It was the arrival of one Tong Achew in the late 18th century and the setting up of his sugar manufacturing plant that led to more of the community arriving in Calcutta (Kolkata) and settling down as professionals in various fields, from dentistry to beauty parlours, carpentry to leather tanning and shoe making, etc. They created their own little town in the heart of the city and gradually expanded its dining choices. Although, owing to various reasons, many of the Chinese families have moved away from Kolkata, you can still get a look into the cultural aspects of the community during the Chinese New Year.
Explore Tiretta Bazar
Named after Edward Tiretta, an Italian employee of the English East India Company, this central Kolkata neighbourhood gradually became a stronghold of the Chinese community in the city. A second China Town came up in the eastern fringe of the city (in Tangra) after a large section of the population, especially those associated with the leather and tanning business moved there. The old quarter is still full of character. Of course, you need a nerve of steel to walk past the open butcher shops and the piles of garbage. But the reward of the walk is worth it, as you discover the old Chinese temples, clubs, restaurants, shoe and carpentry shops, sauce and spice factories, and more.
Visit the Temple of Earth God and Goddess, Bow to Tong Achew
This temple is visited by members of the Chinese community on the Sunday after the Lunar New Year. Dedicated to the Earth God and Goddess (Khuda and Khudi), it is located on the southern fringe of Kolkata, at Achipur (near Budge Budge). On that day, apart from various rituals, the long table in front of the altar is loaded with food offerings, including tea and wine, cakes, fruits, noodles, dressed chicken, and suckling pigs. Later, the food is consumed by the visiting members as part of a picnic lunch.
Note: People outside of the Chinese community are not barred from entering the temple so long as they do not disrupt those at prayer, or the rituals, or touch the food offerings.
According to old records, Atchew or Tong Achew was the first Chinese to settle down in Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known as) in the late 18th century. He received a parcel of land from the East India Company’s Governor General Warren Hastings where he set up a sugar manufacturing plant. The plant apparently shut down some time later. But it had opened the way for more Chinese people to seek their fortune in a city then famous as the capital of the East India Company in India. A short drive away from the Temple of the Earth God and Goddess is a peculiar horseshoe-shaped grave on the banks of the Hooghly River. It is also frequented by the members of the community after their visit to the temple in Achipur.
Catch the Lion
Lion dance is one of the key attractions of the Chinese New Year. Although there is no fixed time, the dancers, accompanied by a party of drummers, go around the old Chinese quarters of Tiretta Bazar, visiting the temples and homesteads and performing impromptu dances at street corners. The colourful dragons, many in fluorescent hues, leap and jostle to the crowds’ delight. Suddenly there will be a loud cheer and a clash of drums, and you turn around to see a group of young people running ahead with a wiggling dragon held aloft by poles. The activities are not as easy as they seem. Preparations and practice take months of hard work. You may also catch some of the elderly reading a Chinese newspaper printed locally, and most are open to conversations.
Visit the traditional Chinese temples
Join the Chinese community as they visit the temples scattered in the neighbourhood. Some of the old temples located in Tiretta Bazar are Toong On (Nan King restaurant – now shut – which opened on its premises back in 1924 is said to be the first Chinese eatery in Kolkata), Sea Ip, Gee Hing, Nam Soon, Sea Voi Yune Leong Futh, and Choonghee Dong Thien Haue. Dedicated to various indigenous gods and goddesses, these temples were mostly built in the 19th century. The traditional décor, votive objects and other artefacts will tell you how the community tried to recreate their own little China Town in their adopted homeland.
Enjoy Kolkata’s version of Chinese food
Although many of the old Chinese eateries have closed down or adapted themselves to a new avatar, enjoy a meal at those which are still running. According to most records, people from different areas in China migrated to Kolkata and settled in a particular occupation. Over time, the cuisine also adapted itself to local influences. Thus evolved the typical Kolkata Chinese cuisine, and we do not mean the Indian Chinese dishes that have emerged at sundry eateries to cater to local taste. One of the popular restaurants here is Sei Vui, which was created out of a more-than-a-century-old Chinese dormitory, which would have otherwise bitten the dust. The restaurant is in the same building that houses the Yune Leong Futh Church.
Note: Many of the small restaurants may remain closed or their timings may vary. So check before going.