Keeper of the faith

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am

Mazgaon is one of the seven islands that were linked together, over the course of about 500 years, to form the modern city of Mumbai. Today, it is a noisy, crowded neighbourhood, mainly known as the location of the naval dockyard. But hidden in a small street behind the Dockyard Road train station - and unknown to most Mumbai residents - is Kwan Tai Shek, the city's only Chinese temple.

With its auspicious bright red exterior, the temple stands out on an otherwise nondescript street. Inside, the hustle of the city is a distant memory and a sense of calm prevails. The temple is dedicated to Kwan Tai, also known as Guan Yu, a warrior deity worshipped in Hong Kong by both police officers and triads, among others.

A large Kwan idol is guarded by statues of two lieutenants while at his feet other deities sit surrounded by joss sticks and paper offerings. The temple also offers the familiar Chinese practice of fortune telling, with numbered bamboo sticks.

The temple is nearly 100 years old and was once at the centre of Mumbai's Chinese community, but its glory days are over. Funds for maintenance are in short supply and the falling number of Chinese living in Mumbai means the temple now receives few visitors.

Thousands of Chinese from southern China, mainly traders and sailors, used to live in Mumbai. They came to work for the East India Company and settled around the Mazgaon docks. There was a Chinatown in nearby Kamathipura, which is now Mumbai's red-light district. There was also a Chinese school near Mumbai Central railway station, but now all that remains is Kwan Tai Shek and the community's cemetery, in Mazgaon.

After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Chinese began to be viewed with suspicion and many were forced to leave the city they called home. According to Arlene Chang, a Chinese journalist born and raised in Mumbai, the exodus has continued, with emigrants flocking to countries and regions such as Australia, the United States and Taiwan.

The Chinese community in Mumbai now numbers only a few thousand and, as many are third- or fourth-generation Chinese-Indian, their links with their ancestors' culture can be tenuous at best. While they may look Chinese, many are Indian on the inside.

'I only visit the temple once a year, during Chinese New Year,' says Chang. 'And this is the case for most of us.'

The temple may be falling into disrepair, but for the relatively few Chinese still living in Mumbai, Kwan Tai Shek remains a link with their ancestral homeland.



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