Rita Farhat Mukand/Kolkata
“Gong Xi Fa Cai!” Wish you enlarge your wealth! May the Year of the Dragon be fortunate for us all” exclaimed the residents of Tangra which lies in East Kolkata that traditionally housed many tanneries owned by people of Hakka Chinese origin, known as the Chinatown in Kolkata, India. Celebrations of the 2024 Chinese New Year started around the 8th of February culminating with the main day after the second full moon, Saturday, February 10th.
At this time, the streets in Tangra are glowing with red Chinese lanterns, shimmering lights, and throngs of rejoicing crowds from all communities, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and others.
“Come and start on the appetizers, here, try out this fish ball soup, it’s delicious,” said Khin Lin, a Chinese girl, calling out to her Bengali and Punjabi friends, to tuck into the lavish spread. Vibrant crowds gather as most of the Chinese invite their Indian friends to feast on delicacies such as chilly chicken, dumplings, steamed mushroom rice, wontons, spring rolls, fish, and other lavish dishes. With songs and music reverberating through the night, it was the Dragon Dance in front of the brightly lit up Kali Temple, that captured all eyes, segmented in meters with three segments, the head, body, and tail with the body divided into sections of odd numbers of 9, 11 and 13.
Preparations for mask dance in front of the lit up Kali Temple inTangra
By connecting these sections, the body of the dragon was flexible enough to twist and turn during its vigorous dance, glaring eyes, open jaw with a long, red pointed tongue, horns on its head and a white beard while the dragon kept leaping to rhythmic drum beats.
The dragon dance is deeply intertwined with the ancient Chinese tradition of venerating dragons revered as beings with dominion over water, rain, hurricanes, and floods. They symbolize power, resilience, and good fortune. Chinese folklore suggests that performing the dragon dance during festivals and ceremonies helps dispel malevolent forces and invites prosperity and blessings to the community. 2024 the Year of the Wood Dragon, which previously occurred in 1964 and the year of the wood dragon is considered to bring good luck, particularly for people who plan to start a business or are developing their careers.
Visiting Chinese houses is an exotic experience entering their glittering gates, red Chinese lanterns glowing at the doorways, and tables laden with fruits, gifts, and traditional Buddhist incense bamboo sticks made with a mixture of natural herbs and aromatic plants found in the Himalayas. All the families in Tangra gathered together to feast as this time of eating together was a key part of their celebrations. All family members must dine together and if for some reason, they cannot be present, the rest of the family will leave their spot empty and place a spare set of utensils for them.
A street lit up on the occasion of the Chinese New Year in Tangra
Chin Mei handed over a red envelope to her Indian friend, Mala. “What is it?” Mala asked curiously and Chin Mei explained, “This is the hóngbāo with cash inside, but the power is not in the cash but in the red envelope because the red colour is a symbol of good luck and prosperity in Chinese.” Mala opened her envelope and was thrilled to find a generous gift of a few thousand in the envelope. This tradition of giving money in red envelopes is wrapped around the heart of Chinese New Year when families and friends receive this rich gift of hóngbāo money.
Chin Mei told Mala, “The tradition of distributing red envelopes traces back to ancient tales of Chinese New Year. According to legend, a wicked spirit named ‘Sui’ would haunt children as they slept on New Year’s Eve, prompting parents to keep them awake to safeguard them. In one story, a child was given eight coins to ward off sleep but eventually dozed off with the coins under his pillow. When Sui approached, the coins transformed into the Eight Immortals, emitting a radiant light that banished the demon. Today, these envelopes, symbolizing the protective coins, are sometimes referred to as “suppressing Sui money.”
Chin Mei continued, “While it was for children, we now share hóngbāo money with our friends and family.”
Eveyone around enjoying the New Year festivities
Mala exclaimed, “What a fascinating story behind this and it is an exciting time of giving and receiving.” Chin Mei nodded in agreement and said, “We all look forward to the hóngbāo.”
The Year of the Dragon of 2024 symbolizes revival, renewal, wealth, and cultural revitalization this year’s Chinese Spring Festival starts on 10 February and festivities will last until the Lantern Festival on 24 February.
The narrative of Kolkata’s Chinese community goes on a journey through interconnected empires spanning colonial eras, developing diasporic identities in a postcolonial context, in the dynamic cosmopolitan essence of Kolkata. Originating within the networks of the East India Company, the history of “Cheenapada” extends beyond borders through re-immigration in Toronto and Sihui, embodying rich jumbles of diasporic experiences. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in Kolkata’s Chinatowns, with efforts led by photographers, scholars, and heritage enthusiasts aiming to revitalize the community and safeguard its architectural legacy. Despite these initiatives, both the population and vitality of Kolkata’s “Cheenapadas” have faded.
Items used for prayers on the occasion of the Chinese New Year
In the crowded East Indian city of Kolkata, the small community of Hakka Chinese has been living quietly for more than a century now, their entrance into India started with trade, and grew into a flourishing community with rich tannery owners, exotic restaurants, fashionable beauty salons, excellent doctors, dentists, and gifted shoemakers. As the originating hub of Indo-Chinese cuisine, Kolkata boasts a rich array of both fusion and traditional Chinese dishes, a source of local pride. The story of the Indian Chinese community reflects a journey of individuals seeking a home within Kolkata’s multi-ethnic fabric, transitioning from the colonial commercial landscape to adapting for survival in a postcolonial Indian urban setting.
While the Chinese community is largely dwindling in India, especially after the Indo-China War, where many lost their livelihoods and felt forced to leave for countries such as Canada, Sweden, and other nations, the remaining few thousand Chinese have beautifully integrated into Indian society, absorbing all the local customs, speak excellent Hindi and Bengali and strengthen India with their talents, gifts, and big contributions.
The current Chinese population concentrates around 2000 in Tangra and a few hundred families in the Bow Bazar area but this, tight-knit community has a beautiful time of togetherness during celebrations like the Chinese New Year, enriching the uniquely cosmopolitan flavour of Kolkata. The greetings of Gong Xi Fa Cai ringing in India’s Chinatowns herald the harking of good things to come as the Chinese New Year unfolds and Indians and Chinese unanimously celebrate this auspicious season.
Rita Farhat Mukand is an independent writer.