Throughout history, the diaspora has been instrumental in shaping unique identities. Many diasporic groups create a coherent ethnic identity, such as a shared history, language, and culture, and in many cases, their diasporic identity is powerfully interwoven with their territorial homeland. The Chinese community in Kolkata is an excellent example of this phenomenon. This community has been living in Kolkata for generations. Still, if you ask most Kolkatans about the city’s Chinese community they will either tell you about the delicious food in China Town or how they go there to buy affordable shoes or get their dry cleaning done. The Chinese community in my hometown is so much more to offer than their mastery of preparing food or proficiency in a handful of trades. They have a rich history and heritage dating back over a couple of centuries.
Legend has it that the Bengali term for refined sugar, chini, owes its roots to the Chinese who introduced table sugar to the subcontinent. This is first mentioned in the writings of renowned Bengali poet and novelist, Sunil Gangopadhyay. While some dispute the veracity of this account, what is indisputable is the deep-seated link between sugar and the Chinese community in Bengal. To find a tangible connection, one must journey southward from Kolkata, approximately 30 kilometers away, to the hallowed grounds of Achipur, a hamlet on the banks of the Hooghly river. Here lies the resting place of Tong Atchew, the earliest known Chinese immigrant to settle in India.
The story of Atchew began in the late 18th century when he had a grand vision to establish a sugar mill in the fertile lands of Bengal. In 1778, he presented his ambitious proposal to the colonial government, which was granted, to his surprise. Warren Hastings, the Governor General at the time, was an enthusiastic proponent of trade with China. He saw Atchew's venture as an opportunity to strengthen commercial ties between the two nations. And so, Atchew was granted 650 'bighas' of land in Bengal at an annual rent of 45 rupees, which he used to build his sugar mill. The locals in Bengal, who had trouble pronouncing his name, referred to him as 'Achi', which eventually gave birth to the name of the town where his mill was established — Achipur. To work in his mill, Atchew brought over indentured laborers from China, which marked the beginning of the Chinese community in India.
After Atchew's death in 1783, an East India Company attorney attempted to extract money from the executor of his estate, offering us a glimpse into the life and wealth of the first recorded Chinese immigrant in India. And it seems that Atchew's estate was indeed sizable, as evidenced by the notice of sale in the Calcutta Gazette on November 15, 1804, which listed "all the buildings, stills, sugar mills, and other fixtures" up for grabs. With such an expansive estate, it's highly likely that Atchew was growing his own sugarcane to supply his sugar mill. The mention of stills also suggests that he was brewing alcohol from the same sugarcane, making him a true Renaissance man of his time.
As the life of Atchew came to a close, so too did the settlement he had established. The Chinese community subsequently migrated to Kolkata, where they would establish a new home and lay down roots for future generations. As late as the 1950s, fresh waves of Chinese immigrants continued to arrive in Kolkata, ensuring that the community would continue to flourish in its new home.
Achipur, once a thriving sugar mill town, has presently become a sleepy village in West Bengal. Despite the passage of time, one can still catch a glimpse of the area's Chinese heritage through the horse-shoe-shaped tomb of Atchew, the first Chinese immigrant to India, painted in a brilliant shade of red and located on the banks of the Hooghly River. A Chinese temple dedicated to Khuda-Khudi, the God and Goddess of Earth, also stands in the village. The temple's vibrant red exterior is adorned with intricate Chinese calligraphy, and while the building may have undergone modern renovations, the idols inside were likely brought over from China by Atchew himself. A fascinating element of this temple is the smaller Hindu shrine behind it, dedicated to Dakshin Ray, the Tiger God worshipped by locals in the Sunderbans region. Despite the decline of the sugar mill and the relocation of the Chinese community to Kolkata, Achipur remains a testament to the enduring legacy of Atchew and his fellow Chinese immigrants.
Chinese immigrants from all over the world, including Canada and the United States, make a yearly pilgrimage to Kolkata to honor their forefathers at Atchew's tomb. They burn symbolic paper money and offer incense at the tomb, while at the Chinese temple, incense smoke fills the air as offerings of food and wine are presented in front of the sanctum. Among the traditional offerings are roasted suckling pigs, whole fish, chicken, and Chinese wine. There are a variety of reasons why Chinese Indians make this Achipur pilgrimage. For some, preserving the traditions of their ancestors is a serious responsibility. Others use it as a way to connect with the broader community.
For most of the year, Achipur is a tranquil, unassuming village. But after Chinese New Year, the village turns into a bustling carnival as thousands of Chinese visitors flock to pay their respects to Tai Pak Kung — Atchew's Chinese moniker, which roughly translates to "biggest grandfather" or "godfather".
Despite the decline of the sugar mill and the relocation of the Chinese community to Kolkata, Achipur remains a testament to the enduring legacy of Atchew and his fellow Chinese immigrants and is a crucial signifier in understanding the origins of Kolkata’s Chinese community.
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