A Walk Through The Historic Lanes Of India’s Only China Town

A Walk Through The Historic Lanes Of India’s Only China Town
Kolkata Online

Bengali Hindus, Sindhis, Biharis, Anglo-Indians, Bengali Muslims, Agraharis and Bohras are just a few constituents of Kolkata’s vast ethnic spread. But within this ocean of diversity is a minority that has been quietly thriving for around 230 years - the Kolkata Chinese. With a population of a mere 2,000 people, the Chinese residents in the city have carefully cultivated for themselves a lifestyle and a business that stands apart for any other in the country.

It’s somewhat odd to think that such an exclusivity exists; in most major cities and countries we’ve travelled to, we’ve almost always found a Little India, Little Italy and a China Town. But surprisingly enough, Tiretta Bazaar is India’s only China Town, a market place that has been a hotplate of cultural amalgamation and trade for the past two centuries. The Chinese population in this region traces its origins back to when Kolkata was once the capital of the British Empire in India. These immigrants arrived here looking for work in the city’s busy ports and soon became employed in local tanneries. Making leather goods was banned amongst Hindus and was deemed a job for the “lower-castes”, which the Chinese populations in the region were able to fulfil - especially considering the large demand for leather products in colonial India. Eventually they settled in a community called Tangra, which is today considered as “Old China Town”.

Tiretti bazaar, or rather “New China Town” is it’s own little cosmos of vibrance, commerce, cultural exchange, and a whole lot of Mahjong. The entire area is packed with narrow lanes of rows of bustling stalls with vendors selling their exotic sauces, shiitake and herbs, restaurants with a constant influx of tourists and locals, clubs and Chinese temples (often termed as ‘churches’), all set up by various ethnic communities in the hopes of nurturing the social and cultural essence of the Chinese population. Some of these churches are also used as ‘clubs’ or public spaces for socialising and celebration.

Image Courtesy of OneIndia

As February rolls in with the Chinese New Year, Tiretti Bazaar’s revelries start off with a traditional and electrifying Dragon Dance show, followed by performances by the Lion Dancer’s group in the temples and surrounding neighbourhood. The dances are ritualistic of bringing good luck and the celebrations continue for over 10 to 15 days. Interestingly enough, Tiretti Bazaar was the host for this year’s Dragon Boat festival for the first time ever.

And while the culinary experience isn’t quite the fine dining type, the food is renowned by people all over the country, especially their breakfasts. A Tiretti Bazaar breakfast is somewhat of a mandatory induction into the Chinatown experience (it’s almost rude if you travel there and don’t indulge in their breakfast meals). But it isn’t that easy; one would have to be awake and ready at the crack of dawn as breakfast is served literally when the rooster makes its first call and ends as the first public bus exits the terminal - from around 6:30 AM to 8:30 AM. Certain dishes such as the red roasted pork, sweet rice zhung, ham choi (salted vegetables) and the pork dumpling soup are a must try and are sure to put you straight back into bed from a food coma.

Image Courtesy of Indian Vagabond

But what was once popularly seen as the gastronomic centre of Kolkota, is now slowly fading under the widely cast shadows of homogenised malls and joints. And while Tiretti Bazaar is a representation of a ancient heritage and unique traditional authenticity, the Chinese population in Tangra are not only conflicted with their cultural roots and nationality, but also struggling to keep the next generation of Indian Chinese within the country and line of work. Many younger individuals from the population aren’t fluently literate in Mandarin and are choosing to migrate to the west for a better prospects. The remaining few thousands in the area primarily maintain homegrown businesses that were passed down to them from their ancestors when they first immigrated to India. Many of them also face conflict with regard to their cultural heritage and nationalistic sentiments - because while they are of Chinese ancestry, they are passport holding citizens of Kolkata, many of them who speak fluent Bengali even.

It’s no doubt that Kolkata might soon have to witness the rapid depletion of its Chinese populations, but nevertheless, the Tiretti Bazaar stands today as a hopeful portrait for the unparalleled community of individuals who continue to honour their histories and identity.

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