The term Chinese does not mean only food. Rather it is a way of life. Chinese values remain an enigma to most who have seen them grow with the city and often merge with its psyche.
The Chinese have steadily come to the city from the 1850s with fleets of ships that carried opium for the British. Once here, the hardworking and energetic identified certain businesses which local Bengalis avoided but which had a big demand. Soon dry cleaning and laundry shops, shoe and leather manufacture, furniture manufacture, beauty parlours and salons came up.
Gradually restaurants serving Chinese food modified to local palate and became their monopoly. The Chinese population, mostly concentrated in Tangra area, may be said to belong to three categories according to their origin – Hakka, Cantonese and Shanghai. Most Chinese living in Kolkata are of Hakka origin and are based in Tangra. They are in the restaurant, leather and beauty parlour businesses. Though the written language is the same, the dialects are different along with slight variations in their customs.
In north Calcutta, the Chinese are mainly of Cantonese origin and said to be very good in the carpentry business. There is only one family of Shanghai origin left, the Wong family of Shanghai Dry Cleaners. Mr. Chi Mei Wong (88) said, “Although celebrating Chinese festivals are not as enjoyable as before yet, we cannot imagine living anywhere else in the world.”
Customs and values are very important to the Chinese specially because they live so far away from their native places. Their families are increasingly becoming nuclear as most have immigrated to the west. That is why festivals are important and help families get together every year.
Their main festival is the Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival or Chhun Chi. The timing depends on the Chinese Calendar and is held in January-February. It is a joyous occasion when all the family members return home to celebrate. So important is it to bring members home that a month before the festival, they celebrate the arrival of winter to remind those away from home to prepare to return home.
Another festival is the Moon Festival on 15th August as per the Chinese Calendar, when women pray for themselves and their families. Paul Chung, head of the Chinese Association said, “Serving moon cakes in this festival has an interesting historical origin. When the Mongols ruled over China, a popular rebellion was organised. These feast cakes were used to conceal and pass on messages to one another.”
Ancestor worship is another important occasion for the Chinese and takes place twice a year. John Hou of Golden Dragon and China Garden said, “The Hakkas pray for their ancestors at the cemetery where they offer tea, fruits, wine, burn incense, candle and gold and silver coloured paper boats to resemble money. They also burst crackers in front of the graves. But the Cantonese perform these rituals outside their homes.”
Another form of ancestor worship is the The Dragon Boat Festival. It is held to commemorate Qu Ying, a leader who gave up his life for the country. Cakes made of glutinous rice are offered and the saying is these cakes kept the fish busy while the Chinese searched for the body of Qu Ying in the water.
During a Chinese wedding, a number of social customs are observed at home. The bride wears a ‘cheong san’ (a fitted dress made of rich material like brocade). The groom generally wears a suit. There is no dowry.
The Shanghai generally comes home after the ceremony that is either held during the day or in the evening. They serve green tea to elders to mark the marriage. The Cantonese wedding too may be held during the day or in the evening but a Hakka one is compulsorily held during daytime. After the Church ceremony, Chinese customs are observed at home where eight bowls of food items like rice, wine, eggs etc are served.
Most Chinese consider customs very important in daily life. The food they eat at home is generally cooked in rice wine and not fried rice or chowmein. The food is served in round tables and the people who sit down to eat are never served by anyone but help themselves.
The Chinese never blow on the soup to cool it but suck it in. This has the same cooling effect. Paul Chung who runs the Chinese Association said, “I hope to set up an institute of culture that will promote Chinese films, teach Mandarin language, train interpreters and translators and encourage the external cultural resources by organising seminars, symposiums and shows.”
They are also keen to start Elders Day on 9th September to show respect to their elders, an important part of Chinese tradition. John Hou, a youngster said, “Religion is something that I chose and not something I inherited. I am a Christian because I choose to be so while my father is a Buddhist.” The city has taught him to venerate all religions and he regularly visits masjids and temples as well. “I am a Bengali-Indian as well.”
Sabina Yah of Sunflower who learnt the art of beauty treatment and hair cutting and dressing from her mother-in-law Patsy, says that they are third generation Chinese and sees the blend of both traditions in her family.
William Wong of Shanghai too does not want to leave this city like most of his relatives but will not stop his children if they want to study abroad. For Paul Chung who has received many offers to live in China, Kolkata is the only comfortable place to be in. “There is a regret, though. This was a friendlier city before the 1962 Indo-China War.”