The Mystery of Calcutta’s Lost Chinatown: Part 2

My guide, Martyn, doesn’t read Chinese, so he doesn’t know that a lot of the buildings here in Calcutta’s little Chinatown house family halls. (Tong wooi–the meeting halls-cum-recreation clubs that you find in nearly all overseas Chinese communities of any size). I spot a banner for one on this crumbling building at the end of a little alley and take a look inside. “Where are the Chinese people?” I ask an Indian guy lounging in the doorway. He shrugs and points upstairs.

The stairs are wide–this is a factory or workshop building. We climb all the way to the top floor, and there, on a door painted red, are some faded fai chun, little Chinese paper banners put up for good luck in the new year.

I hear nothing stirring within. I knock, and then hear footsteps. Then the door opens a crack. It’s an elderly Chinese man.

“Hello,” I say in Cantonese, and apologize for barging in. “I have come from Hong Kong,” I begin.

Heung Gong!!?” the man says. “I used to live in Hong Kong. In Yau Ma Tei.  Please come in. How is Yau Ma Tei?”

We walk into a large, high-ceilinged room and I realize that this isn’t a family hall–or perhaps it was, but the only family here now is Mr. Chan and his wife. Their laundry is hanging in the space by the window. Scraps of wood take up one side of the room. The other wall is dedicated to an elaborate Chinese altar.

Mr. Chan tells his story. He came from Guangdong to India, via Hong Kong in the 1950s. It was easier and cheaper to get to Calcutta than to go to the U.S. or Australia. And business was good. “I made furniture,” Mr. Chan says. “I still do.” He points at the wood pile.

But business is not good anymore. Many of the community left India–his sons are in Canada. More Chinese moved out of this neighborhood into the new Chinese area by the airport.

“But there are still a few of us left. Every morning we meet in the main road and sit outside and yam cha. If you come by 6am, you’ll find us there.”

Mrs. Chan listens to our conversation, and she is looking a bit uncomfortable. I think that it is because she is still wearing her housedress, and that we have arrived unexpectedly. But then she says to me, “You be very careful about the water that you drink here. It is not good. If you drink the water it could be very dangerous. I would like to make you tea, but our water is not good.”

She is apologizing to me for not being able to offer me a cup of tea. I feel bad for putting her in this situation by barging in. I make a little more polite conversation with Mr. Chan about Hong Kong, thank the two of them very much, and bid a quick farewell.

Outside, Martyn says he knows of one more “big” Chinese building around the corner. We go there and its another tong wooi. We knock on the door, and it is opened by a Chinese man around forty who invites us into a big room with a large rosewood carved table. Several other men in their 40s are sitting around the table drinking tea and reading English-language newspapers.

I ask them, in Cantonese, if this is a family association, and they answer me in English. “Yes it is, but there are not many left. We were all born in India and we speak English as well as Chinese. But we don’t read Chinese.”

They invite me to sit down, and as we chat, the mystery of this abandoned Chinatown emerges.

The men are the children of Chinese who came to Calcutta from Guangdong after the second world war. The Chinese did quite well there for a while. But then in 1962, India and China had a border war. Tensions against the Chinese community mounted. Some Chinese left India. Many were forcibly relocated by the government, sent to cities across India, outside of the Chinese enclaves.

And the Indian government did one more thing: they forbid the teaching of Chinese in schools. That’s why these middle aged men are speaking in English and reading English newspapers, even as they sit in roughly handmade copies of Ming chairs at a big Chinese table.

They are wah kiuh, not by choice, but by political force.

I am feeling very melancholy, speaking with the Chinese men of Calcutta. But then a smiling old man walks into the room. “Would you like to visit the temple?” he asks in Cantonese.

His name is Wong, “Wong wong, not three whack Wong,” he explains, letting me know which Chinese character is his surname.

We walk upstairs. The temple takes up an entire room. There are hundreds and hundreds of tiny porcelain statues, along with huge ones of the goddess and the warrior. Incense burns, and there is a large platter of fresh fruit that Mr. Wong has just placed. He shows me the feather duster he uses to clean the statues, “every day.”

He hasn’t been back to China for more than thirty years. But he keeps the candles burning, in Calcutta, for the gods of his ancestors.

I light some incense for good luck on my return journey. I will be back in Hong Kong in a few days.

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