How India's Only Chinatown Is Celebrating The Year Of The Dragon

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the neighbourhood of Tiretta Bazar has come to life as people arrive in droves to start the celebrations for the Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year celebration in Kolkata
Chinese New Year celebration in KolkataIndrajit Das/Wiki Commons

"My birthplace is here," says Alex Liang. "I am meeting my friends after so many years. It's an amazing feeling.'' Liang is a chef who has worked in Vienna, then in Germany, and now lives in Toronto. He is one of the hundreds of Chinese people who have gathered in Kolkata to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which falls this year on February 10, with friends and family, part of the Indian Chinese diaspora who are scattered across the world.

"That's 'Mr Bata'," laughs Janice Lee as she points to a man in a jaunty yellow shirt. The man, Tek Fu, grins in response, waving his hand. He used to be one of the many skilled people in Kolkata making handmade shoes. Most such shoemakers have shut shop and moved out due to declining demand for handmade footwear. Then there is Uncle John, who used to run the Jen Kee shoe shop near KC Das in the Dharmatala area, making custom-made footwear.

At the Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata
At the Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata Indrajit Das /Wiki Commons

A Homecoming

It's like a homecoming for them, the erstwhile residents of Tiretta Bazaar in central Kolkata, India's only surviving Chinatown. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the neighbourhood in Central Kolkata is thrumming with activity as locals and expats arrive in droves for the lunar new year. This year, too, hundreds of expat Chinese people whose roots are in Kolkata have travelled from other countries to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. There's Cecilia Chang, who has come from Melbourne and Alice Chee, who has travelled from Canada.

Many people who were born in Kolkata have come down for the celebrations
Many people who were born in Kolkata have come down for the celebrationsJanice Lee

"I am coming for the festival after almost 26 years", exclaims Marylin Wolf, who now lives in Munich. "You know, I was born here in Tiretta Bazar. So many great memories."

A Feast For Family And Friends

The food at the feast included delicate sui mai
The food at the feast included delicate sui maiJanice Lee

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the neighbourhood of Tiretta Bazar has come to life as people arrive in droves to start the celebrations for the new year. A feast has been laid out on a terrace; there's delicate sui mai, sweet and sour prawns, heaped plates of biryani, salads, chilli chicken, and more.

"Chilli chicken was invented in this city and is a trademark of Kolkata," says Janice Lee, the third-generation owner of Pou Chong, a brand known for iconic Chinese sauces and condiments. "You get this now in places abroad, like Toronto, where Indian Chinese people have settled. It is known as the 'Indian Chinese Chili Chicken'. We make the chilli sauce with the Bangla kacha lonka and our special soya sauce that has been perfected over the years." An elderly lady, Sheila Lee, who is visiting from Canada, has made the sui mai that is flying off the table.

The Pou Chong store sells in-house sauces, noodles, and condiments
The Pou Chong store sells in-house sauces, noodles, and condimentsPiyali Sen

In another corner, a table displays multiple varieties of Pou Chong's Chinese sauces, such as pineapple chilli sauce, green and red chilli, a popular garlic chilli sauce, and more. Pou Chong was founded by Janice Lee's grandfather, Lee Shih Chuan, who created the original and iconic Kolkata green chilli sauce using the fiery Bangla chilli.

The Roots Of A Melting Pot Culture

The feast reflects the melting pot culture of this unique Kolkata neighbourhood, Tiretta Bazaar or Cheenapara. Close to the Hooghly rivers and its jetties, the area was once a thriving community of different cultures, a testimony to the pluralistic society that once flourished in the former British capital. There was a time when around 20,000 ethnic Chinese Indians lived here. Many Chinese workers moved to Kolkata during the Raj, from various communities in China. For example, the Haka community, Cantonese, Hupey, and those from Shanghai. The Chinese community established residences and businesses such as dentistry, leather tanning and manufacturing, shoemaking, restaurants, and beauty salons, and more.

The Chinese community were known for their carpentry skills
The Chinese community were known for their carpentry skillsPiyali Sen

Today, there is probably less than one-tenth of that number remaining. But the area still holds on to Chinese temples, provision stores, and restaurants that have moulded the neighbourhood. In January 2024, Cheenapara was listed on the World Monument Fund's endangered heritage watchlist in 2022 as "one of the heritage sites of extraordinary significance, facing pressing challenges". Read more about the WMF's analysis here.

Prayers, Dragons, And Lions

Offerings to the deities are full of symbolism
Offerings to the deities are full of symbolismJanice Lee

"We had a morning prayer today to start the celebrations," says Lee, referring to a tradition that derives from a folk belief in China that if you burn paper money and make offerings at the graves of your ancestors, the deceased will receive the gifts and enjoy a prosperous afterlife.

You can see a proliferation of red everywhere around the space—on freshly painted walls and gates, doors, buntings; the candles kept in front of deities; the sacred prayer cups. Red is auspicious in Chinese culture—associated with life-generating energy (the sun, blood, and fire)—and is the color of celebrations and prosperity. The candles will burn to keep vigil all night.

Raised tables with red paper have red candles, prayer cups, gladioli flowers, incense and offerings like rice wine, maafa cookies shaped like Chinese firecrackers, and mandarin oranges. "Everything is about symbolism in our culture, reflected in these offerings and decorations" says Janice. "Like the mandarin oranges which symbolise infinity. A wall decoration of plum blossoms symbolise winter ending and a herald of spring."

Celebrating The Year Of The Dragon

The gates of certain structures in Tiretta Bazar and Tangra are adorned with marvellous dragon figures. The Chinese New Year festival will last for five days and include nights of fireworks and lion and dragon dances at both Tangra and Tiretta Bazar, as well as martial arts, food festivals, carnivals, and more.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata
Chinese New Year celebrations in KolkataIndrajit Das /Wiki Commons

You can also explore the several Chinese clubs/churches in the area. Look for the Toong On Church, which was constructed in 1924. It used to house the famous Nanking restaurant, Kolkata's first Chinese restaurant and was a popular hangout for celebrities such as Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, and Shammi Kapoor. Several scenes in Dibakar Banerjee's film Detective Byomkesh Bakshi took place in the restaurant. Then there is the 108-year-old Sea Ip Church. This organisation was founded in 1905 by migrants from four counties in China's Guangdong Province. 

One of the festival's highlights will be the prayers in Achipur, located southwest of Kolkata. It is named after Tong Achew, the first Chinese to settle in Calcutta (the old name of Kolkata) in the late 18th century. An entry in the Bengal District Gazetteer 24 Parganas says that Tong Achew was given a land grant by East India Company's Governor General Warren Hastings, where he set up a sugar manufacturing plant. Every year after the Lunar New Year, members of the Chinese community of Kolkata head to Tong Achew's grave to pay homage. And pray at the Temple of the Earth God and Goddess in the middle of Achipur. Read more about it here.

The Information

Tiretta Bazaar, also known as Chinatown, is a neighborhood near Lalbazar in Central Kolkata.

Achipur is around 30 kms from Kolkata by road. One has to take the Budge Budge Trunk Road from Taratala, a suburban neighbourhood, to the south of the city.

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