Wednesday, January 6, 2016
AUTHOR Kalyan Panja
Chinatown has undergone many changes throughout its long history but no matter how it has changed, it continues to symbolize a space where it began and where everything comes together history, culture, local tradition and modern lifestyles. That's what makes the experience unique. Squeezed into a tiny area of Tangra in northwest Kolkata.
The Chinese characterize the face of the city. Over time, they are mixed with other ethnic groups. It was then, six hundred years ago, traders from the Far East decided to settle on the island. They called their male descendants of Baba and Nyonya females.
The wealth of the families, the wonderful clothes that they wore and the beautiful embroidery with beads made by women can now only be seen in a museum or in a few restaurants in the city. It is not the situation for the Chinese. In terms of population, they make up the minority and characterize the face of the city, as well as having the largest number of restaurants.
This mini China town is reputed to serve authentic Chinese food painstakingly preserved by the 200 odd Chinese families living in the locality for past few generations. Chinatown is a place for gastronomical delight. The Chinese cuisine that evolved here today is a distinct cuisine on its own, in which traditional Chinese food has been blended with Indian ingredients and adapted to the Bengali palate.
Their history of their migration is also quite interesting. The communist victory in China in 1949 spurred the largest influx of Chinese, as landowners, merchants and intellectuals fled the revolution. This place was home to a large tanning industry and as a result became Calcutta's Chinatown because the Chinese in Calcutta specialized in leather initially.
Though a small number of Chinese still live there, many of them left India in the aftermath of the 1962 India-China war. The Chinese's social and political status declined and the population of Chinese here decreased correspondingly. Chinese immigrants here now can speak the local language almost fluently along with their mother tongue. The Chinese excel economically. They enjoy high standard of living and hire locals to staff its factories and shops as their business flourishes.
With time the second and third generation Chinese has moved steadily abroad over the past 20 years seeking a better life and future. They emigrate to America, Europe, Taiwan or elsewhere. Only the elderly are left in the Chinatown now. There are approximately 10,000 Chinese here now, the smallest group in Asian countries.
Kolkata also celebrates the Chinese New Year celebrations, laced with love, joy and camaraderie and above all, are often beautiful memories of how generations of Chinese immigrants, who arrived in the port of Calcutta, in the late 18th century, benefited the city, greatly contributing to its rich treasure of culture with the fervor and celebration of traditional Chinese new-year celebrations, as it celebrates with equal generosity, pomp and grandeur in Calcutta as in China.
People from all walks of life come together and share the camaraderie and warmth with a sudden burst of bright colors, light and music. The entire city dances to the notes of firecrackers during the Chinese New Year and in the streets of the Chinese neighborhoods reverberate with congratulatory messages and cries of joy, as people wish each other prosperity and luck.
The celebrations in the city are gala, full of laughter, unbridled joy and celebrated authentic Chinese cuisine. The celebrations are always identified by the lion dance followed by meetings and gatherings of all Chinese expatriates. The performance of the lion dance was particularly famous in some Chinese pockets of Calcutta and parties are not in any way low key and understated. The community has a strong presence in the Bengali society as is evident from the taste with which the Chinese community in Kolkata observe this festival.
The Chinese, living in Kolkata for generations, get in the festive atmosphere, as they adorn the streets and houses with Chinese lanterns par excellence, decorative lights and red buntings and burst crackers in order to keep evil spirits at bay.
Calcutta's diversity is personified by a handful of Chinese immigrants who came to town in search of a better life. They embraced the Bengali culture as their own, while fiercely protecting their identity, which often finds its expression through their highly anticipated new-year celebrations and delicious food.