The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Breakfast in Chinatown
Gee Hing Church in the shadow of a highrise in Blackburn Lane. (Below) A Chinese provisions shop in Chhatawala Gali

The faded red-and-white signboard reads Hap Hing. Established in 1934, it is the best-known shop for provisions and Chinese medicines in old Chinatown in the vicinity of Poddar Court but it never seemed to open. The collapsible gate was drawn at all the usual working hours. But S.L. Chen, who owns and runs the establishment single-handedly, is a woman with a mind of her own and she works when most of us don’t – between six and 10 am.

The ramshackle building that houses Hap Hing looks at least a century old. S.L. Chen lives in a large room in the courtyard of the same house. The grimy groundfloor rooms are occupied by offices, minuscule workshops, including one where sandesh is made, a grocery, and a small Chinese eatery where chow is stir-fried at the entrance. The building stands at the intersection of Sun Yatsen Street and Chhatawala Gali.

S.L. Chen’s single-room flat is her castle. The entrance has its collapsible gate always under lock and key. She lives alone. The curious cannot peek inside. A screen ensures privacy. Unlike many Chinese wary of strangers she is cordial. Perhaps because she has confidence in her excellent English, obviously acquired in an Anglo-Indian school. Yet whenever she speaks of the dead she speaks in the present tense. For her, perhaps, the dead are more living than the living themselves.

There is a funereal air about the room. One of the wooden beams is propped up with two bamboo sticks. The two tables are laden with utensils and flasks that you see only in Chinese homes. The only dash of colour is provided by the red stickers with gold Chinese characters pasted on the furniture and on the walls. Her ancestors watch her from their photographs at the altar. The bed is large. So is the sofa.

S.L. Chen is a woman of considerable girth, grit and guts. She tells the story of every Chinese in India. For her the past is in the present. It is 1934 and her grandfather has arrived from Canton. He opens a Chinese fruit and vegetables shop in the market situated where Poddar Court is now. Where Calcutta Telephones Kendra is now is a market. “We could do our shopping without any hindrance to traffic. Nowadays trucks can hit you,” she says.

She is teaching in Ling Liang school in the late Sixties when construction of Poddar Court begins. The Hap Hing building is full of people from Hakka. “We live in two rooms on the Poddar Court spot. One is the shop. The other is for living along with a small kitchen. The terrace gets lots of sunshine. We climb a ladder to reach it. It is still there. The leaves of mustard plants (sarson saag) are dried there and salted. We put it in a container from China. Only women know how to do this. Before, only men came from China. So women came to do this.” As she relives the past she lets out a sharp cry. “They lived miserable lives. Some came with nothing. China was at war. Japan was bombarding it. They usually sent their sons to continue the family name. Money was not spent on girls. Now those who have gone abroad think differently.”

Her grandfather and father come to India in the Thirties. Father starts working at 17 and continues till age 73-74. S.L. Chen goes to Canada where most of her siblings live. But she returns in 1991 to continue the family business. She is never self-indulgent in her anguish. Creases wrinkle the full moon of her face as she cracks a joke about bowel movements and prunes that she once imported in bulk from China but now in limited quantities.

The next morning I find her drinking tea at a stall outside her shop. This is the hour when a Chinese breakfast is available there but only to early birds.

Dumplings. Fishball soup. Steaming pau stuffed with meat. Rice pudding sprinkled with sesame seed. Chinese sausages. Sticky rice. Mushrooms. Fish wafers. Oil sticks. The vacant lot between the Calcutta Improvement Trust building and Poddar Court in India Exchange Place Extension has turned into a bustling poultry-and-vegetables market that remains alive for about three hours daily. All the delicacies mentioned above and more are fleetingly available a la carte on this spot.

Men and women of Mongolian appearance have put up stalls on and along the pavement. The dumplings and pau are inside the gleaming aluminium steamers set on stoves. The sausages are blood-red. A knot of people eats soup crowded around a portable table.

Once this movable feast was served up only by the Chinese. Now the Sikkimese and the Tibetans have joined the “morning breakfast” business, and so have the Indian helps of the Chinese people who have migrated elsewhere. When the Chinese were here in strength till the Sixties, chow joints served up snacks such as Chinese buns and pork roast all the time. Violet Chung, 60 plus, remembers how her father supplied roast pig and duck to Great Eastern Hotel and as a token of honour the Brits put up a signboard in front of his shop, a rarity those days in Chinatown.

In hard times the Chinese sweat it out and later enjoy the fruits of labour. A man who lives above Sea Voi Yune Leong Futh Church (1908) in Blackburn Lane is there with his wife selling dumplings. Ping, 63, for that is his name, used to repair ships but has retired. The room dominated by a large bed is tiny but neat.

I met Tseng Te Yu, 63, his Nepalese wife Saraswati and their two daughters. Brass puja utensils gleam in the “showcase”. A plump tabby cat sits on the bed immobile as a figure carved from jade. The man may be a cobbler but his single room is squeaky clean and his daughters go to college.

Christopher Lim, 49, sits in a garret making shoes inside 36 Chhatawla Gali that the family of Abbas Bengali, a Bohra, has owned since the Twenties. Hundreds of “forms” of shoes hang from the loft. Behind him is the Sacred Heart, tiny lights twinkling all over the picture and a large photo of a Chinaman in robes, who, he says came in 1927. Lim went to try his luck in Amritsar but had to return during the Khalistani movement.

On the ground floor of Gee Hing church is Peter Chen’s large office. He runs his huge carpentry from there. When T.C. Leong’s father came to Calcutta 70 years ago, he carried furniture on his back all the way to Bandel. Now the son has a flourishing steel furniture factory. Most Chinese are on their way out but such success stories can be heard all the time.

Upcountry squatters, both Hindus and Muslims, have usurped the space around the CIT building, Calcutta Telephones Kendra, Sea Ip temple and Nanking restaurant. They are resigned to their fate.

(To be concluded)

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