Kolkata is an unusual city, even when compared to other unique metropolises around the world. It is not just the only city in India to have a Chinatown but one of the few cities in the world to have two — Tangra and Tiretta Bazaar. The residents of mega cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney etc, all of which have allowed the gentrification of their Chinatowns to Instagram-friendly tourists spots, have to make do with just one.
Three decades ago, the bylanes of Tangra in eastern Kolkata were dotted with tanneries and small Chinese restaurants. Many would attest that it was the best place to find “Chinese food” at reasonable rates. The food was a unique combination of Cantonese and Indian cuisine which became so popular, that the culinary amalgamation was replicated elsewhere in India. In fact, Tangra became so deeply associated with Kolkata’s Chinatown and Indo-Chinese food that one of New York City’s most popular restaurant chains is named ‘Tangra’ after the neighbourhood from where the cuisine originates.
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But today, in Tangra, the restaurants that served this cuisine as well as the Indians of Chinese ethnicity who created it are becoming rarer by the day. Some Chinatowns in other parts of the world have developed into touristic establishments, with little authenticity, but not in Kolkata.
Historical records show Tangra’s origins are even older than the city of Calcutta. According to historian P Thankappan Nair, who has researched on the city of Kolkata, like its neighbour Topsia, the area of Tangra too was named after a local fish, the Tengra (Mystus vittatus), found in the waters of the wetland here. Both Topsia and Tangra became a part of Calcutta in 1717 when the British East India Company rented 55 villages from Nawab Mir Jafar in and incorporated them all as the outer fringes of the developing city. The villages collectively came to be known as Dihi Panchannagram, the literal meaning of which is “55 villages”, and lay outside the city limits.
Chinese migration to Kolkata started in the late 18th century, according to Jayati Bhattacharya and Coonoor Kripalani, who have conducted extensive research on the Chinese community in Kolkata in their paper ‘Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities: Comparative Perspectives’. Kolkata’s Hakka Chinese community worked in several different trades, one of which was shoemaking.
Around 1910, a handful of Chinese shoemakers moved from the center of the city to the marshy wetland area of Tangra, then in the outskirts of the city, to start their own leather production along with the shoemaking. According to Bhattacharya and Kripalani, there aren’t many historical references to Tangra’s association with the Chinese community. Tangra and the wetlands in the eastern part of the city were largely undeveloped, a far cry from the city centre bustle where the community had lived in till then.
Tangra developed as a Chinatown out of necessity for the Chinese community in the 1950s after they faced displacement from their homes and businesses in central Kolkata, an area where they had lived and worked since the late 19th century. The Calcutta Improvement Trust had decided to build a large thoroughfare, cutting across the heart of the city and through the neighbourhoods that the community had originally occupied. The community was compelled to move and the best they could do was to relocate to Tangra where some in the Chinese community had already set up home and shop.
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During the World War II, the surge in demand for rawhide changed the fortunes of the Chinese community in Tangra for the better. The profits in the rawhide business prompted others from the community to move to Tangra and open tanneries. Slowly, the neighbourhood began to change, with factories and homes set up to accommodate the Chinese tannery owners, workers and their families. Due to Tangra’s suburban location, the community slowly set up schools and other establishments here. As a result, the community started leading insular lives, cut off from the rest of the city.
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 impacted the Chinese community in Tangra and in other parts of the city, as well as those living elsewhere in India. In their research paper, Bhattacharya and Kripalani write that the war led to deportations of Chinese who held passports of the People’s Republic of China and those who associated with communist and pro-China organisations and schools. Others were sent to internment camps in the deserts of Rajasthan.
The Sino-Indian War also led to internal travel restrictions for the community. Since Tangra was located outside the official city limits of Kolkata, the Chinese community needed special permission from municipal authorities to travel outside Tangra. This policy prevented the Chinese community from accessing the rawhide markets that were based in the center and in the northern parts of the city.
During the war, many in the community left India and emigrated overseas. During the 1970s and 1980s, the people in the community who stayed back, especially those in Tangra, once again witnessed a reversal of fortunes for the better.
Curiously, despite the changes that Tangra witnessed over the years and the identity it came to develop due to the presence of the Chinese community, the neighbourhood somehow managed to retain its unique name. Today, the restaurants in the neighbourhood have become fewer, and the tanneries have long gone, moved to the outskirts of Kolkata by the city government between 1996-2006. Haphazard construction has taken over the sensitive wetland area for commercial and residential high-rises and luxury hotels all around the neighbourhood. Tangra’s last remaining residents are holding on to what remains of the city’s Chinese community and heritage.
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