Chinatown in Kolkata, only one in India, to celebrate Chinese New Year amid plans for a facelift

Sunday, 26 January 2014 - 8:38am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The year of the horse is nearly here. And homes in Kolkata’s Tiretti Bazaar and Tangra, constituting India’s only Chinatown, are busy preparing for New Year, which falls on January 31.

Houses are being cleaned, lights strung up and kitchens readied to worship the kitchen god. Like always, stickers of the auspicious red and gold dragon have come up all over. It’s another New Year, but this time there is also the promise of new beginnings, a new lease of life for their area.

The ravages of time have taken their toll on the two localities — Tiretti Bazaar (the old) and Tangra (the new Chinatown) — with the population dwindling to just an estimated 2,000 and infrastructure crumbling. Now, help is in sight with the Kolkata chapter of the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and BuzzMedia in Singapore working together on The Cha Project, aimed at reviving the area and also preserving its authentic flavour. The project is aptly named — cha is the common word  for tea in both Bengali and Chinese and the beverage is part of everyday lives in both parts of the world.

“The Chinese community in Singapore is providing technical support for this initiative. The Cha Project is an enterprise to bring back the old glory to Chinatown and ensure that the Chinese people in the city feel like they are a part of mainstream Kolkata,” GM Kapur, INTACH Kolkata convener, told dna.

The idea is the brainchild of Rinkoo Bhowmick, a Kolkatan residing in Singapore, who approached INTACH Kolkata. The West Bengal government’s ministry of tourism agreed to support the initiative, which comes under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission’s heritage component.

INTACH is already in the process of preparing a detailed project report (DPR), which will include various ideas for improving the area. The DPR should be ready within the next three months.

Architects from Singapore have begun chalking out redevelopment plans after visiting the place.  

Recalling the history of the area, Kapur said: “Chinese people have been living in Kolkata since 1778, when a traveller, Atchew, reached Bengal. After the India-China conflict of 1962, there has been an exodus of young people from the city. A sizable population has migrated to Canada, Singapore, Australia and other foreign lands.”

Experts are working on several fronts, developing many suggestions. These include renovating and preserving old temples and a cemetery in the area, building a culture and heritage museum to house Chinese artefacts, setting up little tea houses and preserving the old and renowned Nanking restaurant. Starting with old Chinatown in Tiretti Bazaar, the model will then be replicated in Tangra, or new Chinatown.

“Infrastructure is in place in Tiretti Bazaar but is lacking in Tangra. The areas need cleaning and several buildings need to be restored,” said Kapur.

Tiretti Bazar in Kolkata is the only destination in India where one can get authentic Chinese dishes such as pork buns, fish ball soup and shrimp dimsums. The plan is to ensure that unique aspects of Chinatown are preserved.

“Being Chinese in India is a culture not a nationality. We have been trying to improve the condition of Chinatown in our little way but the renewal is a fresh burst of energy and a good thing for the community,” Paul Chung,  president of the Indian Chinese Association, said about the community’s response to the initiative.

Chinese New Year, he said, is celebrated with much fanfare in Chinatown. And this is also an influence of Indian customs. “Chinese families usually bring in the New Year at home. The dragon visits people’s homes to give blessings. The celebrations held with fireworks and dancing in Chinatown are an Indian influence. Now, they are going to organise a mela in Tangra on the third day of the new year.”

The Chinese influence is strong too.

“We have certain customs like worshipping the kitchen god. The elders of the family give the youngsters red envelopes with some token money in it, as a sign of their blessings. In fact, the celebrations in Chinatown follow traditions more closely than those in China,”  Chung said.

“Our plan is to retain all that Chinatown is famous for and make it a global centre through a combination of research and development. Plus, this is a unique place where you can hear Chinese people speak fluent Hindi and Bengali,” said Kapur.

“To add to this mixture, the hakka spoken in Tangra is one of the most pure forms of the dialect spoken anywhere in the world,” laughed Chung.

Indian influence or Chinese, New Year is unique in India’s Chinatown. The dancing is not going anywhere nor are the ancient customs brought in from China.

Happy New Year.

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