Opium War & Leather Boots – Calcutta’s China Town


Opium War & Leather Boots – Calcutta’s China Town

Chapter 1 – The Match Box

1925, Calcutta, somewhere in China Town renowned for its leather boots and wood works the shops often hid the real business that went on beyond its façade, it’s actually opium that ruled this part of the city. Smuggled from China these opium entered the streets of Calcutta through the narrow lanes of old China Town.

My great grandfather Mr John Solomon was a Daroga (Inspector) in the Excise Department which was at that time an integral part of the British India Calcutta Police. The British Government wanted to stop the infiltration of illegal opium in to the country as it was seriously hurting the revenue whereas the Chinese Opium traders were using the wealth of the rising upper middle class Bengalis or the Babus who often got lured into opium addiction.

The head of the gang, the kingpin was always under the radar of the Excise department but somehow or the other he managed to evade arrest since there were never substantial evidence to arrest him. The police department were furious with the efforts of the excise department and wanted him behind bars but with no evidence this was slowly becoming an impossible task.

Finally the onus came on Inspector John to get gang boss behind bars since he was somewhat a senior and experienced team member. He was really a smart in his approach and knew that it would be impossible to catch him with enough evidence to put him behind bars for substantial amount of time so he came up with a clever idea. He did not reveal the plan to his juniors but asked them to be present in civil dress at a particular crossing and to keep a close watch on him, he would give them a hand signal upon which they would come to arrest the boss.

On the planned day Inspector John dressed himself in a Dhuti and Kurta with a walking stick in hand, this attire was most common to the upper middle class Bengali thus no one would suspect him to be from the police department and could easily go around the China Town. Most of these Bengali Babu’s came to China Town in search of cheap opium thus would be easy for him to mix in the crowd.

Walking around slowly with his stick he spotted the boss in a distance and approached him slowly, just when he was about to cross each other he reached his pocket and put a Cigar to his lips and started searching his pocket for a match box. Since only the boss was nearest to him he asked him for a light, he took out the match box from his pocket and handed him to light up the Cigar. Inspector John lit up his cigar and handed him back the box, but before handing him over the match box he quickly switch the match box with another one which has hidden in his Kurta pocket. The boss never noticed the quick switch and put the match box back into his pocket.

At a distance rest of the team member of Inspector John were waiting for the signal and they got the final signal when he hand reached for his forehead. The team made a dash towards the boss and apprehended him, he had many previous experiences like this so he was not at all worried and was calm. The team then started searching the pockets for some evidence and finally came across the matchbox, on opening the matchbox the team found opium hidden inside the matchbox instead of match stick. The boss was stunned as he was confident that he would never be found with any evidence and here we was caught with a matchbox full of opium. Inspector John had intelligently switched the original matchbox with a matchbox full of opium thus creating a reason for arresting him. This arrest also ensured that the boss got grilled and reveal all his hideouts and stock pile of opium in the city.

The Matchbox Switch
The Matchbox Switch

Chapter 2 – Close Encounter

After the arrest of the boss the whole China Town had suddenly woken up to the fact that the main gang leader was behind bars and all of their shady business was now under the scanner. Few months had passed but thigs were still tensed and by now the entire China Town people had sworn to get hold of Inspector John and teach him a good lesson.

Inspector John was assigned for another mission and this time he was responsible to identify the Chinese Shoe Shops around Bentinck Street were opium was being sold, for this again he dressed up similarly like a typical Bengali Babu and entered one of the shoe shop as a client who had come to buy a pair of shoe.

He entered the shop and enquired about some of the shoe on display, finally he selected one and asked for the right size for the trail. The Chinese shoe shop owner went to the back of the shop where the shoe stocks are usually kept but somehow took more than usual time to bring out the right stock. On enquiring about the delay he was told that they are polishing up the shoe to give it a better finish. Inspector John was however bit suspicious and walked up a little bit and saw from behind the curtain that the shoe shop owner had taken out a huge dagger and was probably waiting for the henchman to arrive to finish up the job. On realising that he had been identified he gave a shout that he was getting delayed and is going to the next shop for the right pair. While leaving the shop he saw the huge heavy built henchman entering the shop but fortunately he could not identify him so walked past him.

He quickly took the narrow lane to get away from there but it was bit late and by then the big henchman was behind him with a huge dagger in his hand. Inspector John increased his pace and took the numerous narrow lanes around China Town but the henchman was getting closer and closer. After a while he took a dark narrow lane which he thought would lead him to the main street but was mistaken, it was a dead end. He surely thought that this was going to end in a blood shed, with the henchman fast approaching he had to figure out something, just then an old Chinese lady appeared from nowhere and pointed Inspector John to a door. With no option he followed her instruction and he was inside the house of this old Chinese lady, she then pointed him to a secret door which he took and surprisingly was out of China Town and back to the main street.

This way he was saved from sure death in China Town, he never knew the lady buy somehow it seems that the old Chinese lady understood the peril of Inspector John that evening.

Close Encounter
Close Encounter

Chapter 3 – Shoot and Scoot

Continuing with the adventures of Inspector John this story involves a raid that he was ordered to carry out at a warehouse near Magrahat. Remember in the 1920’s Magrahat was a remote village and the landscape was very different. So by the time he along with his team reaches the spot it’s already evening and the sun could be seen setting beyond the horizon.

Going past the vast stretches of farms and rivulets they finally reach the spot but by then the gang members were already alerted of their presence and then all hell broke loose. The evening sky was lit up for a moment by a gun shot, while making their escape the gang members fired upon the raiding party to  create a distraction so that they get enough time to escape. The dust settles and when everyone realises what had just happened its bit late and Inspector John was the one who had taken the bullet, it went straight through his left palm leaving a huge gash.

This was not the day for Inspector John but this was not the end but just the beginning, he had many more such incidents but for that you need to wait another day.

Shoot and Scoot
Shoot and Scoot

All these incidents were narrated to my dad my by great grandfather Mr John Solomon or rather I should say Inspector John. He loved his grandchildren and my father was one of his favourite and managed to spend many nights sleeping next to him while he narrated these wonderful and adventurous incidents of his work days.

By the way he slept with a loaded Colt under his pillow and a machete below his bed, perhaps he was still worried that someday the Chinese Gangsters would come to take revenge. Fortunately that never happened but unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet him but only listen to the stories.

John Solomon
John Solomon
John Solomon with My Father
John Solomon with My Father

Chapter 4 – Mr Liu

Things were however never that good for the Chinese settlers here in India, during the Indo-China war suddenly they became the target of public anger and most of them left the country and settled in Australia, USA or Taiwan. Most of them were rounded of by the Indian security agency and shifted to another state for their own safety. But for these Chinese settled in India they had nowhere to go, back in China they were strangers in their country of origin and here in India they were never Indian. They were virtually stuck in a no man’s land but this small community stuck together with their dwindling numbers.

Most of them either kept on their shoe making business while some could not sustain the competition from cheap shoes from rest of India and had to adapt new business like opening Chinese Restaurants. These new mushrooming Chinese restaurants were more of a fusion Indian – Chinese than the real authentic Chinese. But in spite of all these some shops in Bentinck Street still kept selling shoes. One of these is Kafo & Co., this is the shop which my father introduced to me during my school days as the place for best leather shoes. Currently run by the fourth generation Chinese Indians this shop according to me is one of the last remaining authentic Chinese Shoe shop.

Kafo & Co. at Bentinck Street
Kafo & Co. at Bentinck Street
Kafo & Co. at Bentinck Street
Kafo & Co. at Bentinck Street

If I had ever thought of buying leather shoes then it was always from Kafo & Co., even during my college days my friends were so impressed by the design and quality that many a times they had come along with me to buy a pair of shoe from this shop. Years passed by and the same was repeated with my office colleagues also, they also came along to buy a pair of these famous long lasting pure leather shoe.

Handcrafted Brown Leather Shoes At Kafo & Co.
Handcrafted Brown Leather Shoes At Kafo & Co.
Handcrafted Black Leather Shoes At Kafo & Co.
Handcrafted Black Leather Shoes At Kafo & Co.

I remember one particular incident where I had gone to this shop to buy my wedding shoe and it was the month of October and I usually go during the month of December to buy a new pair for Christmas. Mr Liu one of the salesman of the shop who was an old gentleman was surprised to see me in the month of October, I informed that I had come to buy my wedding shoe. At once I saw the big smile in his face and he rushed to the back of his shop where his warehouse was and returned back with a gleaming perfect wedding shoe that would fit best with my night blue wedding suit. Somehow he exactly knew what I would like and gave me the best from his stable.

Handcrafted Boots and Suede Leather Shoes at Kafo & Co.
Handcrafted Boots and Suede Leather Shoes at Kafo & Co.

This was not a one of incident but every year he would give me the perfect shoe which I would definitely fall in love with and every year he would insist that he only sold pure leather shoe and never a fake fox leather shoe. True to his words they were pure leather and lasted years without the need of any repair. The only way to discard an old pair would be to give it to someone needy.

The price of these Chinese leather shoes is extremely economic and I remember my school days when they were around Rs. 200 and now they are only Rs. 650 which is nothing in comparison to the rate of inflation and of course none of the branded shops can give this quality and design in this rate.

One of the Salesman at Kafo & Co. Showing a Pair of Shoe to a Customer
One of the Salesman at Kafo & Co. Showing a Pair of Shoe to a Customer
One of the Salesman at Kafo & Co. Showing a Pair of Shoe to a Customer
One of the Salesman at Kafo & Co. Showing a Pair of Shoe to a Customer

Before leaving the shop he would repeat the same words in Hindi but with a very different accent “Fikar nahi karne ka, kuch bhi hoga to wapas le kay ana, apnahi hi dukan samajhna” Do not worry, if anything happens then return it, think this shop as your own.

In 2013 December it was the last time I heard him say these words as the next year last December he was no more in the shop, on asking the owner of the shop, he informed with a heavy heart that he was no more and had died a few months back. He became sick and quickly his health deteriorated and before anything could be he was dead. I could definitely see the sadness in the eyes of his long-time friend. Perhaps no one will tell me those words again but I am sure if ever something would happen to a pair of shoe that I would have purchased from Kafo & Co. they would surely repair it for me.

Racks Full of Authentic Chinese Handcrafted Shoes at Kafo & Co.
Racks Full of Authentic Chinese Handcrafted Shoes at Kafo & Co.
One of the Cashier at Kafo & Co.
One of the Cashier at Kafo & Co.

Chapter 5 – Bentinck Street Now

Things are not the same anymore for Bentinck Street, most of the Chinese shoe shops have either shut shop or is being run by non-Chinese owners who still keep using the original Chinese shop name for brand value. You will also find branded shoe shops like Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Fila, Crocs etc. all having their showroom in this street along with other much new shoe shops clearly not owned by the Chinese Indians.

Yunley – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Yunley – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
New Branded Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
New Branded Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Willy & Co. – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Willy & Co. – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street

Somehow I still like the ambience and the décor of these old Chinese shoe shops with laughing Buddha and Chinese Calligraphy all over the shop. Some of them still use abacus for calculating the cost but I guess it’s more for a show these days.

Most of the shop owners out here complain of the rising cost of making their own shoe and how most of them started selling shoes that are manufactured in Kanpur or from other parts of Uttar Pradesh. Somehow they are not being able to compete with the price from these new shoe manufacturing hubs.

Wah Chong &Co. – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Wah Chong &Co. – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Wanley & Co. – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Wanley & Co. – One of the Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street
Chinese Shoe Shops at Bentinck Street

Bentinck Street once famous for authentic Chinese handcrafted shoes is slowly vanishing amongst the large showrooms and the time of Internet shopping. However for me Mr Liu and his shoes would always remain favourite, till Kafo & Co. shuts its shop I will keep buying a new pair every Christmas.

Hoping For a Prosperous Business - Smiling Buddha at Kafo & Co.
Hoping For a Prosperous Business – Smiling Buddha at Kafo & Co.
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15 thoughts on “Opium War & Leather Boots – Calcutta’s China Town

  1. It felt great to read encounters of your great grandfather….I was instantly transferred to the sets of “Detective Byomkesh Bakshi”…..read it like a thriller…..you can approach Dibakar Banerjee for his next film which may be titled as ” Daroga John Solomon”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicely written ma’am
    I am being fan of your articles , this was great to divide the article into chapters ,easy for readers.
    Ma’am you can suggest the owner of kafo& co. To sell there products online by that whole India can enjoy the best quality and unmatched price of leathers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed being transported to the Kolkata during the Raj. It was thrilling to have a first hand account from those days. Incidentally; I was searching for “Hand made leather shoes” when I happened to see your blog and am happy that I read it.
    Today, I am planning to visit the shoe shop and probably get a good pair for myself.
    Thank you,
    Vidyanand

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, I believe the inspector may have been an Anglo Indian, as am I. I was born in Calcutta and the nephew of Ronnie Moore, DC Armed Police, who retired to Australa. I moved to the UK and have now settled in NZ.
    your article was forwarded to me by my cousin Peter Moore. Peter too was a Police Sargent in Cal, then joined London’s Metropoitan CID. He retired as the last Superindent of Free Mantle Prison, Perth WA.
    Thank you for article. It brought back memories of Uncle Ronnie and Peter of policing Calcutta.
    However, I believe planting evidence on anyone is entrapment and illegal.
    Regards,
    Barry

    Liked by 1 person

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