RED, here, is the colour of prosperity, happiness. The walls, cupboards, the altar, even the doors and chairs are all covered in red. And the glow will turn more intense when Mumbai’s only Chinese temple opens its doors in the wee hours of Monday to welcome the new year 2016, year of the monkey.
Tham Than Voon, better known as Albert, is hoping for a large gathering. “But there are hardly 1,500 Chinese people left in Mumbai,” sighs the caretaker as he puffs on his cigarette. During colonial rule, Chinese merchants and sailors settled in Mumbai, a port city. Among them were Albert’s forefathers. In fact, the door of the only remaining Chinese building in Mumbai, in Mazagaon, bears the words “See Yep Koon”, literally translated as inns for sea merchants.
Albert’s father was a shipping contractor in the British East India Company and a wealthy man — the only one perhaps to own a Cadillac then in the neighbourhood. Albert remembers the first Chinese settlers who lived in Kamathipura. “There used to be a Chinese town there. There were meat shops and even a basketball court,” he reminisces. “Now hardly two or three families remain.”
The temple, built over 90 years ago, is a kaleidoscopic explosion of colours. It is on the second floor of a building and is decorated in traditional Chinese paraphernalia. Paper lanterns hang atop the elaborate and intricate altar, and neatly carved figurines sit on it.
A cupboard on the side has joss sticks and paper money for worshippers. The temple is a shrine to Kwan Kung or the warrior god, who is believed to remove all obstacles. “Legend says Kuan Kung fought wars valiantly. He brings us prosperity,” says Albert as he picks up kidney-shaped Jiaobei or moon blocks, which are wooden divination tools. Each block is round on one side and flat on the other, denoting the yin and yang (the dark and the bright). Even a drum-resting stop on an almirah bears the yin and yang sign on its head.
Albert’s mother gave him the name Thaan. Tham is his clan from Canton in southern China whereas Thaan means to be in a relaxed state. “Voon are clouds. Each cloud has a different purpose. Therefore, the name. We all have varied purposes,” he says.
Chinese religious belief is a confluence of traditional philosophy of Taoism and Buddhism. And the temple inspires a sense of spiritual mystery with its painting and meditative music in Mandarin or Cantonese.
He remembers a time when a Chinese school in Agripada, where his elder sister taught, offered classes in Chinese. It is shut now. “The younger generation has moved out, foraging for better ways to live. My son, for instance, lives in Canada,” he says.
He plans to spend long hours on Sunday night in the temple, lighting lamps and arranging fruits, cakes as offerings to the god. “The prayers will go on till morning on Monday. I can only get back around 4 am,” he says.