Cheenapara is an enclave of Chinese origin people dating back to the 18th Century, and efforts are on to preserve its unique cultural heritage. Ranjita Biswas, while telling us the story, points out that the new initiative by conservationists and community participation can put it on the world map of heritage China Towns
The run-up to this year’s celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year Day on 22 January in Kolkata featured some new events such as workshops on paper lantern making and get-to-know-the-community sessions. This followed an awareness campaign starting with a ‘Know your Cheenapara’ heritage walk on January 15, World Monuments Watch Day.
Cheenapara or an area where there is a concentration of people of Chinese origin is located around Tiretta Bazar in Central Kolkata and dates back to the 18th Century. In 2022, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) named Tiretta Bazar one of the 25 heritage sites of extraordinary significance facing pressing challenges. It was the only nominated locality in India. WMF feels partnering with local communities can have positive consequences, and is pressing for conservation of the area’s built-up environment. It funded repairs to the roof of the Sea Ip Church in the area.
Tiretta Bazar has quite a few Chinese temples built in colonial times, including the Nam Soon temple built in 1820, Choonghee Thing Thien Haue (1858), and Gee Hing (1920). The WMF list is valid for two years – 2022-24 in this case. During the period, it will help fund repairs and restoration of old Chinese buildings.
Over the years, the Chinese have added an interesting dimension to the city’s socio-cultural scenario. Kolkata still has the biggest concentration of Indian Chinese people in India. Another area where the Chinese community is concentrated in Kolkata is Tangra on the city’s eastern flank, a hub of the leather industry. Today, however, Tangra is more known for restaurants serving authentic Chinese cuisine, as the leather factories had to be shifted to another location due to environmental concerns.
With time, the once robust Chinese population in Kolkata has dwindled, as many members of the younger generation migrated to countries like Canada, Australia and the US for better opportunities. But they still have roots in Kolkata and many visit the city during the Chinese New Year.
Though most of the local Chinese are Christians, they celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year with gusto, performing the dragon dance, enjoying family meals and catching up with each other. The majority is from the Hakka Community which specialises in shoe-making and leather tanning. The Cantonese are the second-largest group, and they are mostly carpenters and restaurant owners. Kolkata has earned a reputation for custom-made Chinese shoes and its Chinese hairdressing saloons were patronised by the city’s rich and famous.
The Chinese first came to India to work at the Calcutta Port (not accounting for travellers and traders in the Middle Ages) when Calcutta was the capital of the British Indian Colony. The first Chinese to arrive (1778) is said to be one Yang Tai Chow who came to start a sugar mill and trade in tea. The British gave him land by the Hooghly which lies to the south of the city. Old-timers say locals could not pronounce his name and that Yang Tai Chow’s name became Tong Ochhu. Eventually, the place was called Achipur. For Kolkata’s Chinese, the place has a special significance. Many go there on the Chinese New Year to pay obeisance to the pioneer, following the Chinese tradition of praying to the ancestors.
Old Chinatown is also famous for something unique – a Chinese breakfast served by street-side vendors at Chattawala Gali. You can have authentic Bao-steamed bread, sauces and soups prepared home-style, different from those available in fancy five-star eateries. One has to arrive early to enjoy a meal here, because the stalls wrap up by office time, as a thoroughfare leading to the bustling office area at Dalhousie Square or BBD Bag runs across the area.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Community has also picked up some local customs and traditions. A sign of this assimilation is the Chinese Kali temple in Tangra where locals come to pray.
New York, San Francisco, Melbourne, all have dedicated China towns where the unique characteristics of the heritage corners are kept alive with community involvement. Why not Kolkata? The new initiative by conservationists and community participation can put it on the world map of heritage China Towns.
(The writer is a senor journalist based in Kolkata.)