It is generally believed that the Bengali word for refined sugar, chini , as in Hindi, came because of the Chinese who brought in table sugar, as we know it today. The story finds mention in the writings of noted novelist and poet, Sunil Gangopadhyay. While we won’t get into the merits of that, what we can say for sure is how the sugar and the Chinese are so inextricably connected in Bengal. To find the link you have to go to Achipur around 30 km to the south of Kolkata, where you will find the tomb of the earliest recorded Chinese who settled in India.
While Chinese travelers and chroniclers, like Hieun Tsang and Fa Hien, have made their way into India, through millennia, the first Chinese settler in Bengal was a man the British called Tong Atchew, in the late 18th century. Also referred to varyingly as Yang Dazhao, Yang Daijang and Yang Tai Chow, little is known about the early life of Atchew, except for the fact that he was probably a tea trader. Records show that around 1778, Atchew applied to the colonial government for land in Bengal, because he wanted to set up a sugar mill. Warren Hastings, the then Governor General, was deeply interested in China. The imperial Chinese government regarded Europeans with suspicion and traders were not permitted to enter the country. But China represented a huge potential market, as it does even today and Hastings had been trying, through the efforts of the Scot George Bogle to establish trade ties with the country. It was perhaps because of these considerations, that Hastings granted Atchew 650 bighas of land at an annual rent of 45 rupees. Since local Bengalis referred to Atchew as ‘Achi’, the place where he built his mill, came to be known as Achipur.
Records from the time are few and far between, but a few notices in municipal gazettes and correspondence provide a glimpse into what Achipur must have been like back in the day. While the earliest Chinese that the residents of Kolkata saw, were probably sailors who jumped ship, interestingly one of the earliest mentions of a Chinese man in Kolkata, comes from an advertisement in April 1784 in which a Chinese man named Tom Fatt offers his services as a cleaner of water tanks. According to a police record, by 1788 there was already a sizeable Chinese population in Kolkata, settled around modern day Bow Bazar Street in central Kolkata.
To work in his sugar mill, Atchew brought indentured laborers from China. However they kept running away and Atchew lodged an official complaint about this in 1781. According to the complaint, Atchew’s workers were being enticed away by Chinese residents in Kolkata. Kolkata at this point, had a small Chinese community, mostly from Fujian and Guandong provinces and mostly engaged in the opium trade. The fact that Atchew had some influence with the government is shown by the serious view the government took of his complaint, immediately issuing a notice stating that Atchew was under the protection of the government and anyone found trying to ‘entice away the Chinese laborers in his employ’ or ‘affording them shelter’ would be punished.
Atchew was to die only 2 years after this, and we find a letter from 1783 from an East India Company attorney, attempting to extract money from the executor of Atchew’s estate. Details of what the estate must have been like come from the notice of sale in the Calcutta Gazette of 15th November 1804. The notice mentions that the estate, along with ‘all the buildings, stills, sugar mills and other fixtures’ were for sale. With an estate so large, Atchew was probably cultivating the sugarcane he needed to produce sugar. The mention of stills also indicates that he was brewing alcohol from the sugarcane. With Atchew’s death, the settlement in Achipur came to an end and the Chinese community moved to Kolkata, which was where they would continue to live and expand, with fresh immigrants coming in as late as the 1950’s.
Today, Achipur is just like any other nondescript village in Bengal. Of Atchew’s sugar mill, absolutely nothing survives. However, Atchew’s horse-shoe shaped tomb, painted bright red, still remains, on the banks of the Hooghly river. Also surviving is a Chinese temple, dedicated to the deities Khuda-Khudi, the God and Goddess of Earth. The temple itself is a low-roofed structure, painted bright red and covered in excellent Chinese calligraphy. The present structure of the temple is likely to be more modern, but the idols inside were likely brought over from China by Atchew himself. Curiously, behind the main Chinese temple is a smaller Hindu shrine, which some texts mention as being dedicated to Dakshin Ray, the Tiger God worshipped by Hindus in and around the Sunderbans.
All year Achipur remains a quiet, sleepy village, transforming into a fairground in the weeks following the Chinese New Year. This is when thousands of Chinese descend on the village, to pay their respects to Tai Pak Kung, as Atchew is known to the Chinese community, which roughly translates to the ‘biggest grandfather’ or ‘godfather’.
Many Chinese who have migrated out of Kolkata, visit the city from as far away as Canada and the United States for this annual pilgrimage. At Atchew’s tomb, symbolic paper money is burned and incense sticks are offered. At the temple incense sticks burn continuously, filling the sanctum sanctorum with white smoke. In front of the sanctum, offerings of food and wine are made. These often include roasted suckling pigs as well as whole fish and chicken along with Chinese wine.
After Atchew’s death, the Chinese community in Kolkata would continue to grow as wave after wave of Chinese left China after the Punti-Hakka wars (1856-67), the failure of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), the Japanese invasion of China (1937-45) and finally the Chinese civil war. Each community, as it settled in the city, created a native-place association known as Huiguan, which controlled a temple and a cemetery used by members of that community. These temples still survive in the Kolkata neighbourhood known as Tiretta Bazar, which became India’s first Chinatown. A second Chinatown would emerge on the city’s fringes, in a place called Tangra, in the 1920’s.
Kolkata’s enduring romance with Chinese food began sometime after 1947 with the Cantonese community, who were escaping Mao’s China, starting up Chinese restaurants around the city. The first Chinese restaurant was Nanking, which hosted the likes of Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. The Chinese temples of Tiretta Bazar still survive as do the 6 original Huiguans.
India’s war with China in 1962 had unfortunate consequences for the Chinese living in India. Hundreds were arrested from Kolkata and the northeast and shipped off to a camp in a place called Deoli in Rajasthan. The imprisonment ruined many lives. Many returned to find their businesses had been taken over by neighbours or that their homes were occupied by squatters. This led to a migration out of India which continues in a steady stream even today. Today, there are perhaps some 2000 Chinese still living in Kolkata, a city where the community once numbered 15,000. The Chinese still continue to be the movers and shakers in the leather business in eastern India and Chinese shoe shops and beauty parlours are still a common sight in Kolkata. With renewed interest in Tiretta Bazar’s ‘cheena-para’ an attempt to revive the neighbourhood and showcase it for tourists is now in the offing. But even if the average Bengali from Kolkata is unaware of the history of the Chinese community in the city, he or she has probably grown up with one unique Chinese item – the thick, tangy and spicy green chilli sauce made by the Calcutta-based, family-owned Chinese firm Pou Chong Brothers.
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.
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