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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Breakfast in Kolkata's Chinatown

I spent about a week in Kolkata with my host, Veronica, and her lovely and accommodating family. Veronica is another family friend extending from the network of people in Shillong, many of whom are Hakka Chinese.

Kolkata, or Calcutta as it's known in the English world, is nicknamed the City of Joy, and recognized as the cultural capital of India. The city's rich history has its origins in the East India Company, whose investment was a catalyst for business and colonization of India by the British.
Cruising on a packed wooden ferry on the Hooghly River
During my stay, I managed to see a number of impressive Victorian landmarks, as well as Christian and Hindu religious sites. I visited Mother Teresa's home, which also contains her tomb. And sat on the ghats, with my feet in the River Hooghly, observing people bathe in the brownish river, which contains water from the holy Ganga (or Ganges River) due to an upstream canal diversion.

Hawkers in Flight

Kolkata is an interesting city with many faces. About 15 million of them, to be exact.

I witnessed Kolkata's glamorous side, rooted in its past with its grand old English architecture. But it's a thin mask which barely hides the real face of Kolkata, evident pretty much everywhere else. I was there during the dry season, but everyday I saw monsoons of another presence - people everywhere, streaming up and down the streets between cars and buses, clogging roads, creeping along like boggy rivers. I experienced what comes with too many of these people - dust, noise, open urinals, and half naked men bathing in public by water pumps.

Hawkers, or street vendors, can be really annoying too. Hawkers are virtually everywhere, on sidewalks operating food carts or displaying wares upon tables or blankets, or approaching on foot, entering buses and trains. Veronica told me that hawking as a profession is illegal in India, but is so commonplace that several hawkers unions have been formed at municipal and national levels. Imagine that, unions representing illegal professions that don't pay taxes!
Ironically, I prefer hawkers to actual shops. Here is a Kolkata custom, drinking chai out of clay cups
The regulation of hawking is an ongoing issue in India. Governments provide little intervention to start with, but even if they do try to collect taxes, the hawkers collectively swarm and threaten violence; or if police come to enforce, they simply run away, quickly deserting streets like a scene from an apocalypse movie.

Luckily for me, I'm not targeted much by hawkers here - I look like a local. In a distant sort of way, I am a local because my mom was born in Kolkata, among many other Chinese. Here is the story of how Chinese ended up here.

Chinese Emperors of Leather

In my previous blog I mentioned that India experienced a large influx of Chinese to Eastern India - places like Shillong and Kolkata - due to the Communist Revolution. They were later incarcerated by the Indian government following the Indo-China War. Soon after their release, there followed a mass exodus that continues to this day. In its heyday, Kolkata had over 50,000 Chinese citizens, many of them speaking the Chinese dialect Hakka, like myself and my mom. That number has dwindled to only a few thousand today.
The industrial rooftops of Tangra, overlooked by modern skyscrapers of Kolkata
One morning, I went to Terreti Market for breakfast, once the heart of Kolkata's Chinatown, to find a measly 3 stands selling pork dumplings and buns. Most of Kolkata's remaining Chinese have fled Chinatown for Tangra, a mainly industrial neighbourhood just east of downtown. Tangra is a tangle of dusty roads lined with open pit ditches, filled with stagnant and discoloured water, like dirty dead rivers, contaminated by the numerous tanneries in the area.

Navigating the streets of Tangra, I also found little evidence of Chinese people left - just a few signs up for Chinese restaurants. And of course, there's my host. Veronica's home is in Tangra and her family made me feel welcome. Since they are also Hakka, they gave me a chance to practice my native language, which I have neglected. They spoiled me with delicious Hakka home cooked dinners, which I terribly miss.

Veronica's son, Edwin, told me how decades ago the zamindars, or feudal landlords, illegally sold land in Tangra, mainly to Chinese, who brought the tannery business to India, starting in Kolkata. Edwin's grandfather started a hot sauce company and also a tannery on these grounds but paid his taxes before the legalities caught up to him and the other landholders. Through thick and thin, their business is successful today.
A man working by leather bathing drums in the tannery
Veronica and her husband, Patrick Lee, showed me their tannery, maybe the first eco-leather factory in all of India and recognized by the European Fair Trade Association. Veronica and Patrick are featured on the websites of a few bag producers who they supply eco-leather to, O My Bag and Loyal Workshop.

Edwin also told me how during monsoon season, after a big rain, the open pit ditches flood the street causing a great big stink. Tiny fish, like tadpoles, make their home in these ditches, and these fish are actually collected and sold as animal feed. One day I noticed a rat taking a sip from the ditch water, until it noticed me and ran away.

Legend of Fat Mama

Back home in Toronto, there is a significant Hakka Chinese population, many of whom migrated from Kolkata and Shillong, such as my mom and dad, as well as many family friends I am only now becoming familiar with. Hakka are known for their food, a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines, served in restaurants in Toronto and even Calgary's northeast.
My adopted grandma, and her grandson Andrew Lee, my twin by name. They also have family in Toronto
Some Hakka have formed an organization whose mission is to demand a formal apology by the Indian government for its incarceration of Chinese back in 1962. My mom, luckily, moved to Hong Kong before it happened, but my father and his family got sent to the prison camps for 4 years. My father doesn't tell me much about his past - it was a time that he'd rather forget about. I sympathize with him, though I feel like our family past is something I deserve to know about.

There is a brief 23 minute documentary made about the history of Chinese in Kolkata, including their incarceration in 1962. It is named after Fat Mama, a famous lady known for her sumptuous chow mein, or fried noodles, which she sold along the side of the street in Kolkata's Chinatown. The first 9 minutes introduces Chinese life in Kolkata before the incarceration. The last half discusses the incarceration and the aftermath. Veronica's father is interviewed in the film, and I think one of her sons appears briefly in one of the scenes in the background.

If you are curious about what my father and his family went through, I encourage you to watch it. Click on Legend of Fat Mama to watch.

Finally, I have uploaded pictures from not just Kolkata but the two other cities I visited in the state West Bengal, Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Flickr link

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