Calcutta in the 1800 and early 1900 was like the Shanghai and Singapore combined together. It was a major trading hub and people of the world came to this city for trade and commerce. Kolkata once had a significant Chinese population and even though it has drastically decreased over the years its presence still is very much felt across the city.
The Chinese and Kolkata
Most of the people of North, West and East India refer to Sugar as “Cheeni” and as you might have guessed it has a direct relationship with the Chinese and Kolkata. Indians pioneered the art of extracting sugar from sugarcanes but these were dull brown lumps and this is where the Chinese pioneered the art of refining the sugar into fine white grains. India being part of the Silk Route made the unprocessed sugar which travelled all the way to China some 2000 years ago and the Chinese refined it to perfection.
This art of sugar refinery made a Chinese businessman names Tong Achew (Yang Atchew) to travel to Calcutta along with a large contingent of Chinese workers who would work with him in his sugar processing plant around 1780. The ship came under a heavy devastating storm at the sea and somehow Tong Achew and his men were saved.
To thank the gods Tong Achew set up a temple near Budge Budge (Achipur) to Thu Tai Kung the Earth Deity. The Chinese consider him as the guardian spirit and every village have a place for him. The temple at Achipur is dedicated to Thu Tai Kung (Dharti Pita) and his wife, the Thu Tai Phow (Dharti Mata).
Warren Hastings, the British governor of Bengal granted him 650 bighas and with that Tong Achew set up his sugar factory. Unfortunately, Tong Achew did not live long and after his death, the workers in his factory migrated to Calcutta in search of work. Kolkata at that time being the trading hub required lots of labourers and these people fit themselves in.
Later down the decades, many other Chinese families joined in and the population grew substantially. There were the carpenters, tanners, doctors who came in groups and settled around the Tiretti Bazar area of the city becoming the China Town of India.
A second China Town took shape in the last couple of decades around Tangra since most of the tanneries were once located over their thus having the second China Town in the city.
Origins of the Chinese New Year
There are two legends as to how the Chinese New Year had originated.
The first one talks about the beast called Nian who would come down from the mountains to the people of the earth and terrify them on the eve of the New Year. An old wise man was approached for some solution and he advised the people to stick red paper on doors and around the house since the beast was fearful of the colour red. The monster was also susceptible to loud noise thus the villagers were advised to beat drums and burst crackers to scare away the beast. This worked and the villagers were advised to follow the same ritual every year and this continues till date.
The second legend also talks about the beast Nian but in this story, the old wise man challenges the beast to eat all animals instead of eating humans. The beast took the challenge and swallowed all the animals of the world. This brought an end to the beast and the beast itself was destroyed by these animals. This way the beast was tamed and the old wise man rode away with the beast back to the mountains and before departing warned the villagers to continue to follow the tradition every year.
Traditions of Chinese New Year
Praying to Your Ancestors
No celebration is complete without remembering your ancestors and it’s important to keep them happy. Prayers are offered to them by lighting up candles and six incense sticks. An offering of meat, chicken, fruits, candies etc. are all done either in the number of three or of five. It’s important to offer to one’s ancestors the things that they loved the most. Don’t be surprised if you see a bottle of whiskey or a packet of cigarettes since someone’s loved and dear ones might have liked these thus is being offered. It’s also important to take the incense sticks and bow before them as a mark of respect.
The Grand Lion Run
This activity takes place only at Tangra wherein different Lion Dance groups need to run a race and the winner will get the prize money. It sounds pretty easy but there is a catch, over 1 lack firecrackers will be bursting in front of them and the Lion Dance teams must run along with drums, cymbals and gongs playing. The bursting firecrackers are like flying bullets and the some generated from these makes it almost impossible to see anything in front let alone run.
This activity takes place around 11 PM around Chinese Kali Temple the day before Chinese New Year and this begins the start of frantic celebrations.
The Reunion Dinner
If you ever plan to travel to China then avoid the Chinese New Year since just like Thanksgiving it’s a tradition for the Chinese to return to their home and have a family dinner on the last evening of the old year. It will be impossible for you get reservations and the same applies to Kolkata also. The only difference is that since the population is restricted only to the city thus this is not much felt here.
As a tradition, each family will cook food in excess since any leftover is a good sign which symbolises abundance. Fish is an important part of the tradition and thus every family will cook lots of fish. The reason is that the word “fish” in Chinese sounds similar to that of “abundance”.
Receiving the Gods
Prosperity comes when the gods come and bless a family thus this is the most important part of the festival. Especially for this, the main entrance of the house is decorated in all things red. A long red cloth is usually hung on top of the main door along with red lanterns on each side. Good luck paper strips which have prayers printed on them are also hung along with oranges and tangerines.
If you have ever visited a Chinese family home then you must have seen a photograph of the door god which is mostly hung next to the main door. So for Chinese New Year a new image of the Door God (Menshen) to stop evil spirits sneaking into the house during the auspicious time.
The exact time to receive the god falls somewhere around the midnight and is exactly calculated since this is very important to usher in good luck in the New Year. Incense sticks are lit to Receive the Gods (Chap San) into the family.
Good Luck Papers
Strips of red papers are pasted on the doors and around the house. These strips of paper have good words and couplets written on them which symbolises a happy beginning in the New Year. These good luck papers are also known as lai see (Cantonese), âng-pau (Hokkien) or hóng bāo (Mandarin).
You will see many children receiving such red packets on envelopes which contain money and are usually given by relatives and elders. These are also exchanged between families.
Day of Fasting
In reality, it’s a tradition for Chinese to fast on the actual New Year day especially to abstain from meat. The New Year is considered more of a day of purification thus one needs to keep oneself away for meat.
Visiting Relatives and Friends
New Year is a time when Chinese families visit each other to exchange good wishes along with the red envelopes with money which is the biggest attraction for the kids.
Lion Dance Festival
No Chinese New Year is complete without these Lion Dance. Do not confuse Lion Dance with Dragon Dance they are absolutely different. Just before a week or so there is a Lion Dance Festival in the city which normally takes place around Tiretti Bazar which is the old China Town. Various groups of Lion Dancers come together to perform on stage. Watch out especially for the Drunken Lion Dance which is choreography at its best.
Similar event also takes place usually a day before Chinese New Year at Tangra – Pei May School the second China Town of the city. Both of these are open to all and you can see dance acts like Lion Pole Dance, Lion Monkey Dance, Martial Arts, Tai Chi etc. Along with Lion Dance, you will also see various dance and song performance by the local Chinese community.
Lion Dance during Chinese New Year
Lion Dance is an integral part of the festivity and are considered a good omen thus New Year is the perfect time for these. Various Lion Dance Groups first travel to the local Chinese Temples to seek blessings and then travel from house to house to perform Lion Dance. The groups of Lion Dancers are accompanied by drums, cymbals and gongs thus creating an acrobatic masterpiece.
When a group of Lion Dancers reach a home the homeowners hang lettuce by a thread and dangle them with a help of a bamboo stick from the balcony. The Lions must perform dance and then grab the lettuce leafs which also have the red enveloped (Hung Pao) attached to eat.
Sometimes the Lion Dancers need to balance themselves on a couple of benches and on shoulders of other to get to the lettuce and this is like a game of cat and mouse. It takes several attempts to get hold of these and once got the money envelopes are taken by the groups of Lion Dancers. As a symbolic gesture the Lion Dancers will tear away the lettuce leaf and throw it showing as if it’s satisfied.
The homeowners also hand over packets of firecrackers which are burst in keeping with the traditions to shoo away the evil demons.
Lion Dance Show at Bow Barracks
It’s a tradition at Tiretti that and the end of the day all the Lion Dance groups will accumulate at Bow Barracks for a final showdown. The entire community comes together in this celebration and is a must seeing all the tiered groups of Lion Dancers perform for a final time of the day. Post the performance the Lion Dance groups have their own individual gala lunch which is prepared at Bow Barracks.
New Year’s Day Gala Dinner
An invitation-only special dinner takes place at Choong Ye Thong Church (Mei Kuang School) which is attended by elders of the community. However, there is an option to buy a ticket to the event from Sing Cheung Sauce Company couple of days before the event.
Celebration Continues In the Next Day
This not only happens on the day of the New Year but also continues to the next day across China Town especially at Tangra where the groups visit the old tanneries and perform inside the vast warehouses.
New Year Fete / Carnival
On the 3rd and 4th day of the New Year a carnival takes place at Tangra – Pei May school wherein you get to eat fabulous authentic Chinese food listen to live music and most importantly see a huge number of people from the Chinese community come together. This event is open to all but you have to buy an entry ticket which will cost around Rs. 20 per person.
It’s a part of the tradition for Chinese community members to visit Achipur the Sunday after the Chinese New Year and the following three Sundays. The members of the community go to Achipur and pray at the Chinese temple to Thu Tai Kung (Dharti Pita) and his wife, the Thu Tai Phow (Dharti Mata). An offering of fruit, roasted ducks etc. are offered at the temple. Fake money and incense sticks are burnt as a sign of prayer offering.
This trip is more like an outing or picnic for the families and many of them could be seen bringing food and have a picnic of sorts at the temple courtyard. I have spoken to elders of the community who had told me stories of group travel to Achipur on big steamers on the Hooghly River. The whole boat would be rented for the trip and men would drink and sing all the way. It was an occasion where the whole community would come together.
So if you have never seen Chinese New Year celebrations in Kolkata then do not miss it this year. If you do not reside in Kolkata then plan your travels to come to the city during Chinese New Year and get to see something only the city of Calcutta can show you in India.
It took me two years to write this blog as I was waiting for all the information and relevant photographs. I still think this blog requires more input so please feel free and pitch in. All the information on the blog has been collated from the local Chinese community who have graciously shared all of their thoughts with me. If you find any discrepancy then please feel free to get in touch with me.