Covid-19, Locust attacks, Sino-India tensions — nothing has been easy about this year. However, here’s a little bit about how our patriotic sentiments may have hurt some of our people. Feel free to dissent, but with respect.
Immigrants bring with them skills, their memories, and their food. Kolkata’s infamous Chinatowns — Tangra and Tiretta Bazaar — have acted as a catalyst in the evolution of Chinese food into a national favorite. Food was deep-fried and cooked with familiar spices to adjust to the heat and flavors preferred by the locals. Manchurian, golden prawns, and chow mein became so popular that Indians soon started to run more Chinese establishments than Chinese-Indians themselves. Big fiery woks are now a part of elite restaurants and roadside stalls throughout the country. The food that was initially meant to serve a small community opened its doors wide to its neighbors and became a symbol of a culture that represented a symbiotic marriage of Chinese heritage with Indian palates.
One of the strains felt by the Chinese-Indian community, was in 1962 when China defeated India in the war, and anti-Chinese sentiments roared throughout the country. We faced heavy losses and looked for answers and retribution. Few of those who got caught in the crossfire were some of our own. The Chinese-Indian community was thrown into chaos when thousands across West Bengal, Mumbai, and Bangalore were interned by the government into camps set up in Deoli, Rajasthan. Some of these were second and third-generation descendants, who spoke fluent Bengali and were no more or less Indian than anyone else. But, a different heritage and appearance changed their course. The government had amended the Foreigners Act, 1946 to Defense of India Ordinance, Foreigners Law (Application and Amendment) Act which lead to the internment of Chinese-Indians on suspicions of them helping the Red Dragon.
The haul was arbitrary, and most returned home after years in the camps to crumbling neighborhoods and businesses. Chinese-Indians, or as I would like to simply put it as, Indians, have been a part of our country since as early as the 1770s when trade brought the Chinese to Calcutta. Calcutta, then the capital of British India, was an avenue for immigrants to seek trading opportunities. Immigrants from Hakka, Guangzhou, and other regions engaged in tanneries, salons, dental clinics, and more. The immigrants eventually migrated throughout the country and became enmeshed with the locals. They became an integral part of the cultural and economic fabric of the country.
An exemplar of this lies in the midst of the bustling Tiretta Bazaar in Kolkata. Helmed by Chef Joel, a fourth-generation Chinese-Indian, is the 85-year-old restaurant ‘Eau Chew’. His family tree branches across the sub-continent. His great grandparents moved from China and established Eau Chew. His grandmother hails from Lahore, while his aunts are settled in Mumbai and Pune and are running successful salons and restaurants respectively. He himself prefers to work behind the scenes in the kitchen of Eau Chew, and his cooking style is distinctive and rooted in its origins. He stays true to his father’s repository of flavors and wields his dishes by using light soy sauce instead of salt. Eau Chew has a menu to cater to the spice-forward umami palate, as well as an on-request menu for those who prefer the more authentic taste.
Chinatown is his place of business and rest. But despite being born in Mumbai and brought up in Kolkata, he states “If you believe you are an outsider, you will always be an outsider…we will always be an outsider here, and if we go back to our ancestors, they will also consider us an outsider. You have to get adapted to it.” While he doesn’t understand much Mandarin, his Bengali is impeccable and his family has made efforts through the years to connect with the locals, often being brought under their wing of protection during previous communal tensions. He mentions that people do comment as he steps out into Kolkata, but it’s a matter of getting adapted to.
His old customer famously states, “If the government plans to shut Chinese restaurants in Calcutta, there will be no more Bengalis left in Calcutta”, a true testament to his food and the immersion of the community within the city. However, the shadow cast by Covid-19 and the re-emergence of Sino-Indian tensions has led to many vocalizing the ban on Chinese goods to deliver a quick blow to China’s economy. The nationalist sentiments have channeled a few good things, but have also resulted in venomous sentiments.
Ramdas Athawale, the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment called for a ban on Chinese Food and establishments that serve Chinese food. This statement not only reveals a rather reductionist understanding of the cuisine but also stigmatizes the businesses owned by both Indians and Indian citizens of Chinese descent who have been facing increasing discrimination systemically for decades.
Immigrants and their descendants have never thought of return, India is their home. Their ancestors sought new opportunities, escaped wars and persecution, and found refuge in a country they began to love and belong to. They assimilated and adapted beyond what was needed and still face bias in their daily affairs. This has unfortunately been heightened due to the recent political tensions. Isn’t it our collective responsibility to slowly chip away our biases?
To leave you with a thought on what makes a nation,
A nation is , “an imagined political community…It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” — Benedict Anderson
Our identity as a part of our nation extends beyond the color of our skin and our descent — it rests in our sense of belonging and duty. It may do us good to hold on to this thought during these trying times before our actions persecute our own. Food is an expression of one’s identity and the confluence of many. Let’s use it to spread unity, shall we? Sometimes, food is beyond boundaries.
References & Further Reads:
The Chinese Diaspora Living in Kolkata, India
In a little over one month, I leave for India to conduct field research on the Chinese diaspora living in Kolkata.
The 1962 Internment of Chinese Indians
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Travails of Chinese-descent Indians
Six-year-old Michael Cheng’s world changed almost overnight as he and his family was picked-up in the middle of the…
‘Go chowmein, go’: Ramdas Athawale’s plan to ban Chinese food draws laughs and criticism
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Source: http://www.city.fukuoka.lg.jp/fu-a/en/culture_prizes/detail/52.html, October 22, 2012. Benedict Anderson is…