The little-known world of Kolkata's China Town

How often we have taken Chinese food. How often we have visited Chinese beauty parlours. How often we have visited Chinese dentists. How often we have bought shoes from Chinese footwear shops. 

We always use their services. But how many of us,  or how often,  care to know how they live,their settlements, what are the features what matters to them most as a community, how have they as a migrant ethnic community assimilated into Kolkata’s culture and society?

It is these basic questions and there unanswered silence that have led a young Calcuttan, Kamalika Bose, to explore these uncharted areas. And she is the one cut out for the work. An assistant professor in the faculty of design at India’s premier architecture institute, CEPT University, she has chosen to do research on the Chinese community in Old China Town of Kolkata. A batch of 27 students has come along with her out of whom 12 are from Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark. Thomas Hilberth, associate professor, Aarhus School of Architecture, Denmark, is the co-instructor in the programme. 

As Kamalika explains, “I think when we look at Kolkata and talk about Kolkata and Kolkata’s heritage, we largely focus on the British colonial heritage, its architectural features found mostly in the Dalhousie Chowringhee region, and the culture that went with it. It is only recently that the area of research has widened. There has been a spark of interest in alternative histories, alternative heritage that have developed as part of the mainstream identity that the city has. Out of all these communities that had once migrated here, the Jews and Armenians and the Greeks have left. We have their synagogues, old churches, burial places and such other left-overs.

But what about the people who were once the owners or creators of these heritage buildings, these architectural beauties? So we don’t look at their heritage just as isolated monuments.” Basu said. For the last ten years she has been researching on North Kolkata, on the Rajbaris and the paras and how they developed. Her interest was always along Chitpur Road, the sort of culture that developed on either side of Chitpur Road. The Old China town forms the southernmost starting point of Chitpur Road, where Bentick Street ends and Chitpur Road starts.
Thomas feels “It is very important in our globalized world to have an understanding of different cultures around the globe. For us it is a fantastic opportunity to have this collaboration with CEPT and we could join the course which Kamlika Bose had prepared so well, so it is not only that we profit from the difference between one culture and another, we can compare three cultures.”

Talking about the Chinese community, Kamalika says, “What was interesting for me was to see how they have fitted themselves into Kolkata which was a very alien place for them. We know that the Chinese are a very close knit community which is steeped in tradition and culture. They have held on to most of the traditions. For instance I didn’t have any idea that they had so many Chinese burial grounds. Then there are different temples, each temple is from a different province from where people have migrated. We look at the community as one community-Chinese community in Kolkata. But within that there are so many subcultures. Its almost like India. There is no one India, There is no one Chinese food. Similarly there is no one Chinese culture. It has been a revelation for me, in the part of the study to understand these multiple Chinese identities that make the collective idea of the Indian Chinese community.”

Thomas adds, “What I thought was very interesting to discover was that there were so many kinds of diverse professions that are traditionally Chinese like dentists or carpentry or boat building, or jobs in the leather industry. Kind of niche jobs or professions which required a lot of skills. They always look at themselves as Indian Chinese and not migrant Chinese.”

When asked whether the next generation youths are migrating for a better future. Kamalika feels, “There is one segment of the youth who still have values, they respect their history. Though they are looking for economic opportunities, they don’t want to obliterate this heritage they have in search of newer opportunity. they want to strike a balance, which is why I think any conservation here is important because that becomes an incentive for the newer generation to find pride in what they have. If everything is demolished or disintegrates then the community loses that pride that they have. It is very important that the revitalization of Old China town is going to be shorten the arms for the entire community especially the youngsters who otherwise look at other opportunities elsewhere. So conservation can really act as a trigger and can give a great boost and incentive to the local communities to find pride and reconnect with their identities.”

What does Thomas feel about the architecture of the Chinese temples? Thomas explains, “The multifunctional aspects of the places are amazing. People playing mahjong in front of the temple shrine that would be impossible in the Indian context! It was really a surprise for me. It is very pragmatic. There is no categorized boundary. Architecture-wise the spaces are quite simple. The decoration is more elaborate. This also relates to their profession, carpentry. When the Chinese came to India they were under British rule, so the external facade and features of many temples are very classical and reflect those traditional classical features whereas inside you see the Chinese identity strongly.”

                                                                  Kamalika and Thomas
What is the importance of conservation works in today’s world? Kamalika elaborates, “In an era when we are rapidly homogeneousing as cities, as people, there is no difference between the way Shanghai looks and Dubai looks, and what we aspire for our cities to look. With the kind of IT townships we are creating, we are flattening the globe. It is not remaining a diverse place as we like it to be. But we also recognize places with their historic identity. It is the heritage of the country that defines the history and identity. Therefore conservation plays a very important role in restoring and holding on to the identity.”

While Thomas signs off by saying, “if you don’t understand where you come from you will never understand where you are going to. To recognize the diversity and colorfulness of the culture. Globalization has the danger to flatten the culture. It is important to preserve the small oasis we have in this lovely city.” Normally it’s a notion of being in a China Town universally, there is an image about a Chinese identity of speaking loud, neon signs/ billboards, large buildings with Chinese character. Kolkata’s Old China Town is very distinct in such a way that it does not visually loudly declare it as a China Town but only once you start walking within it is that you discover it as a hidden part of the city it has woven itself nicely.”

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