Keeping Chinese New Year traditions colourfully alive in Kolkata



Kolkata, which has a population of 4.497 million, is home to the only Chinatown in India.
Kolkata, which has a population of 4.497 million, is home to the only Chinatown in India. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Members of the Chinese community playing the drum with a lion dance during Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata, eastern India.
Members of the Chinese community playing the drum with a lion dance during Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata, eastern India.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
The Year of the Dog was ushered in at 11.30pm on Feb 15 in the eastern Indian city with lion dance troupes taking over the roads surrounded by large crowds of people.
The Year of the Dog was ushered in at 11.30pm on Feb 15 in the eastern Indian city with lion dance troupes taking over the roads surrounded by large crowds of people. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KOLKATA - The narrow alleys of Tangra in Kolkata wear a deserted look for most of the year but they come vibrantly alive with fresh coats of red paint on doors and red lanterns strung up along the streets for Chinese New Year celebrations.

The Year of the Dog was ushered in at 11.30pm on Thursday (Feb 15) in the eastern Indian city with lion dance troupes taking over the roads surrounded by large crowds of people.

The dancers, from kids to the elderly, took part in a parade and blessed every establishment and house in return for red packets through the night into Friday morning.

Each lion group went to more than 200 homes and establishments.

"I feel the vibes are much better in Kolkata than in China (for the new year). It is the biggest festival and lot of Chinese people who have gone overseas come back," said Mr Fredrick Liao 30, whose family owns Golden Joy, a popular Chinese restaurant.

"All the youngsters and even the elderly walk around to everyone's house so it gives you a good vibe."

Ten of his family members have returned from different parts of the world, including Singapore, to celebrate Chinese New Year.

"For the next week there is a lot to do. We have a fete, lot of family gatherings and traditional Chinese meals."

Some members of the community pray at the Chinese temple dedicated to Kali, the Hindu Goddess who is believed to be the destroyer of evil.

Legend has it that the temple, which is wrapped around a banyan tree, brings good luck.

"I pray to Ma (mother) Kali. I do puja (worship)," said Mr John Chen, a 65-year-old former tannery worker and caretaker of the temple.

Kolkata, which has a population of over 4.4 million, is home to the only Chinatown in India. Tangra's sauce factory, a dozen or so Chinese restaurants, a small cemetery and small shrines are the only giveaways that this is not like any other locality in India.

Yet the Chinese community has shrunk to around 2,000 members from the 30,000 in the 1950s with many migrating for studies and better work opportunities to countries like Canada, the United States, Britain, UK and Sweden.

Most of those who have stayed find the going tough as tanneries, the mainstay of the community, were moved out of the city some years ago.


ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

Nearly two dozen Chinese restaurants compete for clients while the only Chinese school in the area has been shut for years.

For some of the older generation, insecurity also remains with memories of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, when members of the community were interned by suspicious Indian authorities.

But those worries recede during Chinese New Year celebrations as family and friends gather for the festivities.

Mr Charles Hsieh, who studied in the local Chinese school, has returned to Kolkata, where he was born and grew up, after 20 years away. Mr Hsieh, who lives in Sweden, visited his father's grave, watched the lion dances and visited his former school.

"I missed Chinese New Year for 20 years. All memories are coming back from when I was young. So many friends I met I couldn't recognise because everyone has grown old," he said.

An estimated 300 to 400 people who settled abroad have come back to Tangra for the new year.


ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

People greet each other on the street, often bumping into old friends.

"There is a very different atmosphere here (from other Chinatowns). I have noticed that they like to come back from overseas. Maybe because it's a small community. It's not big compared to other countries," said Bhikkhuni Miao Ru, an Indonesian who has been at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery  in Tangra for 13 years.

"Preparations start more than a month before. They make their own rice wine, preserve vegetables radish, noodles and make chips. Housewives are busy for one month."

Kolkata's Chinese population are mostly from the Hakka community from Guangdong as well as some Cantonese. The first Chinese man in Kolkata was known to be Yang Tai Chow, also known as Tong Achi, who landed in 1778.

He is said to have mistakenly sailed into the banks of Hooghly river and was granted land by the British to set up a sugar cane plantation and sugar factory.


ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

To this day a key new year tradition among the community remains to go to his shrine in the first two weeks and light candles and incense sticks.

Ms Monica Liu, one of the community's most successful restaurateurs and owner of Beijing and Kimling eateries, will drive 33km to Achipur with family members on the second Sunday of the new year to seek blessings.

"We will pay our respect to the first Chinese to come to Kolkata," said Ms Liu, who noted that the community still maintains many of the tradition Chinese practices.

Houses are cleaned and painted ahead of the new year, family feasts take place through the first two weeks with steamed fish and chicken. Red packets containing money are given by elders to younger people. And the first day of the new year on Friday was observed by most in the community as a vegetarian day.

Still, as celebrations continue for the week, which includes the two-day weekend fete that started on Saturday, many of the older generation worry that Chinese traditions are fading with every progressive generation.

"We don't know what will happen next. At the moment, we as seniors always keep our traditions alive in the house; we try to let them know this is culture of Chinese. We try to educate them," said Ms Liu, who speaks Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hindi.

She is relieved that the younger lot still gets excited about the lion dances.

"We try to let them understand and they do follow us. But as for the future? We don't know."