In Search of Cantonese Calcutta: Part One

Calcutta is a city without a map, and once you wander off the main roads, the streets and alleyways lose their names. But I wanted to explore the city on foot. So I signed on with Martyn, an Australian expat tour guide who’s lived in Calcutta for 9 years, for a walking tour. Martyn is a tall, bearded guy who loves Calcutta, and is an expert at weaving through crowds and dodging beggars. He’s also unfazed by smells and mounds of garbage, and he is full of interesting Calcutta trivia—like the fact that it is against the law to carry meat on the Calcutta MTR.

 

I tell him I have heard there is a Chinatown in Calcutta and I’d like to see it. He considers this for a moment. “There’s a Chinatown on the road to the airport, but it is just a string of Chinese restaurants and shoemakers, and it is relatively new. I don’t find it that interesting. But just north of your hotel is the old Chinatown. It’s mostly deserted as far as I can tell, but I know there are a lot of shops and buildings with Chinese signs on them.”

 

Let’s go!

 

We head to the old Chinatown area on foot along the main drag, which follows the route of the river. There are a few Chinese shops selling shoes along the way (since Hindus consider dealing with leather and cowhides unclean, the Chinese found an economic niche in the footware trade). Then Martin ducks down a side lane. “There’s one little Chinese restaurant down here,” he says. Turning a corner, I spot the lovely handpainted sign of the “Deih Lei Faan Dim”:

 

 

There’s nobody inside the dark musty entryway. An Indian fellow lounging around by the door says he thinks the place is closed—for today or for good, it’s hard to say. It’s hot and humid. We move on. But I’m excited now, because I’ve noticed something important. The transliteration of the restaurant’s name—“D’Ley”—corresponds to the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. Somewhere among the Indians thronging these dark back streets, there are people who speak Cantonese.

 

Martyn suggests we try another area of alleys and little streets on the opposite side of the main road.

 

It is a more open and light filled area, with larger, crumbling old buildings interspersed with empty lots filled with garbage and squatter shelters. Calcutta is an amazing wreck of a place. It has splendid architecture from several periods, because it was the capital of British India, and colonial India’s main trading city for more than a century. Both Indians and British  made huge fortunes here, and built to impress. But then the British moved the capital to Delhi in the beginning of the 20th century, and Calcutta began a long decline from which it has never recovered.

 

The city reminds me a little of Havana, or the Bund in Shanghai fifteen years ago. Large old mansions cut up into little apartments filled with squatters. Trees sprout from cracks in the walls of solid old Art nouveau and apartment houses with rococo facades. We pass one of these marvelous old semi-ruined buildings and I start to get excited again, for the sign over the entranceway reads “Nanking Restaurant.”

 

 

On the second floor of the building I can see a large dining room. Inside the first floor are plastic chairs and tables, but even though it is lunchtime on a Saturday, there are no waiters or customers in sight. The place is covered with the grime of ages and feels abandoned,  creepy. Then I notice that next door is an old, open bar-room that also has red plastic chairs and looks like an extension of the restaurant.

 

A guy in an old dirty t-shirt who looks Chinese is in there, arguing with some Indian guys. From about 25 feet away I take a couple of snapshots.


 

The t-shirt guy notices me taking pictures, and waves me away. I walk over to him, figuring I’ll introduce myself and ask him about the restaurant and its history, and whether we can take photos. As I get closer, I notice two things—one is that he is only partly Chinese. His face is odd-looking, pasty-white and nearly transparent. I get a strong whiff of cheap whiskey as the man scowls then starts to curse at me in English.

 

“Let’s move on,” says Martyn in a low voice.

 

When we are safely around the corner, he explains that a lot of these traders deal in bootleg whiskey and smuggled cigarettes. Taking pictures is probably not a good idea.

 

“Come on,” says Martyn, “I’ll take you to my favorite building around here.”

 

I follow him through the streets of this strange, lost-in-time Calcutta Chinatown.

 

(to be continued…)

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