With an hour and forty minutes to ring in the Year of the Ox, Peter Chen screamed excitedly in Tamil into his phone at the Pei May School in Tangra Chinatown. “Dei, inga dhaan da ennoda Amma, Appa padichanga,” he said via video call to his friend. Here is where my mother and father studied.
Chen, an Indian-Chinese man who runs a catering service in Chennai, moved his phone around to focus on the string of red Chinese lanterns that descended from the roof of the school. Then onto a group of youngsters dressed in identical t-shirts, sponsored by the Sing Cheung Sauce Factory, readying themselves for what everyone around called the “dragon” dance. Curiously, the dragon was in fact a lion.
Chen, who generously offered discounted IndiGo airline tickets since his wife is an air hostess, led a group of us up the stairs of Pei May, the last Chinese school that accepted students in Kolkata till a decade ago, to visit the temple on the rooftop. The temple with its two deities – “one is like an emperor of gods, one is the god of wealth” – is where Indian-Chinese come to pray before Chinese New Year festivities begin each year in this neighbourhood.
Like on that Thursday night when we visited on February 11, the eve of Chinese New Year.
The roof offered a bird’s-eye view of the changes forced on one of Kolkata’s two Chinatowns. Abandoned tanneries traditionally run by Hakka Chinese, like Chen’s family, now stand next to high-rises as more Indian-Chinese sell their property and emigrate to the US, Canada and even Luxembourg.
At the other Chinatown in Central Kolkata, Cheenapara, the “dragon” didn’t dance this year. It was unusually quiet, said members of the community. People chose to huddle together at home eating fish, longevity noodles, and dumplings with Alexa playing American pop music.
Doors remained shut to visiting “dragons” this year, a tradition many have participated in as youngsters dressed as lions and dragons, doing the rounds of homes to collect pocket money till 5 am or 6 am on New Year’s day. It was usually enough money to fund a night out in the late 1990s to take a date out to the local dance. This year, it was fear. Instead of prosperity or luck, what if the virus walks in the door?
It was evident that a tumultuous 2020 had put the community on edge. The pandemic that ravaged through India claimed several seniors of the Indian-Chinese community. The plummeting relations at the border between India and China, further infringed on a much-anticipated time of the year – a time when overseas Indian-Chinese fly back to Kolkata and the community comes together to pray, play, eat and drink.
Tangra was still up for a hangout, though. By 10.45 pm, locals had begun to congregate under a large red sign that wished everyone a happy new year in traditional Chinese characters. Bhel puri, batata puri, masal muri, and momos were on offer under Mamata Banerjee’s smiling face in Ward 66. Little boys hung about with their hands slung on each other’s shoulders, white-uniformed Kolkata police sat on plastic chairs, and the drums slowly began to roll.
“Lots of pickpockets around, tie your bags in the front,” warned Chen.
Competing for corriander
Half an hour later, in the throes of a dragon dance face-off between the Legend Warriors and the Phoenix, an Uber driver following his Google Map was stuck in the milieu of spectators. Someone yelled out at him: “Straight ja nahin sakte, dragon hain.” Can’t go straight, there is a dragon. Chen pointed out a window from which a bait is usually strung for the dragon groups to compete: “This year it is badly organised, we just have to go with the flow.”
Instead of a clutch of bokchoy, 30 minutes to midnight, two dragons competed over a bunch of coriander placed on a wooden bench after both bent down to pray at the Chinese Kali Mandir. The men carrying the yellow costume were quick on their feet to grab theirs, the white one danced about till it held the coriander in its mouth and sprinkled it over all the spectators. Good wishes of prosperity, luck and good health had to be shared.
Next day, at the Golden Joy Restaurant in Tangra, we met James Liao, a martial artist and lion dance trainer, who showed up dressed in a tracksuit looking like a gym instructor. Around us, the Indian waiters were dressed in black, and looked like Chinese bouncers with Chinese tattoos.
Liao, who feels strongly about his lion dance training, stayed away from New Year’s eve festivities on the streets of Tangra. He is vocal in his disapproval that the art form that he has painstakingly mastered over the years is exhibited frivolously with little practice.
Liao stayed home instead and ate a traditional Hakka feast of fish balls, steamed chicken and shark fin soup with his family. “We celebrate Chinese New Year very similarly to how our ancestors from China would,” he said. “We made mafa cookies at home, tied red cloth on the gate to symbolise happiness and luck, and did a big puja where the head of the family takes the largest incense stick and the rest stand one after another with smaller ones. At midnight, we bow together, pray and then burst fire crackers.”
When we met Liao, he was in the midst of training for a New Year’s performance at the Pei May School over the weekend. His students, over the years, had shifted from exclusively being Indian-Chinese to now almost entirely only Indian. “It used to be only Chinese but slowly, slowly since more people are leaving Kolkata and going overseas, and so non-Chinese people have begun to train,” he said. “But my expectations are very high from my students so those who remain are really dedicated.”
While Tangra was gearing up for a two-day food festival with a lion dance and a light and sound show, Cheenapara’s residents seemed to care very little for festivities happening barely 5 km away. “That is like a second locality so what is the point for us to go all that way? There is nothing new to that place,” said restaurateur James Lee. “You can say that we [residents of old and new Chinatowns] are not that close. I don’t know why? Ever since we were small, we didn’t have many friends in that locality.”
On New Year’s day, Lee was unable to open his Sei Vui Restaurant due to a strike in Kolkata that prevented his staff from coming into the city. “I believe in auspicious starts to the new year,” he said. “Most of the Chinese restaurants in this area are closed for the new year, so I was going to keep mine open to make some money. Chinese are always thinking about money.”
Lee added: “But my concept is a little different. People who are coming from abroad and don’t have relatives in Kolkata, they don’t have a place to go eat. They would like to watch the dragon dance which takes place right outside since my restaurant is in a lane with Chinese families on both sides.”
By 5 pm on New Year’s day, Lee and some of his friends gathered together for an “adda” that began first with tea and prawn crackers. “Only during Chinese New Year, you will see friends and get together,” he said. “Usually, every year somebody is coming home from somewhere. This year since everything is closed down, nobody is here,” he said. “This year is the first time, New Year’s is so quiet.”
By quarter to seven on the second day of the new year, people had begun to trickle into the lawns of Pei May School. To mark the year of the ox, or the “niu” in Chinese, a large model of a bull which resembled the one on Wall Street was propped up as visitors entered the grounds. A light installation projected a rotating “niu” onto the walls of the school.
Food stalls sold everything from cookies, chaat to biryani. “We only have siu mai and not momos,” a woman at the only Chinese food stall told an older customer. “It is siu mai and meatballs. Sorry I am serving you with my left hand.”
Well-dressed young people from the Indian-Chinese community, speaking in English, walked in groups and joked about online classes.
The music, a sort of bland version of Chinese pop with plain lyrics, blared from the speakers as Liao’s group of lion dancers set up the poles for their performance. “The background music is something you’d hear in rural China,” said a Chinese journalist colleague.
At half-past seven, Liao began to beat the drums, which assured a silence amongst the spectators. The Chinese pop continued playing regardless. For 20 minutes, everyone was enthralled with the performance by two Indian men dressed in an elaborate lion costume.
Liao, who had complained that his lions were out of shape during the pandemic, looked calm and focused on the drum beat. “I messed up the drums many times. If this was a competition, many points would be cut,” he told us later. “The lighting was very bad, it came straight into my eyes.”
On the loudspeaker, the announcer asked folks to get themselves a plate of biryani. The Chinese pop music continued. “Love is a fire burning in your and my heart….”
Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in Chennai. She previously reported from Beijing for The Indian Express in 2019. Through her stories she attempted to convey a broader understanding of China and the Chinese people to give Indian readers engaging insights beyond the official bilateral frame.