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8 unforgettable experiences in India’s only Chinatown

Here’s a look at eight amazing experiences that make up the Chinese heritage of Kolkata
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet/Tanayesh Talukdar

Family-run eateries are disappearing. So are the Mahjong clubs. However, lion dances continue to be held every year. A Chinese printing press continues to deliver a very special newspaper… all news from Kolkata’s Chinatown. The bad news is the Chinese community here has dwindled down to a few thousand. The good news: a unique initiative, the Cha Project is trying to preserve the heritage of the Indian Chinese community with an arts-heritage-food hub that will try to recreate the old Chinatown days.

Here’s a look at 8 unforgettable experiences that make up the Chinese heritage of Kolkata.

Get a handcrafted shoe

There was a time when Bentinck Street in central Kolkata had rows and rows of Chinese shoemakers. I had come here in early 2000 and got a pair made that lasted me years.  People would throng Bentinck Street to buy the handmade shoes which were durable and stylish.  Now, the shops are mostly gone as shopping malls and online order portals become the norm. People do not have the time, or just do not understand the value of handmade shoes any more perhaps. There are a few shops left though. If you want to encase your feet in a made-to-order snug fit, head to Ting Son and Co. Inside, a cabinet with the legend “own manufacture” showcases the owner’s best quality hand-sewn soft leather moccasins and brogues. They cost between Rs 700-900.

Chimney soup and Josephine noodles at Eau Chew

You have to have the legendary, aromatic chimney soup at Eau Chew which has diced meats, vegetables, and seafood. This is a Kolkata gem – a no-nonsense eating house run by a Chinese family located inside their house. The family often eats on the mica-topped tables in the room with lace-curtained windows with their clientele. Eau Chew has been a bit of a tradition with us – I remember a rather long and meandering jaunt led by my father across the narrow bylanes of central Kolkata with my extended family (mother, brother, irritable and hungry aunts and uncles, cousins) in search of this place with “amazing Chinese food”. We finally managed to locate it.

Years later, when I came back to the city for a 4-year stint with an English daily, I followed my father’s footsteps looking for Eau Chew. I had goosebumps when I actually saw it. The entrance hadn’t changed a bit – the same steep flight of stairs leading to the first-floor of the broken building behind the petrol pump on Mission Row. My teenage son is now a fan of their legendary chimney soup. Eau Chew was set up in 1927 and the owners (the Huang family) say it is the oldest restaurant in the country to be owned by a Chinese family. The pots used for their chimney soup are the ones their ancestors had got from China. Also try their Roast Chilli Pork and Josephine noodles (named after the owner’s wife and available only on request).

Mahjong and tea at a Chinese club

The Tiretti Bazaar area has several clubs/churches nestled in its narrow bylanes. They were set up by various ethnic groups to nurture social and cultural aspects of the Chinese community. They are really traditional Chinese temples. The ‘church’ tag came from the British colonial administration. They also serve as (and are called) “clubs” – meeting points for people to gather in the evenings, pray, socialise, and host festivals. The Gee Hing Temple is popular for its mahjong sessions. I walked in to see tables with four to five people clustered around with bowls of bright green and red mahjong tiles.

If you sit around, they will generously offer a glass of green tea. Nearby is the two-storied, red colonial building that is the Toong On Church in Chhatawalla Guli. Built in 1924, it once housed the famous Nanking restaurant, Calcutta’s first Chinese restaurant and a hot spot for spotting celebrities like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Shammi Kapoor. Dibakar Banerjee’s recent film Detective Byomkesh Bakshi had several scenes set in the restaurant, replicating Nanking of the 1940s. A few minutes from Toong On is the 108-year-old Sea Ip Church set up in 1905 by migrants from four counties in China’s Guangdong Province. The wooden staircase leading to the altar came from China.  Then there is the Voi Yune Club with a giant portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China; the Nam Soon Temple, an 1820 building that houses a school and museum; and the Hupeh Association with a shrine to Lu Ban, God of Carpenters.

Pick up a Chinese newspaper

People in the area can be found in the evenings poring over newspapers published in Chinese. The Overseas Chinese Commerce of India is probably India’s last remaining Chinese language newspaper. It is published from Tangra, which houses tanneries. The paper used to be handwritten once upon a time with characters in beautiful calligraphy. It carries stories selected from national and international papers and translated into Chinese. Some news is also sourced from TV and radio. The pages also serve as a newsletter for the community with births, deaths, engagements, marriages and other social events.

Do the Lion Dance

In February, dragon and lion dancers usher in the Chinese New Year. A Dragon Dance show in Tiretta starts off the festival and celebrations are spread over 10 to 15 days. The Lion Dancers’ groups begin with performances in Chinese temples after which they visit neighbourhood establishments and houses to bring good luck. This June, Kolkata’s Chinatown hosted the Dragon Boat Festival for the first time.

Moon over these cakes

Every September, disk-like mini pastries make an appearance on the Tiretti Bazaar breakfast menu. They are an integral part of the Moon Festival, which commemorates the end of the summer harvest. The cakes traditionally have a filling of lotus seed and sweet bean paste; but the ones you get here are mostly cashew nuts and resins, dried cherries and even whole egg yolks (to depict the moon). It is believed that the cakes were invented around the 13th century by Chinese rebels fighting against Mongols as a means to hide plans which were baked into cakes.

A dumpling daybreaker

Start your day with dumplings at the Chinese breakfast at Tiretti Bazaar. You have to be up and early to savour this – the pop-up breakfast area lasts from 6.30am to 8.30am because it is in a busy business district and vendors have to wrap up before the traffic starts. You can start with a bowl of steaming hot, light broth with greens and diced meat or opt for a fiery soup with Sichuan chillies.

Stir-fried pork sausages served with a bun can last you till early evening. Try the momos, tai paos (thick dough buns stuffed with onions, celery, boiled eggs and diced meats), the shu mei, fried dough balls, spring rolls, steamed glutinous rice and prawn chips. Vendors also sell fresh produce like bak choy, mustard greens, spring onions, Chinese cabbage, blocks of soup stock, strings of fresh purple sausages and crabs.

Stock up on sauces, shiitake and steamers
The streets of Tiretti Bazaar are heaven-sent for gourmands who want to stock up on Chinese kitchen provisions. Dried fungus and shiitake mushrooms, spice powders, rice sticks and oil sticks for soups, sausages, therapeutic teas and balms, sun-dried fish, prawn wafers – the old provision stores manned by the Chinese community stock it all. You can also pick up bamboo and ceramic steamers, teapots and mugs. The ones to visit are: Sing Ho Stores with great homemade sauces; Hap Hing Co. Chinese Provision & Medicine Stores; Sing Cheung Sauce Factory and Pou Chong.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance writer and founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, an award-winning media collective for children and youth. A compulsive city-walker, she loves exploring urban cultures and is a columnist for NY-based Karta, a collaborative urban mapping project. Her most memorable adventure was in Afghanistan as digital media advisor, setting up citizens' media centres.