Inside Kolkata's once thriving (but now disappearing) Chinatown

It was once the biggest Chinese community in India, but heritage authorities fear Tiretta Bazaar could lose its identity

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Hidden in an Indian megacity of 15 million people, I found a cluster of buildings that looked out of place. Decorated by Mandarin characters, these brightly coloured Taoist temples can all be traced back to one Chinese man. When Tong Atchew arrived in Kolkata in 1778 and set up a sugar mill, he couldn’t have known that 20,000 of his countrymen would eventually follow him to this metropolis, forming the largest Chinese community on Indian soil.

By interacting and intermarrying with the locals, these Chinese-Indians created a new culture, one that was unlike any other in India or China. It developed unique customs and two things that became and remain mainstays of Kolkata: Indian-Chinese food and hand-pulled rickshaws.

Called Tiretta Bazaar, this Chinese neighbourhood grew enormous in the first half of the 20th century. At its peak, 20,000 ethnically Chinese people lived there. Now, however, there are only a few dozen. Kolkata’s Chinatown is at risk of all but disappearing, according to the World Monument Fund, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage sites.

Tiretta Bazaar was once the largest Chinatown in Kolkata. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Tiretta Bazaar was recently included in this organisation’s 2022 World Monument Watch List. The register featured 25 invaluable buildings and sites in dire need of protection. The WMF claims Tiretta Bazaar’s Chinese community has become marginalised and its heritage is in jeopardy. “Adjacent development encroaches upon the historic neighbourhood and threatens its existence, while a dwindling and ageing community are left to uphold local tradition,” the WMF explains.

When I visited Tiretta Bazaar, not long before the pandemic began, its Chinese influence seemed limited to the architecture of Nam Soon, Sea Ip, Ling Liang and Toong On temples. Roaming its narrow, serpentine alleys, I encountered not a single person who outwardly appeared to have Chinese ancestry. Until I met Li.

He was the caretaker of a Taoist temple buried deep in the alleyways of Tiretta Bazaar. Called Choonghee Dong Thien Haue, it stands out thanks to its striking colour scheme of salmon pink, blood red and prosperous gold. Li unlocked the temple and guided me up to its petite prayer hall on the first floor.

Tiretta remained the centre of the Chinese settlement and an important food, shopping and cultural destination for Kolkata residents
World Monument Fund

Since 1858, Taoists have come here to worship. But there are hardly any left in Kolkata and this temple is largely empty most days, Li told me. Before I departed, with a smile and an appreciative handshake, I asked Li about Atchew. He merely shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps it was the language barrier. Or maybe he doesn’t know the story of Kolkata’s first Chinese resident. Neither did I until a few days before I landed in Kolkata.

It was then I learnt how Atchew single-handedly sprouted Kolkata’s Chinese community. Widely considered the city’s first Chinese immigrant, this trader left southern China in 1778 for the huge city in India’s north-east. He brought with him a large supply of Chinese tea, which was rare and expensive in India at the time.

In return for a generous parcel of these leaves, Atchew received land on Kolkata’s southern outskirts. As the capital of British India, Kolkata had a busy port and a booming economy. Atchew built a sugar plant and soon found success. He employed many of the southern Chinese immigrants who began flowing into Kolkata, which was now famously prosperous.

This Chinese population steadily increased throughout the 1800s. Then, for two decades starting from the 1920s, China was ravaged by civil conflicts and brutal Japanese occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese people escaped this bloodshed by fleeing abroad.

The path etched by Atchew became a popular one. By the 1940s, Kolkata had at least 20,000 people of Chinese ancestry, and most of them lived in and around Tiretta Bazaar. They had a profound effect on the city, the WMF says.

Choonghee Dong Thien Haue temple was empty except for its caretaker. Photo: Ronan O'Connell

“Tiretta Bazaar became the backbone of commercial enterprise in the early 20th century, attracting Hakka and Cantonese settlers who became renowned for fine handcrafted goods, especially leather product,” the WMF explains. “They traded as far as Kunming in Yunnan and even set up trade houses with Chinese businesses. In time, the Hakka community moved away. Yet Tiretta remained the centre of the Chinese settlement and an important food, shopping and cultural destination for Kolkata residents.”

The decay of this Chinatown began in the 1960s. China and India went to war in 1962, followed by a series of bloody skirmishes across the decade. Ethnically, Chinese people in India became common targets of hate. In response, many chose to either return to China or seek fresh opportunities in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.

Now the WMF will provide funding to Kolkata authorities to preserve the physical remnants of Tiretta Bazaar. What shows no sign of disappearing, fortunately, are the two clearest imprints of the Chinese on Kolkata — the cuisine and rickshaws. The latter has disappeared in China, except as a novelty in some tourist destinations. In Kolkata, though, this old-fashioned mode of transport survives.

On my last trip there, in 2019, I saw several of these wheeled carts, with seated passengers being hauled along by strong, wiry Indian men. Kolkata has long been considered among India’s most traditional cities, and rickshaws remain one of its striking features. Yet they only emerged in the city shortly before the turn of the 20th century, introduced by immigrants from China, where rickshaws had already been popular for generations.

Across many visits to Kolkata, I’ve still never ridden one. Truth be told, I’d feel guilty to ask a man to drag my oversized Australian frame. I’d be a fraction lighter were I not so seduced by Indian-Chinese food, which dominates my diet every time I’m there.

For a hearty Kolkata dinner, it’s hard to surpass jalfrezi chicken, which brims with Indian seasoning, while retaining its Chinese influence by being stir fried and embellished with soy sauce. Keeping it lighter for breakfast or lunch, I adore the city’s chow mein, a spicy egg noodle dish which is often served vegetarian style.

These Indian-Chinese dishes are so delicious and popular, I can’t imagine them disappearing. It’s a different tale for the unique, hybrid culture that spawned them. Tourists interested to witness the remnants of Kolkata’s Chinatown should probably visit as soon as they can.

Updated: September 30, 2022, 6:02 PM