Tong Atchew lies in a red tomb on the banks of the Hooghly. Well, he doesn’t really lie there. The original grave is believed to have been washed away years ago by the river, which is broad and strong here, 33 kilometres south of Kolkata and about to enter the Bay of Bengal. But like most things about Atchew, the legend is more powerful than the history. So powerful that the village around the tomb is named after him – Atchewpur, later modified to Achipur.

The Indian Chinese community in Kolkata believes Atchew, or Yang Da Zhao, was the first of them to land on these shores. Historians think Chinese migrants were already living around Kolkata by the time he arrived. It does not matter. The ashes of old offerings and incense still lie in the curve of the red tomb, where Atchew is venerated as the first ancestor.

“In Chinese culture, we have ancestor worship,” said Dominic Lee, who owns Pou Chong Food Products in Kolkata’s Tiretti Bazar area. “It is part of Confucian culture. When someone passes away, he turns into a spirit, and you seek his affection and blessings. Over the course of time, he is elevated almost to a godly figure. Many historical figures are also worshipped.”

So Atchew still presides over Achipur, part legend, part deity, part local landlord. Lee remembers that as children they would call him “Thongyeng Pakkung”, which roughly translates into “sugar plantation master”. But “Thong” could also refer to the Thang dynasty in ancient China, he explains, filling the name with echoes of historical grandeur.

To the inhabitants of the village named after him, Atchew is still “Achi saheb”.

Tong Atchew's tomb on the banks of the river Hooghly. Credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

The crossing

Atchew arrived around the time the British were developing a lively interest in China and the beverage it had perfected over centuries: tea. Tansen Sen, professor of history at City University of New York, explains how Warren Hastings, governor general of India from 1773 to 1785, was trying to open up routes to China, sending envoys east. Samuel Turner, diplomat, traveller and cousin to Hastings, was dispatched to Tibet to get tea for the plantations then spreading across Assam.

No one knows where exactly Atchew came from. “We do not know if he was Hakka or Cantonese,” said Sen, referring to the two main Chinese communities in India. “It is most likely that he was a Hokkien from Fujiang province. They had vast networks in South East Asia in the 18th century.”

But the details of Atchew’s early life do not really matter to the community that reveres him, said Sen. More important is the legend of arrival, the first contact made with a new land and the beginnings of a community. There are several versions.

In an interview from the 1970s, the owner of Kolkata’s Nanking restaurant narrated how a Chinese ship caught in a storm washed up in Calcutta and Hastings agreed to give the sailors land where they could settle.

According to another version, Atchew was on a ship with a British captain, who accused him of smuggling in two stowaways. But then the stowaways turned themselves into pieces of wood and Atchew realised they were gods. He later planted them on land where a temple was built.

In a third version, Atchew did Hastings a great service, so the governor general decided to reward him with land. In all three versions, Atchew and his men could have as much land as they could cover in one morning. According to the third story, he moved swiftly and covered so much ground that Hastings regretted his promise.

Sen also points to a racy Bengali novel called Chinatown, written by Badrinath Das and published in serialised form in Basumati magazine in 1958. The novel is remarkable for the details it gives about Atchew and is probably drawn from stories circulating in Kolkata at the time, Sen surmises. In one such story, Atchew knew the trader, James Flint, in Canton, which ensured that he had “patronage in the aristocratic English society in Calcutta”. Of course, Badrinath Das then goes on to tell a lurid tale of murder and deceit, involving Atchew’s daughter, a perfidious business aide who “seduces” her, and a mysterious chest left behind by Atchew after his death.

But what can we really know about this shadowy adventurer?

Land was granted, this much is known from the archives of the India Office. Sen found a British document from 1778, which says Atchew received a large land grant from Hastings in return for a gift of tea. “The early Chinese really wanted to work with the British,” observed Sen.

The perfidy of workers also seems to have been a running grievance with Atchew. In a petition dating back to 1781, he complained to the British that the Chinese living in Calcutta were enticing away labourers indentured to him. The British were quick to publish an ad saying they are “determined to afford him every support and assistance in detecting such persons and bringing them to condign punishment for inveighing away his people”.

The red tomb and a Chinese temple barely two kilometres away are all that remains of Atchew’s Achipur.

The Chinese temple in Achipur. Credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

Achi Saheb

“The temple was established by Achi saheb,” said Prasanta Das. “There used to be a sugar mill and indigo plantations right here. That pond you see before you, there is another pond behind that and behind that, another one. They used to be a canal leading to the river. Steamers used to come up here. Now it’s all built up.” Prasanta Das runs a printing press behind the Chinese temple and is used to curious visitors.

The sugar mill that Atchew set up in this patch of land near the town of Budge Budge drew other Chinese migrants and soon a small community had formed around it. By 1783, we know Atchew was dead – a letter shows an East India Company attorney trying to extract money from the executor of his estate. An advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette in 1804 announces that the sugar mill was up for sale. And if Badrinath Das’s book is to believed, all Chinese families disappeared from Achipur within a few years, moving to better prospects in Calcutta and confirming Atchew’s worst fears.

Prasanta Das mentions a Chinese doctor who lives some distance away and visits occasionally. Apart from that, there have been no Chinese families living in Achipur for over a century now. Yet traces remain. The area where the temple is located is still called Chinamantala, and if you dig a little in these parts, you find strange flat bricks, says Prasanta Das. And stories of Achi Saheb are still passed down the generations in some families.

Both the inhabitants of Achipur and the Chinese community in Calcutta say that Atchew married a Muslim woman, though nothing else is known about her. “Achi saheb’s wife was called Teli Bibi,” said Sheikh Salem, who works as a master carpenter, his grizzled beard and his thatch of white hair announcing his years. “Her grave was inside our village, but now it has merged with the ground. We never saw it, we have only heard. Is he today’s saheb? He’s very old, from my grandfather’s grandfather’s time.”

Prasanta Das has also heard a story from his grandfather, about two idols that Atchew brought with him. “Achi saheb asked where should I keep them so the British told him to keep them here,” he said, gesturing towards the compound of the Chinese temple.

There is a small shrine in the same compound, believed to be older than temple itself. It is devoted to Dakshin Rai, lord of the south, who rules over beasts and demons. In the Ram Kali temple across the road, there is an idol of Bonbibi, guardian spirit of the forests, venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike. Achipur is not far from the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.

The entrance to the Chinese temple in Achipur. Credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

Gods of Achipur

Many religious traditions now meet in that sleepy temple compound. All gods, whether Chinese or Bengali, are tended by Gopal, who sweeps the grounds in the morning and then locks up before lunch. His family have been caretakers here for generations and the compound is maintained by the Indian Chinese community.

Atchew brought with him a god and goddess of the earth, tutelary deities known as Tudigong. “The Chinese have this idea of a local god to protect the community [in a particular place],” explained Sen. Meanwhile, the present-day inhabitants of Achipur have their own name for the Chinese god and goddess – “khoda-khodi”, probably versions of the Urdu word for god, “khuda”. When prayers are offered to Dakshin Rai, usually for weddings or other festive occasions, flowers are also placed before khoda and khodi.

For a couple of weeks around Chinese New Year, Achipur bursts into festivity. Indian Chinese families drive down from Kolkata to pay tribute to the Tudigong and to Atchew. There are feasts and dragon dances, and sometimes, tales told about Atchew. Pilgrims bound for the Tudigong shrine also offer flowers to Dakshin Rai.

Lee finds nothing out of the ordinary in this practice. “The Chinese here will offer prayers to Kali also, out of fear or because of the power they invoke,” he said. “Many of the early Chinese had native wives, so they might have had tulsi temples in their homes.”

The Hooghly as seen from Atchew's tomb. Credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

The red tomb

But now the legends of Atchew are fading among the Indian Chinese community and the crowds at the new year festival thinning. “My generation will probably be the last to go there,” said Francis Yee Lepcha, who lives in Kolkata’s old Chinatown.

Among the older generation, a few stories about Atchew still survive. The younger members of the community know little apart from the fact that he was the first ancestor. Most of the later Chinese converted to Christianity, so the annual rituals have lost much of their religious resonance.

Besides, the Indo-Chinese war of 1962 created a tragic rupture. Thousands from the community were rounded up and sent to detention camps in Deoli, Rajasthan. Few made it back to their homes in Kolkata or the North East. That was when the Indian Chinese began to leave India and the story of a long migration entered its last chapter. And then who needs stories of the beginning?

Today, the riverside near Achipur is a popular picnic spot. On a late winter afternoon, the empty village streets throbbed with the distant beat of Bollywood songs while Trinamool Congress flags fluttered in the wind. By the river, next to the red tomb, a group of local boys had opened bottles of beer and boxes of meat curry, talking loudly in Bengali. Two men spoke quietly by a parked motorcycle.

But the red tomb kept its counsel as the light died across the Hooghly.