The Chinese New Year revives memories of growing up with Chinese shoes, salons and food

The Chinese New Year, celebrated for seven or 15 days, fell on February 1. This year is the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar

The Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata, 2022
The Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata, 2022

Nilosree Biswas

Judging by the ancient silk route and travels through India by scholars and chroniclers like Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang, China and India possibly shared a reasonably warm relationship in ancient India. But China entered into our public consciousness again centuries later sometime in the 18th century, courtesy opium and tea trades.

Colonisers in India took a lively interest in China with the Dutch beginning to send shipments of opium, which would colour Indo-China relationship as the British East India Company took over control of the trade of opium grown in Bihar and Bengal, generating unheard of revenue.

By the end of 1859, the chest value of opium smuggled into China was 4,484,147 Pounds Sterling, despite China banning the sale and consumption of opium. Wars followed, treaties were signed but trafficking of opium continued under the shadow of bayonets. One wonders how opium growers in Bihar and Bengal viewed China.

When the first batch of Dutch shipment of opium set sail to China, a young tea trader named Tong Atchew landed on the shore of Hooghly in Kolkata. No one knew where Atchew came from and whether he was a Cantonese or a Hakkan; but the dwindling Chinese community in Kolkata/Hooghly continue to revere him as their first ancestor who made a new beginning.

A land grant in 1778 from Warren Hastings helped kick off sugarcane plantation in Bengal. Producing sugar was a labour-intensive process and brought more Chinese migrants to Bengal. Some believe that the land grant came Atchew's way following his gift of some fine tea to Hastings. Soon the rural area close to present day Budge Budge turned into a Chinese settlement with Atchew as the landlord in the village, even now called Atchipur after Atchew known by locals as Achi Saheb, who passed away in 1783.

Tagore visited China in 1924, meeting Chinese poet Lu Xun in Shaoxing. He would make two more trips to China and on his return established a fullfledged centre at Vishwa Bharati dedicated to studying Chinese Civilization and was called Cheena Bhavan.

By 1939-40 well known artists like the legendary Xu Beihong began visiting Kala Bhavan (the art school of the same university) where students learnt the ink brush technique and calligraphy.

However, such cultural exchanges remained limited to the artistic and literary circles.

By the 1950s Chinese characters, albeit villainous, were frequenting story lines of Hindi cinema. In the film Howrah Bridge (1958), the superhit thriller starring Madhubala and Ashok Kumar, Madan Puri played a baddie named John Chuang. This was followed by Haqeeqat (1964), India's first definitive war film, a direct response to the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Since then, the relationship with China has remained complicated, the two countries blowing hot and cold even as trade boomed with India increasingly importing a lot more from China than it exports to that country. The skirmish at Galwan and Chinese incursions in eastern Ladakh have been another turning point. But China has never quite left us.

In popular imagination, there existed Chinese shoemakers, beauticians, dentists and Chinese eateries. Chinese shoemakers made the finest men’s shoes, the ever-smiling Chinese dentists with a tooth cap made of gold were ubiquitous and Chinese eateries, with beautiful Chinese lanterns hanging at their entrances, served heavenly noodles, their dragon painted ceramic crockeries much admired by the clientele as were sauce boats with white vinegar and green chillies lying still as if it was small pond of blooming waterlilies.

As a school-goer in the early 1980s, I remember shopping in Kolkata's Hogg Market, where the oldest Chinese condiment producer Pou Chong's shop was located. The next memory is that of buying pure leather men's loafers for my grandfather from the designated Chinese shoe shop on Bentick Street. A happy feel enveloped oneself as one stepped into the shop with lovely décor. Chinese calligraphy shone bright on the glass showcase in which footwear were neatly displayed.

Such shopping spree would invariably be followed by a sumptuous late lunch at Eau Chew,which is still thriving and is managed by the Huang family (now 4th generation). Among all dishes ordered, a mandatory fish in black bean sauce has been a constant and a signature dish for many.

At home my mother would insist on using the services of the lone Chinese dry-cleaner in our locality. I would often be given the responsibility of dropping off her favourite Kashmiri shawls for a dry wash. I remember being in awe of the lady manned the shop all by herself. One day I was late and she was closing her laundry called Nan Ping, I watched her shutting the store for the day, then whizzing by on a moped, a sight that I still remember and which thrilled me no end.

Our home was full of children's literature in translation, colourful illustrations intertwined with text. I and my brother knew they harvested tomatoes in China, that Chinese kindergartens were beautiful and it had an ancient princess born out of the Ginseng plant!

Salons managed by Chinese stylists were also much sought after. The ones in the New Market area charged more for a stylish haircut. Bengali homemakers paid their ritual visit to these parlours every few months. The slightly aesthetically done homes had prints of Chinese water colour or brush painting hanging on the wall, jostling for attention along with a Jamini Roy. A Chow Mein meal was a big deal and love was in the air with Chinese food and Bruce Lee taking over our lives.

With the economy opening up, emotion got drowned in export – import figures. Made In China board games, early computers, durable bedding, blankets and earbuds, idols and kites, lamps and candles and what not flooded the market.

By then Tiananmen Square had happened and Dalai Lama was more at his Dharamsala home than anywhere else in the world; one began to wonder at the ‘real China’ even as China remained a part of us. Those 10-Rupee packets of handmade noodles, nail cutters with little logos of butterfly embossed, the unmistakable red tiger on the florescent yellow aluminum dibbi (box) of camphor infused headache reliever Tiger Balm!

(Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author most recently of 'Banaras of Gods, Humans And Stories')

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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