| TANNERY TO EATERY: The entrance to one of Chinatown’s restaurants, that was once a flourishing tannery. Picture by Aranya Sen
Forced to shed its mantle as the hub of leather production, Chinatown has turned to its second identity — the best place for a piping, affordable Chinese meal — for survival.
Over the past year, a number of tanneries have reinvented themselves as restaurants. These huge establishments, built in the innards of once-teeming factories, fight the din and stench outside with posh interiors and customer conveniences, like ample parking. Eight restaurants have opened up over the past year or so.
“The transition from the tanning trade to the restaurant business is not easy,” admits Xie Ying Xing, owner of Big Boss restaurant. “They are poles apart in all respects.”
Xing, who migrated from south China in the 1950s, suffered phenomenal losses after he was forced to sell his tanning machinery for scrap and had to settle monetary compensation for 35-odd labourers. He now employs about 50 people.
Tanneries in Calcutta were concentrated in three areas: Tangra (Chinatown), Topsia, and Punjabipara, spread over more than 340 bighas, currently valued at over Rs 200 crore.
Land occupied by the tanneries, including ancillary units, is about 6,000 bighas, worth Rs 3,600 crore.
There were about 585 tanneries in early 2002. Of these, 240 units were in Chinatown, 80 in Topsia and 110 in Punjabipara. About 60 per cent of the Chinatown tanneries were sold. Their owners migrated to countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Of the 40 per cent that remained, the owners of only 40 units have shifted to Bantala.
Moving to Bantala was not a viable option, after generations spent building up the 200-plus tanneries, feel the tanners-turned-restaurateurs. Of the 500 or so families, only about 100 have stayed on.
But, as was the case with the tanneries, all family members are pitching in for the effort to stay afloat.
“Most tanners did not have the financial muscle to make the shift to the Bantala Leather Complex,” explains local CMC councillor Javed Khan.
The families are hopeful that business will pick up.
“Things are getting better slowly,” says Lucy Li of Fung Fa. “It is difficult, with a number of established restaurants already in the area,” adds her husband and owner C.H. Li.
To fight competition from scores of eateries, the newcomers are searching for a distinctive identity. While Fung Fa boasts its “secret family recipes”, D’Coral pushes trademark sauces as its selling point. Other new contenders include Golden Empire, Kim Li Loi, China Gate, Hot Wok Village and Canton.
But the turn of fortune still hurts. “When we ran the tannery, we dealt in lakhs. Now, at the restaurant, we deal in hundreds,” sighs Xing.