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Monday, Nov 28, 2022

Streetwise Kolkata: Old China Bazar Street, a colonial marketplace that is witnessing rapid change

Today, the street’s name is the only indication of the neighbourhood’s association with the city’s Chinese community and its trade links with China

In the Bengal Agra Directory of 1850, the street is also called ‘poorahnah cheenabazar’, with ‘cheenabazar’ being the Hindi pronunciation of China Bazar, one that is continued to be used today. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

Old China Bazar Street is a narrow bylane inside central Kolkata, deep inside the busy market area that comprises a significant part of the city’s business district. The bylane is an old one, archives of the city indicate, and since its documented history, it has always gone by this name.

One of the earliest written records of this street can be found in British lithographer Mark Wood’s 1784 ‘Map of Calcutta’. In the Bengal Agra Directory of 1850, the street is also called ‘poorahnah cheenabazar’, with ‘cheenabazar’ being the Hindi pronunciation of China Bazar, one that is continued to be used today.

Historian P Thankappan Nair, author of A History of Calcutta’s Streets, writes that the street may have gotten its name because of the Chinese goods that were sold there. In the early years of British colonial rule, merchant ships would operate between Calcutta and China’s Canton province, and the business of trading thrived between the two regions.

In his travelogue titled The Good Old Days of Honourable John Company, author W H Carey gives a vivid description of Old China Bazar Street, referenced as Old China Bazar in his writings.

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Express Photo by Neha Banka

“The “Old China” Bazar is far more extensive than the new one….but the shops are smaller, the European wares exposed for sale are fewer in quantity, less novel, therefore less esteemed. This however, is the best place to procure country-made furniture and many other articles, amongst which may be reckoned books, second-hand or new, purchased by natives who drive a trade by attending auctions for this purpose. They are more profound bibliopolists than a stranger would suppose, being not only acquainted with the names of the best authors in the different European languages, and of the standard works, but they can likewise distinguish the most valuable editions of each. In passing through this crowded mart your palkee is closely beset by a swarm of skirmishers from the shops on each side, all of them bawling and chattering in broken English and Bengalee, and almost distracting you by their importunities to enter their shops,” Carey writes.

Carey goes on to give descriptive details of the experiences he had with his companions in Old China Bazar, adding that the collection of goods did not impress him much because he was accustomed to viewing and purchasing goods of superior quality in London. Still, Carey mentions that the shops of Old China Bazar did manage to entice his companions to the extent that they purchased goods worth 100 rupees.

Express Photo by Neha Banka

A name commonly pops up across shop fronts while walking down this street today: Nanda Lal Paul & Bros, sometimes with an alternative spelling ‘Nundolall Paul & Co.’ The company continues to occupy and operate several shops on this street, with the most striking being a large shop that operates out of a building that was built in 1890, according to inscriptions on its wall.

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While most old structures on this street are now gone and have been replaced with newer construction, some a few decades old, the building that houses Nanda Lal Paul & Bros’ shop has remained standing, and remarkably well, as its exteriors show. The shop front too mentions that Nanda Lal Paul & Bros was established in 1890, and is in operation even today, indicating that the establishment of the building and the year the company started operations coincided.

The Paul family that owns these shops and properties appears to have diversified its business, which appears to be managed by the family members themselves, although it was difficult to verify this independently.

One of the interesting businesses that Nanda Lal Paul & Bros operates is that of manufacturing umbrellas but local shopkeepers on this street told indianexpress.com that during the winter months, post-October, the company also serves as local dealers for fireworks that they bring in from southern states like Tamil Nadu.

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Express Photo by Neha Banka

Locals say that the company’s decision was likely rooted in simple economics. With the end of the monsoon season in West Bengal after October, the umbrella manufacturers found a decline in the demand for umbrellas, requiring them to search for alternative sources of income, like selling fireworks which were popular during the string of festivals that occur in autumn, necessary to keep the shops running and to make timely payments to employees.

The large old building on this street was likely fully owned by Nanda Lal Paul & Bros, but today, several other shops and offices have opened up here, occupying parts of the old building, possibly on rental agreements.

Within Old China Bazar Street, a local marketplace called BK Shaw Market operates from inside a corner-side old building, selling office supplies and other objects required in the city’s business district. However, on the day that indianexpress.com visited, this marketplace was closed.

Like most of the city’s older neighbourhoods, Old China Bazar Street is also witnessing change. No Chinese-run businesses operate here anymore, and the street’s name is the neighbourhood’s only indication of its association with the city’s Chinese community and its trade links with China.

First published on: 11-11-2022 at 01:53:35 pm
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