are given over to a game of mah-jong

Table for four: At the Gee Hing church on Blackburn Lane, afternoons are given over to a game of mah-jong   -  IMAGE: AMIT DATTA

 

 

 

The hardworking and enterprising Chinese became synonymous with trades like carpentry, the shoe and leather industry, restaurants, laundries and beauty parlours.

But they received a huge jolt when the Red Chinese army invaded India in 1962. The Indian government imprisoned without trial thousands of Indian-Chinese at Deoli in Rajasthan. Many of them were not released until 1967, by when several had died. That is when the Indian-Chinese — their forefathers had married Indian women from Nepal, Assam, Sikkim and Lepchas — lost faith in their adoptive home and sought for a way out of India. Today only about 2,000 are left in Kolkata, of whom about 1,000 live in central Kolkata. They converse in a patois that is a mix of Hindi and Chinese.

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Chen Yao Hua is the president of the Voiling Club, at the Yune Leong Futh church. The “church” — a misnomer imposed on these shrines by the KMC under British rule — is a splash of blood red, gold and black, like all Chinese shrines. Both club and temple are housed in the same building, which is a Grade I heritage structure. It has freshly painted red walls. Chen is in charge of the temple too.

Firm footing: The Hakka Indian-Chinese, who were largely shoemakers, have their Choong Ye Thong church   -  IMAGE: AMIT DATTA

 

The 63-year-old businessman, with interests in carpentry and interior design, says donations from the community and offerings at the temple had helped fund the recent restoration of the 110-year-old building. Rising damp is its main enemy, as it is for the other ancient structures here.

The Hupeh Association is on the first floor. The ground floor once housed a dormitory for single workers who had left their families behind in the Chinese mainland. The dormitory later remained vacant for 30 years, until the Sei Vui restaurant took its place. Voiling Club is a large, near-empty hall with the Yune Leong Futh church on its western corner. On one wall hangs a huge, life-like charcoal portrait of Sun Yat Sen, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. The shrine is dedicated to Yune and Leong, whom Chen describes as powerful deities who grant every wish of supplicants. No wonder the Chinese of Singapore and Malaysia worship the duo whenever they are in town. There are seven such temple-clubs in old Chinatown, and each has its own cemetery either in the Tangra or Beliaghata area where members of the community pay homage to their forefathers.

The majority of the Indian-Chinese converted to Christianity — it facilitates admission to good schools — but they continue to worship their ancestors and other deified human beings at these temples. Set amidst a sprawl of jhopdis (shanties) belonging to settlers from Bihar is Sea Ip, a spectacular Chinese temple andGrade I structure. It is ensconced between the two arms of the KIT building. In the 1960s, the artist- writer Desmond Doig wrote about it in his bookAn Artist’s Impression: It has “always been the most Chinese looking building in Chinatown. It was built in 1905, by specially imported craftsmen. Large porcelain fish still balance tail-up on the roof. The original tiles remain, though the two handsome finials are gone.” As is evident from the accompanying sketch, even in the 1960s, Sea Ip temple was inseparable from a garbage dump.

Along with the porcelain fish, the exoticism of Sea Ip is gone too. Its roof is bilious green plastic, and the walls of the expansive club room on the ground floor are covered with bathroom tiles in an attempt to halt the invading damp. Beautifully carved antique chairs are arranged haphazardly, gathering dust.

The golden shrine upstairs is dazzling. Ancient weaponry hangs from two walls alongside a drum. A constellation of twinkling LED lights shines behind the idols. A replica of a shipping vessel on a turbulent sea hangs from the ceiling.

 

The altar has exquisite carvings of human figures, phoenix, roosters, crabs and equestrians. The keeper of the temple, Hoi Wah, a tiny grey-haired man of indeterminate age, beats the drum with a deafening crash. Devotees lay out their offerings — biscuits, fruits and whiskey — on a table before the altar, and light joss sticks. Hoi Wah, who chain-smokes beedis, claims the KIT would have destroyed this temple too, had the once-popular Nanking Chinese restaurant not gone to court to stop it.

That explains why the KIT building is L-shaped, steering clear of the temple. He points to some of the unkempt khola chal baris that have survived the bulldozing of old Chinatown, including one with the curious name of Japanese Building.

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With a garbage dump separating it from the temple, and tucked behind the Calcutta Telephones highrise, is a double-storey dun-maroon building, whose ground floor once housed the classy Nanking restaurant. Going by the prominently displayed numerals on the terrace, the building at 22 Blackburn Lane is of 1924 vintage. The top floor is the Toong On church, of which few knew even years after the restaurant had closed down. The powerful Au family had started the restaurant in 1924, but Cantonese immigrants from Guangdong had bought the land earlier, in 1917, and the temple had been built in 1924. The elders of the community had allowed the Aus to open the restaurant on the ground floor purely on trust. Later, however, one of the restaurant’s owners, Au Yau Wau, tried to sell off the heritage property by claiming to have its papers.

The temple trustees resisted the attempt in 2006. Two members of the club — Li Hon Kaung and Wang Liang Sen — wrote to the then municipal corporation commissioner, alleging that Au Yau Wau had conspired with a local developer to turn the property into a mall; many priceless antiques had allegedly vanished too from the building. The community regained possession in 2012.

The double-storey building has two gargantuan halls. A giant statue of the Buddha now occupies the ground floor in place of the restaurant tables. Li Hon Kaung takes me to the shrine on the first floor. There is little else in the shrine apart from an image of the ubiquitous warrior god Kuan Ti brandishing a huge sword alongside his sworn brothers Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, great generals of the Eastern Han period, and remnants of the delicate vine-like burnished woodwork framing the altar. Despite repeated protests, garbage is still dumped in front of the building, and the empty front yard becomes a parking lot once the temple closes for the day.

Boyishly slim Dominic Lee, 58, who has led a sustained campaign against the garbage dumping, owns Pou Chong Food Products, a leading manufacturer of noodles and sauces. He says his grandfather was a herbal doctor, and his father invented green chilli sauce. Forty years ago, only five-star hotels stocked noodles, so his father did the rounds of other eateries to popularise the Chinese staple among them. Back then, barely two manufacturers were enough to meet the entire community’s requirement. Today, the city boasts nearly 100 noodles manufacturers, mostly Indian.

Lee remembers the time Jewish people lived in the area, and points to a plaque on a new building that reads: “Former site of Maghen Aboth Synagogue and Yesheebath. Jacob Benjamin Elias, ETB, 1940-2007”.

The Chinese shrines, on the other hand, have largely managed to survive the passage of time. Explaining the community’s deep bond with them, Lee says, “The Chinese worship their deified ancestors and tutelary deities as part of traditional Chinese religion and Confucian philosophy of filial piety, which calls for respect for elders and ancestors.”

A smaller Toong On church stands at 2 Bow Street — a sliver of a weatherbeaten three-storey structure — cramped between two bigger houses. Each floor contains two rooms, each occupied by a Chinese family. The top floor hosts a tiny shrine dedicated to Kuan Ti.

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At one time, Blackburn Lane used to snake its way through old Chinatown, but after the 1960s it was dismembered, as the India Exchange Place Extension forced its way through the shanties. Many of the smaller Chinese temples are located on its northern side.

Deep inside Chinatown, beyond Blackburn Lane, at 13 Damzen Lane is the Nam Soon church (Grade I heritage). A school for local children has operated out of it since 1943. Tucked in a corner, it is easy to miss but for the Chinese characters above its doorway. Inside is a forecourt, a shrine beyond that, and the school on the left. Children rush out, and a burkha-clad woman waits for her ward. Owing to the dwindling Chinese population, the community’s schools teach only English. The church here was set up in 1820. The club has 60 members. Ho Yuan That, a powerfully built 65-year-old man, who is the president of this club and the church, says Nam Soon clubs exist everywhere in the world where the Chinese have gone. The opulent shrine with awe-inspiring woodwork and weaponry is dedicated to a multitude of gods. Locked up in an anteroom is an array of carved wood and veined marble furniture that is expectedly worth its weight in gold.

History bites: Built by Cantonese immigrants, Toong On church once housed the classy Nanking restaurant   -  AMIT DATTA

 

 

Closer to the main road, at 13 Blackburn Lane is the Gee Hing church (Grade I), above the office of a carpentry shop. A signboard near the terrace dates it to 1920, although it is known that the shrine was already in existence at another location in 1888. The shrine is small and lacklustre, shorn of its former dazzling beauty. The antique carved chairs are still around, though, and, in the afternoons, members play mah-jong.

Originally, it was the Hakka Chinese who made shoes, and about 90 years ago they started tanning leather. HL David Chen, 56, is the secretary of the Choong Ye Thong organisation representing this community. Like most of the younger Indian-Chinese, he has a good command over English. We met in the large three-storey building on Meredith Street that earlier housed the Mei Kuang High School, where Chen too had studied. On the terrace is a small shrine dedicated to Kwan Ti (Kwan Kung), the god of loyalty and righteousness, who is worshipped in the southern coast of China.

The Hakka association in Kolkata, he says, used to buy properties to establish clubs, and notable among these are the alms house and the original club house in Blackburn Lane, adjacent to the Gee Hing church. Earlier, the alms house was used as a funeral parlour, but now the community mainly uses the one in Tangra for last rites, which have been simplified down the years.

The only temple in Chinatown that does not double as a club is the Choonghee Dong Thien Haue Miao (Grade I) at 17 Tiretta Bazar Street. It belongs to the Hakkas (miao is Hakka for temple) and is dedicated to Thien Haue, Queen of Heaven. The red-and-gold shrines on the first floor are dedicated to ancestors and several deities. Chen says it was constructed in two phases in 1831 and 1834, and was renovated about four years ago. At its entrance is a plaque referring to a court case (Suit No 348 of 1908), important enough to be so memorialised. Strongly suggestive of skulduggery, it reminds us that chicanery is nothing new.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on April 27, 2018
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