As the Chinese people around the world bid a subdued goodbye to the Year of the Rat (2020) and welcome the Year of the Ox (Year of the Metal Ox), the pandemic has indeed taken the sheen off this year’s celebration in Kolkata. There will be fewer public celebrations, according to several members of the city’s ethnic Chinese community. This year, the Chinese (Lunar) New Year is on February 12.
An integral part of Kolkata’s multicultural character, the ethnic Chinese in Kolkata have been known for their contribution to the economic growth of the city. The first Chinese to arrive in Kolkata was Atchew or Tong Achew, according to most records, in the late 18th century. Although the sugar factory he set up on a parcel of land given to him by Governor General Warren Hastings of the East India Company shut down, the enterprise paved the way for more Chinese people to seek their fortune in Calcutta (as the city was then known as). Chinese by ethnic origin, they gradually integrated themselves into the Indian framework.
“I am more Bengali than mainland Chinese,” said Janice Lee, a fourth generation Indian-Chinese born and brought up in Kolkata. “My grandfather was the founder of Pou Chong Sauces, where he pioneered and made the Green Chilli Sauce. This sauce is a bestseller and people, especially in Kolkata, use it in the famous Kolkata kathi rolls.”
“In Chinese traditions, CNY is the time when all get-togethers happen,” said Lee. “In Kolkata, especially the Indian-Chinese community, is a small diaspora and very close knit. During CNY, lion and dragon groups would visit door-to-door, offering their prayers and wishing the family good luck and good health,” she explained.
A key element of the private celebrations is when family members get together for a meal. “A feast is prepared and placed on a round table where the entire family sits together and have these special foods. Noodles are a must as they signify and symbolises good health and longevity. Families clean the whole house before the New Year and celebrate and give offerings to ancestors,” said Lee.
Although the number of Chinese families have dwindled over the past few decades, Kolkata still has two Chinatowns, the older one located around Tiretta Bazar in central Kolkata and the other one in Tangra on the eastern fringe of the city. During the Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival), the Chinese homes are spruced up and gaily decorated, Chinese restaurants gear up with special offers (though some of the smaller Chinese establishments may have truncated opening hours or remain closed) and young people hold energetic lion dances, going around the neighbourhood, visiting residential quarters, shops, etc. Public cultural programmes are also organised. Kolkatans can be seen flocking to the Chinatowns to enjoy the show.
However, this year, according to the Kolkata-based Indian Chinese Association for Culture, Welfare and Development, they are not organising the annual ‘Lion Dance Display & Cultural Show" this year.
But you may enjoy the Tangra Chinese Food Festival to be held at the Pei May Chinese High School on February 13 and 14, 2021. On February 14, there will be special performances and an acrobatic lion dance.
Interestingly, on the Sunday after the Lunar New Year, the Chinese community in Kolkata observe a unique ritual, visiting a town called Achipur, to the south of Kolkata. After offering prayers and ritual foods to the Earth God and Goddess (Khuda Khudi), they visit the grave of Tong Atchew on the banks of the Hooghly River.
If you are new to the city or looking for a guided walking tour through the Chinese neighbourhoods, you may join the paid tours being offered by Kolkata Explorers (contact: WhatsApp -+91 98740 62962) on Feb 12 (Retracing the Indian Chinese, Tiretta Bazar), Feb 13 (Retracing the Indian Chinese, Tangra), and Feb 14 (a tour that includes Achipur among other places). Immersive Trails is holding a virtual paid tour of Kolkata’s Chinatowns on February 27.
If you are looking for souvenirs, there is always the range of sauces from Pou Chong. You may also buy a few CNY decorations from them, for example, door stickers with images of the Door Gods, which are stuck on entrances on the eve of the New Year.
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However, do remember, all pandemic related protocols like wearing of masks, maintaining distance, and hand sanitisation have to be followed at all levels in public areas.