Chinatown gets new lease of life
2014-01-24, INDRAJIT BASU

Once a thriving community with its own schools, social clubs, temples and even daily newspapers, Kolkata’s Chinatown — the largest Chinese settlement in India — is now a sad remnant of its heyday.

Deserted by a large percentage of its population over the past five decades who left in search of greener pastures, its population has dwindled from 100,000 to less than 5,000.

Yet the city’s decrepit Chinese quarter that was, until recently, consigned to the sidelines by civic authorities, is suddenly attracting the attention it was denied for decades.

The local government has woken up to the need to restore the Chinese community and its culture, and has accepted a broad plan crafted by Singapore-based initiatives to reposition Kolkata’s Chinatown as a heritage site as well as a destination for promoting local tourism.

The Cha Project, so-called since “cha” means tea in both the local language and Chinese, aims not only to preserve the heritage of India’s first Chinese settlement. 

It also plans to develop Chinatown as a cultural destination, creating a physical experience, promoting businesses, and, above all, improving the quality of life for the few thousand Chinese that have been living here for generations and consider themselves natives of India.

The project has roped in the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) — the largest non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and preservation of India’s natural and cultural heritage. Meanwhile the local government has agreed to provide the necessary funding through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), a massive city modernization scheme launched by the Indian government under the Ministry of Urban Development. 

That apart, the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India has also promised to contribute to helping in the development and restoration of the heritage Chinese structures in Chinatown.

“The Chinatown of Kolkata is steeped in history. Every road, every pavement, every crumbling wall has a story to tell,” says Singapore-based Rinkoo Bhowmik, a design professional who is spearheading the project.

“The project proposes to create a heritage site that preserves the history and culture of the Chinese diaspora,” she says. “From a bustling community the diaspora has dwindled to a minority. There is therefore an urgent need to preserve their heritage.”

The project, according to the plan, has three phases. The first two phases will involve restoration of the landmark Toong-On temple in Chinatown and its surrounding areas. 

Since Toong-On acts as a focal point for the community that locals relate to and are familiar with, the team expects its restoration to be a catalyst and a showcase to set the stage for the regeneration of the rest of Chinatown.

In the third phase, the plan envisages restoring and renovating six other Chinese temples, thus establishing a heritage trail connecting the landmarks. This will allow a visitor or a tourist to “soak in the cultural and architectural diversity of the area”, says GM Kapur, the convenor of the regional chapter of INTACH who is driving the project from Kolkata.

There is yet another phase that will follow after the third phase, which will include Tangra or New Chinatown. This is an area about 8 kilometers away from the old Chinatown where a number of Chinese settlers were pushed out to in the early 1900s.

“We are ecstatic that Chinatown has been identified as a heritage site and will be restored finally,” says Paul Chung from the Kolkata-based Indian Chinese Association for Culture, Welfare and Development. 

“Although we are a minority now — due to the indifference towards us that forced thousands to move out to seek opportunity and good life elsewhere in the world — no one can deny that we still form an integral part of the social fabric of Kolkata,” he says.

Periods of disorder in China — the First Opium War (1839-42) and the Chinese Revolution (1911-12) — saw waves of Chinese migrating to India. The first Chinese to begin settling in Kolkata were sailors. 

Being a major port, Kolkata played host to many Chinese sailors. They would stop in Kolkata and wait for the ships to carry them to their destinations. Journeys by sea were slow and ships infrequent, so many months had to be spent ashore. While sailors waited, they would seek work in the city.

According to published records, some of them eventually stopped their seafaring ways and settled in Kolkata. By the 1930s, the number of women and children in the community increased considerably as Chinese men started bringing their families with them.

There was also a burgeoning Indian tea industry requiring trained workers, which led to a further increase in Chinese immigrants. Though essentially an insular community, the Chinese became part of Kolkata’s melting pot. Soon, Hakka tanners and shoemakers, Hubei dentists, Cantonese carpenters and restaurateurs, were leaving their lasting stamp on the city. 

In 1910, the Chinese community faced its first split when the overcrowded Chinatown started pushing many to the fringes of the city. There, many of them established carpentry and shoe-making workshops, and facilities for leather tanning and food processing, converting an almost wasteland to a thriving industrial area. This place later was referred to as Tangra, or New Chinatown.

However, the Sino-Indian war in 1962 marked a dramatic change to the lives of Chinese people in India. This period saw many Chinese people coming under arrest, restrictions placed on free movement, and the revoking of Indian citizenship of those who had already acquired it.

Things were never quite the same for the Chinese in India after the war. Individuals and entire families began migrating to Canada, Australia, and to other parts of Asia including back to China in search of better life and employment opportunities. 

In 1995 the final blow was dealt, when, in order to reduce pollution, the state government ordered the shutdown of many tanneries and manufacturing facilities, and for the relocation of others outside city limits.

That stifled Tangra. What remains today is almost a ghost town, a shell of the vibrant and bustling community that was once an integral part of the identity of Kolkata.

The revival of the economy around Chinatown is a major objective of the project.

“We know that revival is only sustainable if the participants and the local community, including the non-Chinese residents, in Chinatown can make money,” says Bhowmik.

The Cha Project project also aims to create new opportunities in order to unlock the full potential of Chinatown. Book and food festivals, seminars, literary-themed cafes, street food vendors and the like will help boost business, bring in investment and create employment.

Reviving traditional trades and crafts that are fast disappearing is also of huge importance. 

“The Chinese of Kolkata were once famous for handcrafted shoes and carpentry. The project will provide branding, design and retail consultation to help revive these crafts,” says Bhowmik.

“Tourism will also stand to gain tremendously from the project’s proposed street food lanes modeled on the robust street food culture in Singapore, Malaysia and most of Southeast Asia,” adds Kapur of INTACH.

Aside from implementation, however, funding is expected to pose the biggest challenge. While the total project cost is still unknown, the planners expect $16 million will be required just to improve and create the public infrastructure of Chinatown.

According to Kapur, the local government is willing to fund this amount through the JNNURM scheme.

“The state government has given us three months to prepare and file the detailed project report, following which they have promised to release funding for starting work to upgrade the public infrastructure,” says Kapur. 

“Once that takes off, we expect investments to flow in from local Chinese and other investors. If all goes well, we expect the first three phases to be complete in three years starting from January this year.” 

The planners, according to Bhowmik, are also trying to rope in Chinese emigrants from Kolkata who have settled in Singapore and elsewhere in the world.

Heritage preservation will open up opportunities for a wide range of professions, she adds, including conservation architects, designers, food and beverage experts, publishers and curators.

Dominic Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese from the city who now lives in Toronto, Canada, says: “The Chinese community is happy that it is being brought into the mainstream by being included in the restoration of Kolkata’s Chinatown. I am going to spread the word and urge whoever I can in my community to participate in the project.”

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