Chinese New Year in Kolkata


Chinese New Year in KolkataChinese New Year in Kolkata

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).

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Thu Tai Kung (Dharti Pita) and his wife, the Thu Tai Phow (Dharti Mata) – Courtesy China Daily

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.

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Old Wise Man Taming Nian – Courtesy CCTV

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.

 

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Giant Incense Sticks Are Burnt – It Takes Some Time for These to Light Up

 

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Lighting Up the Incense Sticks

 

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Praying To the Ancestors and the Departed

 

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Offerings to the Ancestors

 

 

 

 

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.

Chinese Kali Temple – The Place Where the Lion Race Takes Place
Chinese Kali Temple – The Place Where the Lion Race Takes Place
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First the Lion Dance Groups Need to Go To the Chinese Temple Situates At the Top of the Pei May School and Then Participate In the Race
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Lion Dancers Head to the Temple
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Man carrying a traditional Hakka Lion Head (Flat Face Lion)
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Traditional Hakka Drums
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Hundreds of Fireworks Are Being Laid Out Just Before the Start of the Race
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Lions Racing To the Finish with the Bursting Crackers in the Front
Lions Racing To the Finish with the Bursting Crackers in the Front
Lions Racing To the Finish with the Bursting Crackers in the Front
Lion Dancers Choking In the Thick Smoke and the Flying Fireworks
Lion Dancers Choking In the Thick Smoke and the Flying Fireworks


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.

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Food Galore At a Reunion Dinner – Photo Courtesy Thomas Chen

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”.

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A Typical Homely Reunion Dinner – Photo Courtesy Thomas Chen

 

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.

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Red Strips with Photos of Door God Hung above the Main Door
Good Luck Words in Gold Are Also Hung Up around the Door
Good Luck Words in Gold Are Also Hung Up on the Door
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Houses Are Decorated With a Table Which Has Offerings to the God for Prosperity in the New Year All In Red and Gold
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Fake Gold Coins and Other Ornaments at the Table
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Candies
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Rice Cakes – All in Red to Shoo Away the Evil
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Gold Kumquats
Dragon Fruits
Dragon Fruits
Fruits Offered To the Gods
Fruits Offered To the Gods
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Fruit with Money Envelope
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Candies and Dry Fruits as Offerings

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.

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Menshen – The Door God (Public Domain)

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.

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Hong Bao – Red Envelopes with Money

 

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.

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Lion Dance Festival
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Groups of Girls Performing the Fan Dance
Drummers in Action
Drummers in Action
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Martial Arts Performance
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Cymbal Dance
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Chinese Songs about the New Year
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Glowing Lion Dance
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Chinese Food Fest at Tiretti bazar
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Chinese Food Fest at Tiretti bazar

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.

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Drumming Performance at Tangra – Pei May School
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Lion Dance at Tangra – Pei May School
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Lion Dance Bench Acrobats at Tangra – Pei May School
Lion Pole Dance at Tangra – Pei May School
Lion Pole Dance at Tangra – Pei May School
Lion Pole Dance at Tangra – Pei May School
Lion Pole Dance at Tangra – Pei May School
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Martial Arts Performance at Tangra – Pei May School
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Martial Arts Performance at Tangra – Pei May School

 

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.

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Lion Dance Group at Tiretti Bazar Visiting Temple for Blessings
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Drums and Benches Are Carried Along With the Lion Dancers for the Performance
Each Lion Dance Group Carry Flags with the Name of Their Group and Their Logo
Each Lion Dance Group Carry Flags with the Name of Their Group and Their Logo
The Lion Dancers Are Accompanied by Beating of the Drums and CymbalsThe Lion Dancers Are Accompanied by Beating of the Drums and Cymbals
The Lion Dancers Are Accompanied by Beating of the Drums and Cymbals
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Even Young Children Participate In Lion Dance
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Cymbals an Integral Part Of the Background Music
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Team Leader Estimating the Height of the Hung Lettuce
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The Lions Eat Lettuce and Offer Orange as a Blessing to the Home Owners
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A Lion Dancer Trying To Grab the Lettuce and the Red Envelopes with Money

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.

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Female Lion Dancers
Chinese New Year in Kolkata (44)
Female Lion Dancers Preparing For the Show
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Human Bridges Are Made In Order To Help the Lion Reach the Lettuce
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Lion About To get To the Lettuce and the Money Envelopes
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Homeowners Dangling the Lettuce from Their Window and Watching the Lions Trying To Catch Them
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Young Boys with Their Lions
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A Young Boy Trying To Grab a Lettuce in His Lion Costume
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Men Helping a Lion Dancer on Their Shoulders
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Finally They Get the Money Envelopes

The homeowners also hand over packets of firecrackers which are burst in keeping with the traditions to shoo away the evil demons.

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A Homeowner At Tiretti Hanging The Lettuce And The Money With A Help Of A Pole For The Lion To Grab
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Lion Dancers Forming Human Pyramids to Reach the Lettuce and Money Envelopes

 

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.

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Lion Dancers Performing At Bow Barracks
Lion Dancers Performing At Bow BarracksLion Dancers Performing At Bow Barracks
Lion Dancers Performing 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.

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New Year’s Day Gala Dinner Choong Ye Thong Church – Photo Courtesy Thomas Chen
New Year’s Day Gala Dinner Choong Ye Thong Church – Photo Courtesy Thomas Chen
New Year’s Day Gala Dinner Choong Ye Thong Church – Photo Courtesy Thomas Chen

 

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New Year’s Day Gala Dinner Choong Ye Thong Church – Photo Courtesy Thomas Chen


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.

 

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Lion Dancers Performing At a Tannery in Tangra on the Day after New Year
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A Young Girl Receiving a Blessing in Form of an Orange
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Homeowners at Tangra Receiving Blessings from the Lion
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Lion Dancers Entering a Tannery at Tangra

 

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.

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New Year Carnival at Tangra – Pei May school
Chinese New Year in Kolkata (57)
The School Decorated for New Year Carnival at Tangra – Pei May school
Community Elders at New Year Carnival at Tangra - Pei May school
Community Elders at New Year Carnival at Tangra – Pei May school
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Food and Games Stalls at New Year Carnival at Tangra – Pei May school
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Food Section – New Year Carnival at Tangra – Pei May school
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Food Section – New Year Carnival at Tangra – Pei May school
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Delicious Food Selection (Meat Ball Soup) at Tangra – Pei May school
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Delicious Food Selection (Meat Pao) at Tangra – Pei May school

 

Visiting Achipur

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.

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12 thoughts on “Chinese New Year in Kolkata

  1. This was great reading, having lived in Kolkatta I used to wonder what was the reasons for Chinese living in Kolkatta little did I know it’s history, This is very enlightening & interesting to read. Could to have a different community in the midst of the Hindus and Muslims & Christian’s to add to the culture of Kolkatta, making it a versatile city a virtual melting pot of cultures & it’s amazing to see how they all blend into the Indian culture. Thank you for making that special & dedicated effort to bring it to all of us, the history of Kolkatta, the people of Kolkatta, the city that is Kolkatta.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I am so grateful to your detailing in the Chinese New Year festive sessions. Thank you so much. Can you please give me the events that can be photographed during the day after Chinese New year 2018 i.e Saturday and Sunday

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent description of the Chinese Lunar New Year! Being a Hakka Chinese, most of the traditional customs and celebrations brought back many sweet memories! They are still being celebrated the same way in native China! Great job, Subhadip!!

    Liked by 1 person

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