The planned revival of the Pei May school, the oldest school teaching Mandarin Chinese in Kolkata, will add glamour to the next Dragon Dance
Come mid-January and Tangra, the famous China Town on the fringes of east Calcutta, known for its terrific Chinese culinary offerings,will feel more elated than in the previous years during the fabled Dragon Dances. The Dragon, you see, holds and protects the Gem, the essence of Chinese culture. And in the City of Joy, Kolkata, the Dragon has held forth, because for the dwindling population of Chinese residents of the city, the school teaching Mandarin will be reopened.
Pei May, the last surviving Chinese language school in the city is poised to reopen after several years. Members of the community in Chinatown are extremely happy and busy drawing up plans to reopen the institute.
Pei May has the unique distinction of teaching Mandarin to at least two generations of ethnic Chinese in the city prior to the sudden closure of the school. The Chinese Tannery Owners’ Association, that was keen to get the school reopened for imparting Mandarin lessons to their kids, has finally succeeded in its efforts.
Due to their small population (and sensitive to India’s difficult relations with their homeland), the Chinese in India have largely stayed out of politics and remained clustered in their own tight-knit communities. Many Chinese in India fled the country in the wake of the brief Sino-Indian war of 1962 – indeed, many Chinese-Indians were also interned in military camps and prisons in northern India following that conflict.
Those who were not imprisoned saw their movements restricted, and some even had their Indian citizenships revoked. It was during that crucial period — more than nine decades back that the school had started functioning and began to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture to the kids of the community.
“In fact, very few among the present generation of Chinese are aware about the history of the school; the kind of pain and trouble our grandfathers have gone through while building this institution can’t be described in words,” said Chu Ying Wah, the new vice president of the school.
“Our community was hardly rich and people used to struggle a lot. They used to sell leather wastes and lived almost in penury. Yet their determination to impart education to their children saw them contributing a lot to building this institution.”
The Chinese people have been living in Kolkata since 1778, when a traveller, Atchew, reached Bengal. After the Indo-China conflict, a sizable population has migrated to Canada, Singapore, Australia and other foreign lands. A decision by the Indian Supreme Court in 1995 to close down Kolkata’s tanneries due to environmental concerns, also sparked another exodus of Chinese from the city (to other parts of India, or out of the country entirely).
Kolkata’s remaining tiny Chinese community generally operates restaurants (which offer Indo-Chinese fusion cuisine), shoe shops, tea gardens and beauty parlours.
Often, family ties tend to be the strongest draw. Seeing that his four siblings had left for destinations like Los Angeles and Toronto, William Wong decided to stay back in Kolkata with his parents. He took control of Shanghai Co, a dry cleaning shop his father had set up in 1936. Wong says that even though he has never been to his village in China, he doesn’t believe there is any reason for his Chinese inheritance and Indian roots to be in conflict.
“My children and I grew up here. We feel comfortable in India.” His elder son is studying at the Shri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi, while the younger one goes to school in Chandigarh and plays badminton at the national level. “They like Indian music, Indian films, they have an Indian palate too. I just wish they also knew a little Mandarin,” Wong smiles.
Another longtime resident of Chinatown, SM Hsiung, complained that the youths of the area simply want to move to the developed countries. “Chinatown is being deserted by the new generation,” he said. “In Tangra, we speak the purest form of Hakka anywhere in the world. Even in its original home it has been diluted. Hence, the revival of the institution is being welcomed by everyone in the community.
”However, the community leaders insist that even though Chinese will be taught in the revamped school, the medium of education would be English and the Mandarin will be available as second or third language. This apart, students will have the option of learning Indian history and geography along with Chinese history and geography. Pei May has already applied to the CICSE authorities for affiliation and the nod is likely to come any day,” the vice president said. Finally the Cha project - aptly named cha which is the common word for tea in both Bengali and Chinese and the beverage is part of everyday living in both parts of the world - aims at reviving the Tiretta Bazar. The Kolkata chapter of the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and Buzz Media in Singapore have been working together on the Cha Project, which aims at preserving the area’s authentic flavour.
“This place(Tiretta Bazar) is full of history. There’s an Armenian church here, a Portuguese church, a Zoroastrian temple and the Anglo-Indian Bow Bazaar barracks. There used to be a Jewish synagogue too, but only the plaque remains now. This used to be the main commercial area when the British were around. It was the hub of traders. The docks were nearby and you could see the ships over the top of the buildings in the distance,” INTACH bureau chief G M Kapur said.
According to him, the idea is to preserve Chinatown in Kolkata through a series of programmes. “It will be an urban-regeneration initiative as well as a tourism opportunity,” he said. “It will not only attract tourists but also people from the city itself. Basically, it will recreate the old Chinatown days.”On a more optimistic note, now given that many Indian-Chinese” from across the globe are planning to return to Kolkata to attend the festive Chinese New Year’s celebrations and other programmes, there is perhaps, hope that the community will not vanish entirely.
© 2016 Sulabh Swachh Bharat. All Right Reserved