From Canton to Kolkata

You could almost say Tong Atchew was a good mushroom growing on foreign soil. A mushroom does wonders for the soup, the stir fry and as stuffing. No flash, no permanent dash, but it still stands on its own even as it adds to the flavours of the mix into which it is thrown.

Atchew, a middleman, believed to be the first Chinese immigrant in India, arrived in 1798. He managed to strike a deal with Warren Hastings, the governor-general of British India, and became the owner of a sugar mill near Kolkata.

In the late 18th century, Kolkata was the terminus, the port and the transit point to pretty much everywhere else. The Chinese in India, especially the Chinese of Kolkata, the only Indian city with two Chinatowns –– the first in Tiretta Bazaar has existed since the 1800s, the second, in Tangra since 1910 –– consider Atchew The Ancestor. Here was someone who made ‘leaving home’ a success story, in contrast to staying put, the established wisdom for that age. He consolidated the image of the Chinese as a hardy migrant who slogs for his success, is a credit to his community, and keeps his own counsel.

At Tangra, the second Chinatown, of Kolkata.
(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

The Chinese who came to Kolkata were mainly from coastal China, then ravaged by civil wars; many landed in between the two world wars too. All had different skills and traditions, which they innovated, in order to survive. The Hubeis, who were “teeth-setters”, became dentists. The Cantonese were ship-fitters; by the ’50s they had moved into carpentry. The Hakkas were talented shoe-smiths and leather manufacturers. All of them came to India to work. None of them came here to cook.

But as the example of Monica Liu, a Hakka housewife who has become Chinatown’s most well-known businesswoman over the past 10 years, shows, the restaurant business can become an area where race or ethnicity may find accommodation, and success –– if it does not challenge established tastes too much.

In the ’90s, Liu cooked for the late chief minister Jyoti Basu at his home after his return from China. In 2012, writer Amitav Ghosh did a lunch with the Financial Times at Liu’s flagship restaurant, Beijing. Here, he discussed the opium trade, linguistic adjustments made by men who met at sea featured in his Ibis trilogy over beer and steamed bhetki. In 2018, Liu is preparing to face cricketing legend Sourav Ganguly in the popular Bengali television game-show, Dadagiri.

Two Bengali boys watching Liu, as she does the rounds of the tables at the Beijing restaurant, delay stuffing the last tiger prawns into their mouths and greet her saying they have seen her appear in some TV programme. In block heels, cropped hair and thinly pencilled eyebrows, Liu’s is as public a public face as is possible in a community that shuns the media.

Proprietor and head chef Monica Liu at her Beijing restaurant in Tangra, Kolkata.
(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

Image issues

“Our food is suited to Indian tastes,” says the owner of five restaurants in and outside Chinatown, returning to our table. Liu opened Kimling, her first, in 1991. “In my restaurants, I always keep a chilli-garlic gravy, popular with customers, ready. Sometimes they want their chicken dry or with gravy. But this is not to say my food is Indian-Chinese. It is Chinese,” says Liu playing the elder stateswoman of Chinese cuisine to the hilt.

Restauranteurs in Tangra, riding the restaurant boom in the ’90s, had no problem saying they sell Indian-Chinese to create a space, as it were, for selling their food. “It was part of their entrepreneurial logic to boost saleability,” says anthropology researcher Piya Chakraborty. But the renown of many Chinese restaurants now owned by non-Chinese (such as hotelier Anjan Chatterjee’s Mainland China, which he started in Mumbai in 1994 and which he brought to Kolkata, and musician Debaditya Chaudhury’s Chowman chain in 2010) has produced a new kind of anxiety. So the assertion of ‘authentic Chinese’ to be got at Tangra, and not just at central Kolkata, the original Chinatown, is important now.

Food networks

The small eating houses in Tiretta Bazaar, central Kolkata, was originally meant to feed the local Chinese working men, numbering around 25,000 till the early ’60s, before the outbreak of the Indo-China war of ’62. Central Kolkata was a Cantonese stronghold. When a new throughfare split the area, the Hakkas, the other sizeable Chinese immigrant group, re-located to Tangra. The collective sense of security in mixed neighbourhoods, where each minority recognises the other as such (central Kolkata had substantial Anglo Indian, Jewish, Sindhi, Bihari populations), however, stopped many Hakkas from moving out.

Dominic Lee, a Hakka, who owns Pou Chong, one of the most well-known brands of sauce and noodles made by the community near Tiretta Bazaar, is perceived as Mr Lee, the sauce-maker, not the Indian-Chinese sauce-maker by the neighbourhood. His professional identity, he says, has never felt eclipsed by his racial identity. (That is why he is able to field questions of “authenticity” without feeling defensive about it.)

This is not to say that the Chinese do not maintain strong community networks. Lee’s products are used by Tangra outlets like Liu’s Beijing, as much as all over central Kolkata eateries. When casting directors of the Salman Khan-starrer Tubelight were scouting for a youth to portray “a Chinese”, Lee recommended Thomas Chen, a Cantonese mechanical engineer and singer in Kolkata, for the cameo.

David Rocco, the popular Canadian-Italian TV host, has interviewed Lee for his programme Dolce India. When quizzed about the ‘authenticity’ of his sauces, Lee’s answer is pat: “It’s authentic for this area. The Hakkas are gypsies. Each group of Hakkas has its own Hakka cuisine.” No two Bengalis, he says to further explain his point, make pulao or paturi the same way.

Owner of the Pou Chong brand, Dominic Lee at his shop at Tiretta Bazaar, the first Chinatown. The combination of the Pou Chong tomato and Pou Chong green chilli sauce is usually used with the Kolkata kathi roll.
(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

The Pou Chong brand, started by Lee’s father to cater to the large Chinese population, was badly hit, a second time, when families were uprooted at the outbreak of the Indo-China war in 1962. “It was a collective trauma for the community, which may explain the wall of silence it maintains now,” says Chakraborty.

The war with China nearly emptied central Kolkata; hundreds of Chinese were deported to and jailed in camps in Rajasthan on mere suspicion of being ‘Chinese agents’. Monica Liu and her family were picked up and sent to a prison camp as was Thomas Chen’s mother in her teens; they were released without compensation or apology after several years. In a cruel twist of fate, the role he had to enact to crack the Tubelight audition was to play a Chinese soldier interrogating an Indian spy.

“I can never touch a potato or a gourd since then. Even the smell of their cooking scares me,” says Liu. They were a staple in her prison camp. For many Indian Chinese with similar experiences, family traditions around food have just not come together because of interrupted family life. Chen says he learnt to make a Chinese-style whole steamed fish, but not from his mother. The lack of schooling, because of formative years in jail, may also have pushed many of those from the earlier generation towards informal sectors like food, other than ‘office jobs.’

By the ’70s, the situation stabilised. Local Chinese boys entered the city’s five-star kitchens as hotels opened their first Chinese restaurants. “They popularised our products. Chinese, by then, had become part of the city’s street food. Every street corner had someone selling chow on carts. The combination of the Pou Chong tomato and Pou Chong green chilli became the Kolkata kathi roll sauce,” says Lee.

The eating culture of the central Kolkata Chinese developed in close contact with other migrant communities at the margins of Bengali society. Their restaurant clientele – fellow Chinese – was assured due to their still sizeable population in this area so they were under no pressure to suit their food to a ‘Bengali’ palate. Jayani Bonnerjee of OP Jindal Global University, a specialist on the Indian-Chinese community, talks of a dish called ngapi, a shrimp paste of Burmese origin, that was eaten at both Chinese and Anglo-Indian homes on Bentinck Street, though it’s not clear who influenced whom.

“The Chinese and Anglo-Indians had an affinity for one another; for ease of schooling and professional networks, many Chinese had become Christians. They shared schools, met each other in church, visited each other’s homes,” says Bonnerjee. When Waldorf, the famous Kolkata Chinese restaurant on Park Street, changed hands, the ownership went to an Anglo-Indian family, the Mantoshes, most probably in the ’90s, she points out.

At Bow Barracks, central Kolkata. The Central Kolkata Chinese stay in mixed neighbourhoods.
(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

Indianisation

The Supreme Court ultimatum in 2002 to shift out 592 tanneries in Tangra, where the Hakkas on leaving central Kolkata went, was another big jolt for the community. It nearly emptied out Tangra. Most left for Canada. Those who could not; converted the godowns into restaurants. This is where the Indianisation of Chinese restaurants began.

The story of Tangra’s Indianisation is classic migrant-nama: left with lemons, they made lemonade. But when they did, that was inadvertently the first step taken by the community to build, with the Bengalis, a shared culinary mythology.

Chinese eating houses probably took their initial reluctant steps towards serving ‘Indian Chinese’ when Kolkata’s office-goers passed through the tannery areas in Tangra on their way home and showed up at the factory-cum-kitchens of the Chinese to request for fried chicken to go with booze.

Bengalis who frequented these Chinese joints wanted Chinese food, but on their own terms — fried, spicy and saucy. Enter the Chilli Chicken (chicken nuggets dipped in corn slurry, deep fried and finished up with soya sauce) and Schezwan Chicken (made by tossing deep fried chicken with a reddish sauce out of a bottle and Sichuan pepper, a key ingredient). Sichuan pepper, when it met Bengalis inside Chinese restaurants, began to be called ‘Schezwan’, so goes the joke.

Authenticity-seekers eat in Central Kolkata places like Eau Chew and Tung Nam now; Tangra is the spice-lovers’ haunt. Such customers might, says Monica Liu, on the rare occasion, ask her the passive-aggressive question, “what is your cooking medium?”, which she knows how to answer. “We use the same oil, or as much oil – the way you like your biryani,” she says fixing the customer with gimlet eyes.

The last Chinese waiter to take orders at the tables of Chinese restaurants like Liu’s Beijing, is not known. Till the ’70s, the Chinese restaurant was not the first place where Bengali boys looked for jobs. Now they do. This is now Beliaghata boy Babu’s stage. In Liu’s kitchen, Biharis are firing up the woks, and two Hakkas are chopping the vegetables and supervising them. The word is in many ‘Chinese restaurants’ Nepalis and south Indians are doing the cooking. Peter Chen, who runs the famous carpentry firm in Poddar Court, central Kolkata, says as much but won’t identify the restaurants. “They are doing a fine job, let them be,” he says.

Mechanical engineer Thomas Chen with his son, Travis, at his home in Bow Bazaar, central Kolkata. ‘I am almost Bangali,’ he says. Chen has done a cameo in a Salman Khan film and also sings in Bengali, Hindi and Mandarin.
(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)

The Chinese have taken up Indian food as well. When dal poori entered Chinese homes has not yet been documented, but Peter Chen, the businessman likes it. Chang Chen Fa, a Hubei chef loves it. Thomas Chen, the singer, eats it. Chen, who welcomes us into his home with tea and Chinese prawn wafers, says his pork is spiced with Everest turmeric masala. “I am almost Bangali,” says Thomas Chen, who speaks the flat, unaccented Bengali spoken in urban Kolkata.

Many young Indian-Chinese like Chen, especially those who were born in India, say experts, are increasingly trying to define their Chinese-ness in the context of their immediate surroundings. Chen and his family participate in community art projects around Tiretta Bazaar, the area he grew up in. He is not looking to be Chinese in China.

As we leave Kolkata, two images remain with me. Monica Liu barking at her employees to slice the carrots well, which pretty much sounds the same in every language. And Chen singing khayal at his home, which he says, helps him hit the high notes when singing in Mandarin.

People often say the Chinatowns of Kolkata are going or gone. Both, I think, daily renew themselves.

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