If you start walking along the modern Sun Yat-sen Street from Central Avenue in Kolkata today, you will find nothing remotely Chinese about it. Instead, your senses are assaulted by the constant honking of bumper-to-bumper traffic, derelict and semi-derelict buildings, and the buzz of van rickshaws hauling goods for the many logistics companies that have made their offices in some of the poorly built, featureless concrete monstrosities there. None of this will strike you as remarkable, and definitely not Chinese.
However, let us travel back to the 1870s. An Englishman walking these same streets, then known as Eden Hospital Street, was awestruck. He writes in his article (in The Englishman) about how it felt similar to walking the streets of Canton or Shanghai. How the Chinese shops, Chinese-style sloped roofed houses, and a host of Chinese paper lanterns welcomed the visitors to Old Chinatown near Tiretta’s Bazar in Calcutta*. He found this journey to be enriching for all his senses. The bustle of businesses and hand-pulled rickshaws that crowded the streets, the distinctive aroma of Cantonese cuisine coming out of the local, family run eating houses (equivalent to pice hotels in modern-day Kolkata) teased one’s senses. The language was unfamiliar. While Cantonese and Hakka dialects were commonly spoken and understood, there was almost no place for Bengali, English or Hindustani. It was a world unto its own. A self-contained bubble, it was a Chinatown through and through in its truest sense, at the heart of the Second City of the British Empire.
Leaving the modern-day, dishevelled Old Chinatown in Tiretta’s Bazar behind for the course of this journey, let us take a deep dive, instead, in this vibrant Chinatown of yore. Our story begins, like most other stories in Calcutta’s Chinatown, with the arrival of Tong Atchew, an original arrived with a Chinese junk full of tea in the Hooghly River in 1778. After long drawn out negotiations with the East India Company, Warren Hastings, then Governor General, agreed to grant Atchew and his compatriots land to settle and start a sugarcane plantation, sugar mill and a rum distillery in a place around 40 kms south of Calcutta. This would later be known as Achipur (or Atchew’s settlement). After initial years of struggle, the Cantonese settlement moved to central Calcutta – first in Dharmatala, and then near Tiretta’s Bazar by the late 1780s. Once here, the members of the Cantonese community settled in clans, with each clan tracing their origin to a single or a collection of closely knit villages or hamlets in and around Canton. Each clan built a temple and a community centre (known as huiguan) of their own, and purchased land first near Tiretta’s Bazar, and later near Tangra (which then bordered the East Kolkata Wetlands), to build their cemeteries. As a diaspora community involved in remittance economy, the members of the local Cantonese community were mostly men, who earned a living by practising carpentry, ship building and other crafts they were skilled at. At the end of each year, they would send a sizeable portion of their earnings back to their ancestral villages in the Canton region. But soon, following their success overseas, more members of the Cantonese community started arriving in Calcutta, exploiting family and clan connections, and many of them decided to settle here permanently, thus snapping ties with their ancestral homes. This resulted in the growth of a permanent Chinatown by the early 1800s in and around the Tiretta’s Bazar area. Soon, members of other Chinese communities, such as the Hakkas from Canton, Hupeh from Hubei, among others, started pouring in to Calcutta in search of a better life, married local Indo-Portuguese women (their wills are a fascinating read) and settled around Tiretta’s Bazar and the Bowbazar area.
Once a tapestry of Cantonese, Hakka and other Chinese communities settled permanently to form Calcutta’s Old Chinatown, the clan-based clubs, which were social organisations, started to take on a distinctly political character. The Toong On, Sea Ip, Choonhey Thong and Nam Soon clubs, all of which still exist, became meeting points for the male members of those clans. Here, apart from immediate social upliftment of the respective clans, contemporary politics in China and India were discussed and vocally debated. This was taken one step further in the 1850s and 60s, during the years of the Opium Wars in China, where the Chinese authority was brought to its knees repeatedly by an alliance of Western commercial interests. While the war was seen as unfair by the Chinese in Calcutta – and these clubs were instrumental in gathering money and other resources to help people in their family or clan networks to emigrate from war-torn South China Sea coast to the safety of Calcutta – it had also exposed the weakness of the Chinese monarchy. As a result, antimonarchy feelings started stirring in the Chinese diaspora of Calcutta.
By the 1870s, two competing secret societies appeared in Calcutta’s Old Chinatown – the Gee Hing (still extant) and the Ho Sing (the former run by the Cantonese majority and the latter run by the Hakka minority). Apart from race, they had a political point of contention. Those who clandestinely joined Gee Hing believed that the autocratic imperial government in China was responsible for the country’s current woes and humiliation. They started secretly plotting to overthrow the Chinese emperor and bring about a more democratic form of government. The Ho Sing, on the other hand, were thorough imperialists. They believed that the future of China could be secured, and its glory recovered under the leadership of a strong central monarchy. These two groups worked simultaneously among Calcutta’s Chinese community, garnering support and funds for their individual causes. These would make their way to China, fomenting rebellion, against or in support of the Chinese monarchy, in different parts of the country. These secret societies organised political killings of supporters of the rival faction. This also led to frequent gang fights on open streets. It was not until 1884, more than a decade of their foundation, that thepolice in Calcutta would come to know of their existence, when a major violent street encounter was busted and the leaders of both societies confessed their allegiances under police interrogation.
The early 1900s saw the simultaneous rise of violent and non-violent freedom movements in India, and the movement to rid China of its monarchy and establish a republican government. The Cantonese and Hakka clubs in the city started actively participating in favour of, or against, Sun Yat-sen’s call for unifying against imperial authority in China. Branches of Sun Yatsen’s Kuomintang started cropping up in Calcutta. There was a Hakka Branch on Metcalfe Street while the Cantonese Branch, later the Kuomintang Women’s Wing, came up at Chhatawallah Gali in the heart of Old Chinatown. In 1908, a few members of the Si Hui clan arrived in Calcutta from Canton, via Singapore. They were imbued with the republican spirit, and they also brought a large charcoal portrait of Sun Yat-sen. They founded the Voiling Club in Blackburn Lane (currently known as Sei Vui Club and Restaurant), and started gathering active support and donations to fund overthrowing the Chinese monarchy. Gee Hing, the branches of the Kuomintang and the Voiling Club, combined resources together to accommodate the refugees coming from China and send volunteers to participate in Sun Yat-sen’s rebellion in China. When the Republic of China was declared after overthrowing the monarchy on January 1, 1912, the news of Sun Yat-sen’s success was received in Calcutta’s Old Chinatown with much fanfare. A holiday was declared among the community, the new flag of the Republic of China was flown on the top of Chinese buildings and at Chinese shops, and all clubs organised a grand feast for their members. Curiously, there was also a bonfire of chopped-off pigtails on the Sun Yat-sen street, as a symbol of liberation from imperial rule.
Right after Sun Yat-sen’s success in China, his policy towards British India changed. The British Empire was historically responsible for the destruction of the Chinese economy and its impoverishment. Even though Sun Yat-sen remained an ally of the British superficially, he and his Kuomintang were committed in helping Indian freedom fighters in their struggle against the British. This resulted in the rallying of secret instructions among the Kuomintang branches and the Chinese clubs in Calcutta about supporting and sheltering Indian freedom fighters the best they could. Money and arms started to arrive secretly from China to be distributed among Bengali freedom fighters in Calcutta.
In 1913, a year after the triumph of Kuomintang, a high-level delegation visited Calcutta, and met members of the Bengali press, as well as Bengali intellectuals, in a closed-door meeting at their offices in Chhatawallah Gali. What was discussed here is not clear, but some of the Bengali intellectuals present, such as Shrish Chandra Mitra and Anukul Mukherjee, had allegiance to the Anushilan Samiti. On August 24, 1914, Mitra, Mukherjee and a few other members of the Anushilan Samiti met in a field adjacent to Chhatawallah Gali most likely under the watchful eyes and protection of the members of Kuomintang, to plan the looting of a shipment of Mauser pistols and ammunitions meant for Rodda and Company. Two days later, on August 26, 1914, the daring heist was successfully pulled off by the Bengali revolutionaries, making The Statesman christen it as the “greatest daylight robbery”.
The steady flow of arms, ammunition and money from China to Indian freedom fighters via Calcutta’s Chinatown continued till the political disruptions in China due to the Japanese invasion in the mid-1930s. Contemporary newspaper reports tell us about how the police back then was completely at a loss when it came to stemming the inflow of arms and ammunition from China. They had even cast a wide net of espionage which spread all across the South China Sea in order to disrupt the connection between Kuomintang and the Indian revolutionaries. Strict checks were implemented in the Calcutta port for any ship coming from China. In 1932, two Chinese passengers from Canton aboard an American ship were arrested at the Calcutta dockyards, before they cleared their customs checks. Six Italian-made pistols were recovered from them along with several hundred rounds of ammunition. After an extensive interrogation, they revealed that these were meant for the revolutionaries in Calcutta. Although the British police suspected Chinese connections with the revolutionaries for a long time, this was the first time they caught someone red-handed. The punishment was swift and exemplary. The Chinese passengers were booked under the notorious Terrorist Outrages Suppressions Act and were given six long years of rigorous imprisonment.
When we visit Calcutta’s Old Chinatown today, none of these stories leap out at us. The roads are there, as are the Chinese clubs and temples. The addresses where the Chinese political movement originated and where, later, Indian revolutionaries would find shelter, can also be located. But, they are all mute witnesses to the dereliction and destruction of Calcutta’s Old Chinatown and its multi-layered history. Chinatown in Calcutta is much more than its breakfast, its food and its annual lion dances or boat races. It has far more deeper connections with the city, and has contributed much to our collective history and politics.
*We have used Calcutta in this article wherever we have referred to the history and past of Chinatown. The term Kolkata was yet to be coined back then.
The author is Co-Founder and Director of Research, Immersive Trails.