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SUNDAY MORNING

City scope: Dancing to a new tune

Charukesi Ramadurai in Calcutta

 

Paul Chung's voice trails off as he says, "We used to feel at home here …" The president of the Indian Chinese Association is talking about the Tiretta Bazar area, Calcutta's Chinatown.

History has it that, in the 1780s, the first Chinese trader in Calcutta, Tong Atchew, settled in a place now known as Achipur. Tens of thousands of Chinese, mostly of Cantonese and Hakka origin, subsequently flocked to the city to make a living in its bustling port. Many fled in the face of persecution after India's 1962 war with China; today, only 4,500 remain.

Of those, most still live in the city's old and new Chinatown areas, the latter situated in Tangra and now the seat of Calcutta's Chinese leather industry. They celebrate Lunar New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival with as much gusto as others celebrate Durga Puja and Diwali; but the social edifices - schools, temples, clubs and restaurants - have long been in a state of disrepair.

The Tiretta Bazar area is all set for a facelift, however.

"The Chinese have lived here for generations but they are still not considered a part of this city," says G.M. Kapur, the West Bengal convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

Intach's interest in Chinatown as part of an urban regeneration programme now means there is impetus. Kapur says plans include renovating the area's old buildings, including its six Chinese temples, and establishing a museum - perhaps on the grounds of the landmark Toong On temple - and heritage walks.

"We want to have good street food and regular music events so that more people from the city - not just tourists - come to this area," he says, adding that he would like to see traditional teahouses serve as cultural centres and youth hangouts.

In July, a group of architects from Singapore presented Intach with a "road map" and for now the mood is one of cautious optimism. A proposal is being drawn up and, if approved by the government, funds must be secured.

Chung, a retired school vice-principal, says, "I am 72 years old and cannot fight any more. But luckily now there are many youngsters who are interested in seeing this project come to life."

Those include many non Chinese, including bloggers and conservationists.

Calcutta Walks, which conducts heritage tours in the city, supports the area's regeneration, as does travel writer Rangan Datta, who has blogged extensively about the city.

Datta says: "Chinatowns are usually major tourist attractions in cities like San Francisco and Sydney. Sadly, it's not so in Calcutta, which has the distinction of having one of the oldest Chinese settlements outside China. I hope the facelift will help draw tourists and benefit the local Chinese population."

 

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