A Guide To Kolkata's Chinapara

There was a time when around 20,000 ethnic Chinese Indian nationals lived here. Today there is probably less than one-tenth of that number remaining. Yet, Kolkata's Tiretta Bazaar area has several remnants of an old culture that has now become an intrinsic part of the city
Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata
Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata

Located in a neighbourhood near Lalbazar in central Kolkata, Tiretta Bazaar used to be known as the Old China Market. Here you will find Chinese temples (or churches, as they are known), clubs, provision stores, and even a morning breakfast ritual. Records state that Atchew or Tong Achew was the first Chinese to settle in Calcutta (as Kolkata was then known) in the late 18th century. An entry in the Bengal District Gazetteers, 24 Parganas, mentions that the East India Company's Governor General Warren Hastings granted Tong Achew land on which he established a sugar manufacturing plant. The sugar mill closed after Atchew's death, but many of the Chinese workers relocated to Kolkata and were later joined by others from different communities in China. For instance, the Haka community, the Cantonese, the Hupey, and those from Shanghai. The Chinese community set up homes and trades such as dentistry, leather tanning and manufacturing, shoemaking, restaurants, and beauty parlours. Wander down the narrow lanes, spotting age-old Chinese temples, stores, and restaurants that have shaped the neighbourhood and given India its only Chinatown. Here's a guide to the must-have experiences. 

The Breakfast

Though what exists today is a watered-down version of what it used to be, we would still recommend a morning outing to the Tiretta Bazaar for breakfast. You can sample home-style food like light soups and broths, some with noodles and fish or meat balls, and a few greens. You can pair that with some momos or steamed baos with assorted fillings&mdashone you must taste is the fungus and sweet plum stuffing.

Also, do pick up some spicy Chinese sausages, dried greens, sauces, and prawn chips for your larder back home, or as gifts. 

The Stores And Shops

The numbers are depleted, but the area still has some shops where you can pick up a handmade shoe with a custom fit. And you will also see a couple of Chinese dentist clinics here. There are a few Chinese grocery stores where you can stock up on special kitchen provisions like dried fungus, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese spice powders, sun-dried fish, prawn wafers, jasmine tea, and therapeutic balms. You can also pick up bamboo and ceramic steamers, teapots, and mugs. For instance, Pou Chong and the Sing Cheung stores are always bustling with customers. They make their own line of sauces and condiments. and piping hot, freshly made momos. In multiple glass cabinets and wooden shelves, salted black bean packets jostle for space with bottles of sauce, packets of dried mushrooms, black fungus, rice sticks, glass noodles, rice vinegar, and jars packed with sweet and sour dried plums.

The Gathering Spaces

You can find several Chinese clubs/churches in the Tiretta Bazaar area. These are actually traditional Chinese temples which also function as gathering places for people to pray, socialise, and host festivals. 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. After a short walk, you will come across the 108-year-old Sea Ip Church. This organisation was founded in 1905 by migrants from four counties in China's Guangdong Province. The wooden staircase leading to the altar here was brought all the way from China. There was a time when you would find someone be found poring over a Chinese newspaper - the Overseas Chinese Commerce of India, a Chinese language newspaper. 

The Eateries

Stop at D&rsquoLey for steaming bowls of soup with dumplings and plates of bao. The eating house has been run by a Chinese family for generations. It serves delicious dumplings. Incidentally, D&rsquoLey means' land of good luck'. About ten minutes from here is another eating house, Eu Chew, on Bentinck Street. This is a bit of a legend in Kolkata. The Huang family, who run it, serve an amazing chicken soup in pots that their ancestors brought from China. Also try their Roast Chilli Pork and Josephine noodles (named after the owner&rsquos wife and available only on request). Another popular joint is the Tung Nam Eating House.

The Festivals

In February, dragon and lion dancers usher in the Chinese New Year in Kolkata. A dragon dance show starts off the festival, and celebrations are spread over 10 to 15 days. The Lion Dancers&rsquo groups begin with performances in Chinese temples, after which they visit neighbourhood establishments and houses to bring good luck.

Another must-see community festival is the Dragon Boat Race. A 2,000-year-old festival that commemorates the death of a poet-philosopher who fought against corruption is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month every year. In recent times, the Dragon Boat Race has evolved into a competitive global sport&mdashit was held as a demo sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In Kolkata, the Chinese community celebrates the festival every year with a line-up of events that includes a Dragon Boat Race, a series of lion dances, cultural performances, and stalls selling delicious food cooked by the community. Traditionally, apart from racing dragon boats, the rituals will include eating zongzi (zongzi making is a family thing and each has their own special recipe and cooking method) and drinking rice wine made from cereal laced with powdered realgar, a mineral made from arsenic and sulphur. Realgar has been used in traditional medicine in China for centuries.

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