Glimpses from Calcutta’s Old Chinatown: The Oldest Chinatown outside Southeast Asia

India has a long history of commercial and cultural contacts with mainland China. Chinese communities had, therefore (mostly temporarily) settled in different ports along the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea since at least the early centuries of the Common Era. However, the socio-cultural space that we now call “Chinatown”, emerged globally as a result of the large-scale migration of Chinese communities in the 18th century, especially from South China. These migrations were brought about by a rapidly weakening central authority, and a sharp decline in the economy. The expansion of European maritime commercial network in the South China Sea opened up new opportunities for trade and for seeking newer, lucrative markets in other parts of Asia and the world.

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The Old Chinabazaar Street with the white spire of the Armenian Church visible

Calcutta, the fledgling capital of East India Company’s territories in India was probably the oldest of all Chinatowns situated outside Southeast Asia that came up during this period. Commercially, Calcutta had a lucrative market for Chinese products like tea, silk, and porcelain. A narrow, winding street adjacent to the Armenian Church in Calcutta is still known as Old Chinabazaar Street and is reminiscent of this early demand of Chinese goods in the city. We find regular advertisements in Hicky’s Gazette about the arrival of ships from Canton and sale of “China goods”.

Turnbull, MacIntyre and Dawley begs leave respectfully to acquaint the ladies and gentlemen of Calcutta, that their investment of China goods imported in the Rumbold, is not exposed to sell for ready money, and upon the most reasonable terms, at the house formerly occupied by Mr. Slight near the court house.

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette or the Original Calcutta General Advertiser, No. XIII (April 1781)

From the available information from the documents and oral traditions among the Chinese community in Kolkata it appears that the first Chinese settlement came up in a hamlet named Achipur, near Budge Budge (Bugee Bugee in early Colonial writing), 33 km south of Calcutta. Achipur gets its name from Atchew, the founder of this settlement who arrived in Calcutta from Guandong province in 1778. Atchew or Yang Dazhao was a tea trader, and in exchange of the tea he brought with him, he received a land grant from Governor General Warren Hastings to settle down at Achipur. Atchew set up a sugarcane plantation and a sugar mill, and he brought labourers from Guandong to work in his plantation and the mill. Thus a small Chinese settlement came up along with a Chinese temple, which is still visited by the remaining Calcutta Chinese community during the Chinese New Year. Atchew, however, soon moved to Tiretta Bazar in Calcutta, and it appears from a petition he filed with the Governor General’s Council in 1781 that Calcutta’s Chinese diaspora then mainly consisted of runaway sailors.

The persons who have thus wantonly endeavoured to injure me, are the Chinese who have deserted from the ships and remain in Calcutta without any apparent means of subsistence.

From: The Bowbazar Chinatown by Zhang Xing

The Chinese diaspora that settled in Calcutta’s Old Chinatown in Tiretta Bazar in the late 18th century were from different districts of Fujian and Canton. These communities were specialized carpenters, cabinet makers, opium dealers and iron-workers, and their skills were in demand in Calcutta port and among the European households in the city. The second wave of migration arrived with the Hakka Chinese in the 1850s, displaced by the Punti-Hakka Wars (1856-67) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64). The Hakka Chinese initially settled in the Old Chinatown and became famous as cobblers and leather workers, opening shoe stores along Bentinck Street and Bowbazar. In 1910 the first Chinese-run tannery was established in Tangra (in South Kolkata) which became lucrative during the World War I, due to an increased wartime demand in leather. This resulted in the relocation of the Hakka Chinese population to Tangra. The Old Chinatown saw the arrival of a large refugee population from South China in the 1930s and 1940s due to the Japanese Invasion, Second World War and the post-war civil war between Kuomintang and Mao’s Communists. The Calcutta Chinese community in general and in Old Chinatown, in particular, went on a steady decline since the Sino-Indian War in 1961-62. During the war, many were deported to China, or sent to the internment camp at Deoli in Rajasthan. The general economic decline of Calcutta also resulted in the emigration of the newer generation for greener pastures in Europe, North America, and Australia. Now the Old Chinatown is home to about 1000 Calcutta Chinese who carry the legacy of the world’s oldest Chinatown outside Southeast Asia. Several Chinese temples still survive where these communities worship the patron deities of War and Craftsmanship, along with the deities of their ancestral village in Guandong province. A handful of the older members still regularly meet at huiguan (Chinese community centres) over games of Mahjong. I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

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Nam Soon Church (temple) established in 1892-93. The Chinese communities from different districts of Guandong Province settled in the Old Chinatown. Settlers from each district have a temple and a huiguan (community centre) dedicated to them. Although everyone can come and pray, the memberships to the temple and the community centre are still only restricted to the those who trace their origin to the specific district. This temple is built and maintained by those from Nam Soon district of Guandong.
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The huiguan inside Nam Soon Church. The community centres are normally located within the temples and have beautifully carved furniture. The Chinese community in Old Chinatown specialized in carpentry, wood carving, cabinet and furniture manufacturing. The Chinese follow a lunar calendar and the community formally meets every new moon evening.
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Kwan Yin or Guan Yu the Chinese patron Goddess of Warfare is the common deity worshiped in all active Chinese temples in the Old Chinatown.
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An old oven inside a Chinese temple. Ovens like these were (and occasionally are) still used to burn offerings made of paper during important festivals and celebrations.
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All active Chinese temples have beautiful wood carvings. While some were imported from Guandong, many were made by the local Chinese wood carvers.
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An old Chinese carpentry workshop. The original Chinese signboard still exists.
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Due to the lack of space different huiguans often occupy different floors of the same building. The ground floor of this building belongs to the Se Voi Yun huiguan while the top floor is occupied by the Hupeh huiguan. The controversial hand-pulled rickshaws of Calcutta also have Chinese origins. Rickshaws were introduced in the city by the more Hakka inhabitants of the Old Chinatown as traveling on foot was considered less prestigious.
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The Chong Nee Thang Alms House is an undertaker firm, which also serves as a mortuary where bodies are embalmed and prepared for burial.
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Old Chinatown also had sauce and noodle manufacturers. The now dilapidated building housed the first sauce and noodle factory here.
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However, all is not well for the surviving temples and other structures in the Old Chinatown. The lack of financial ability to maintain these often lead to collapsing roofs. According to a quite a few members of a few huiguans all the buildings have become structurally weak. The building in this picture sums up the lack of maintenance and government neglect. This is the Toong On Church, built in 1924, and the prettiest surviving building in the area. The ground floor of Toong On Church housed the Nanking Restaurant (started in 1925), which soon became one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in the city catering mainly for a European clientele. After Independence, the restaurant went out of business owing to a loss of clients and legal disputes. The temple now sits amidst a Kolkata Municipal Corporation owned garbage and plastic dump.
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Another piece of Old Chinatown heritage being lost. These foundation tablets on a 19th-century temple are getting rapidly destroyed being exposed to the elements.

 

Disclaimer: All images used here is the copyright of Heritage Walk Calcutta and are watermarked. Please reuse with permission.

About the Author: Tathagata Neogi is the founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta. He has an MA and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Exeter.

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