When Lee Youn Chin made the arduous journey from Quang Tong province, in southern China, to 56, South Tangra Road in the 1920s to set up his leather business, little did he know that his scions would start a fresh revolution in Chinatown by the turn of the century. Buried in a cemetery he himself built in Tangra, Lee, the “pioneer” in tannery trade among the city’s expat Chinese, can now rest in peace, as his ‘Syndicate’ remains intact.
With large-scale migration, the Chinese bastion in Tangra has seen the population dwindle from around 30,000 to a mere 2,000 at present. But, the Lee clan has laid store by its ancestral place, deciding to reinvent and resurrect itself in a new avatar, rather than run away to friendlier climes and callings.
Lee’s Syndicate Tannery, once the largest in the area, spread over three bighas, has now given way to three restaurants, run by his sons and grandchildren. “I used to export leather jackets worth Rs 1.5 crore every month,” says John Lee, the youngest of Youn Chin’s sons, who set up Hot Wok Village in September last year, after being in the tannery business for 30 years. Shifting to the Bantala leather complex was never a viable option, feels John, who sold all the tannery equipment at “scrap value” to start up his 200-seater restaurant on the sprawling campus parking 50 cars. “We didn’t want to move out of Tangra, and tannery was not the way forward any more. Hence, the foray into food,” explains John.
Daughter Jessica helps her father run Hot Wok and is enjoying the aroma of success. “Tannery stinks. This is much better,” smiles the 25-year-old B.Com graduate from Sikshayatan. Her sisters, Judith and Joanna, are in Toronto, studying management, while elder brother Joseph runs a Chinese eatery in Chicago. Jessica though, is perfectly at home, doing her own thing.
Next door at Canton, the first tannery-to-restaurant swing in the Lee family, her first cousin Stephen is equally in sync with his environs, and enjoying the new challenge. “We had to change streams to survive,” observes the 28-year-old commerce graduate from St Xavier’s, who set up his restaurant next to uncle John’s before the Pujas last year, and is now savouring “encouraging footfalls”.
With the procurement of raw hide becoming “increasingly difficult” and competition from other states getting stiffer by the day, tannery is no longer viable, feels Stephen. “The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the Gulf War saw export orders plummet further,” laments Youn Chin’s grandson.
Stephen’s cousin Kenneth, too, has followed in his uncle’s footsteps to set up Kim Li Loi, the third eatery from the stable of Syndicate Tannery, the name that has stuck even though Youn Chin’s Syndicate was dissolved in the 50s. “Kenneth could have joined brother Ryan, who works in Toronto. But I advised him to stay back and see if we can keep the Syndicate flag flying together,” smiles John. Old man Lee, the arbiter in most Chinatown disputes in his lifetime, would have approved of this rare solidarity in troubled times.