If you take the turn into Sun Yat-sen Street from Central Avenue on a lazy Sunday morning, you will find children playing cricket in narrow bylanes lined with shops having Chinese names. A walk down these meandering lanes, while negotiating heaps of garbage, will take you into the heart of Kolkata’s old Chinatown, with annals of rich heritage and history tucked away in every corner.
The Tiretta Bazar area is home to Kolkata’s old Chinatown, which is also the oldest of its kind outside Southeast Asia. The Chinese diaspora migrated in large numbers from Fujian and Canton districts of China during the eighteenth century and settled in this area as carpenters, cabinet makers and opium dealers. The Punti-Hakka Wars and the Taiping Rebellion were the last of a series of political events that led to these migrations, as a result of which the Hakka Chinese moved in to this area till the 1860s. The Hakkas continued to work here as cobblers and leather workers till the early 1900s, when they relocated to the new Chinatown area in Tangra where they established their tanneries.
However, the Chinese community of Kolkata steadily declined since the Sino-Indian War of 1961-62, during which they were deported en masse back to China or sent to an internment camp in Rajasthan’s Deoli.
Today, less than 1200 people from these communities survive in the Old Chinatown area where the derelict and decline is palpable among their religious and cultural institutions that once bustled with activity.
On a recent walking tour conducted by Heritage Walk Calcutta, led by anthropologist Dr Tathagata Neogi, we explored what remains of these communities and visited the Taoist temples built by the immigrant Chinese population in this area.
Toong On Church
Located at 10 Blackburn Lane is the Toong On Church which once housed the famous Nanking restaurant, the city’s first Chinese restaurant which played host to British civil servants and celebrities such as Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.
The temple stands tall in its redbrick neoclassical structure now, with a statue of Lord Buddha solely for decorative purposes — the Taoist do not worship Buddha.
Nanking closed down in the late 1970s and the temple became the centre of a legal dispute with the lawsuit dragging on in court. The last member of the Toong On Church migrated away a few months ago and the temple now stays closed for most of the time.
Explaining the history of these Taoist temples, Dr Neogi pointed out that the word ‘church’ is a misnomer here which was popularized in British parlance, possibly because these structures were different from quintessential Hindu temples. All of these temples have three deities, among which Kuan Yin (the Goddess of solving problems), Kuan Ti (the God of War and Sea) is common for all of them. The third deity is unique to each temple and has a direct link to the ancestral village of each community. Chinese communities from across the world visit these temples during the Chinese New Year to pay obeisance to their local deities.
Sea Ip Church
Located at a corner of Kolkata Improvement Trust, the temple walls are adorned with rich Chinese inscriptions and ceremonial representations of the God of War. Representations play an important role in the Chinese community as is also evident from their ceremonial offerings made to the deities — the Chinese make paper representations of objects they want and burn them before the gods as a part of their ritual.
Learning about these cultural practices helps us to go beyond certain iconographic representations that have come to dominate our perception of Chinatown, says Dr Neogi. “Whenever we think of this place, the images of Chinese New Year, dragon dances, opium, crime and Byomkesh’s stories come to our minds. What motivated us to choose this place for the walk was a desire to go beyond all this and try to understand the people who live here,” he adds.
Gee Hing Church
Tucked away at one end of the Blackburn Lane, Gee Hing is one of the three Choonghee Dong temples in Kolkata. The other two temples — in Tiretta Bazar and another in Bowbazar — came up as a result of a legal dispute that led to a split in the Choonghee Dong community.
The first floor of this temple houses the Gee Hing Club, which is one of the few remaining places in Kolkata where the Chinese community come together on Sundays to bond over a game of Majhong. The game is, however, dying out slowly because of its lack of popularity among the younger generation and Majhong blocks not being produced in India.
Choonghee Dong Thien Haue Church
This is another of the three Choonghee Dong Temples that Kolkata has, with a big plaque at the entrance on the ground floor carrying details of the lawsuit that led to the split in the community.
Though the Choonghee Dong Temple in Bowbazar is still active, the dilapidated condition of this temple clearly shows that it has seen better days in the past, with none of the members of this temple community present now. The temple is now maintained by members of the Hakka community, which is somewhat ironical as the Hakka were originally nomadic tribesmen who were looked down upon by the Cantonese.
Nam Soon Church
Built in 1820, Nam Soon Church, which gets its name from two villages in China, is the oldest of the Taoist temples in the Tiretta Bazar area. A winding Damzen Lane suddenly opens up into a huge courtyard which houses the temple, a testament to the fact how rich heritage and history lies tucked away and forgotten in the narrow bylanes of Kolkata.
As Isti Bhattacharya, who is interning with Heritage Walk Calcutta, points out, “I studied in Presidency University and despite passing along this route frequently, I had never entered these places earlier. The greatest thing about these walks is that they help you notice places and unearth their histories.”
Sea Voi Yune Leong Futh Church
One of the most beautifully maintained temples in the area, Sea Voi Church comes with beautiful porcelain idols and a community hall with a huge portrait of Sun Yat-sen. Recent academic writings, such as essays by the scholar Tansen Sen, have argued that the idols here are representations of Thomas Atchew and his wife. Atchew or Yang Dazhao, which was his real name, is popularly considered to be the first Chinese immigrant who came to India in 1778 and set up a sugar mill at Achipur, located roughly 33km from Kolkata.
Secretary of Sei Vui Club, James Lee, said, “The adjoining Sei Vui restaurant came up with the idea of preserving the place as all the proceeds from here are used for the maintenance of the temple.”
Our walk ends with lunch at Sei Vui restaurant and discussions on the importance of heritage preservation.
“A lot of research goes into our walks, as we access rare documents in libraries and archives, besides also carrying out ethnographic engagement with the local communities,” says Chelsea McGill, who is the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta.
Pritha Mukherjee, who has been working with the company as a research and development assistant, says, “The biggest takeaway from these walks is the fact that I get to meet new people while carrying out my own research about these places. This has been a huge learning curve for me.”