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  • Jennifer Liang

Ah Leen's Story - Part 2

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

Ah Leen’s Story Part 2

Landing up in Cheena Pada

Our family landed in Cheenapada in Tiretti Bazaar of Calcutta after having lived our entire life in and around the tea gardens of Hashimara in the Darjeeling foothills. We started staying in cheenapada (as the area where the Chinese then largely lived was called), making our living from a soda shop. My uncle whom we all called Tai Suk (Elder Uncle) had already been in Calcutta for two and half decades when we came here. Tai Suk had learnt carpentry in China when he was 14 and had started working. But with the Communists and Kuomintang up against arms and with insecurity due to the unrest, he moved to India in 1924 at 18 years of age. When he first came here, there was already a Chinatown in place.

He had a godfather and mentor there from his district of Soon Tak who had moved to India some years ago and was in Calcutta. This godfather had a small soda shop inside Chinatown and apart from soda, he also sold toffees and cigarettes. He used to live in a wooden machan inside the soda shop and being unmarried, after he died in 1948, his godson (my Tai Suk) was left with the soda shop. But Tai Suk already had a full-time job in Calcutta as a carpenter in the government phone company. Like his Godfather, my uncle also never married, lived on till the age of 94 and never once went back to China in the 69 years since he came to India.

When he landed with the soda shop, he invited us (his dead cousin’s family) from the village near Jalpaiguri to come and live in Calcutta and help him look after the shop. He helped us rent a room on the third floor in Solah Number (Number 16 building) in Cheenapada. The building was owned by one of the Chinese huiguans (club houses) and there were only Chinese families living there. Solah Number had 12 rooms with 12 families each on the three floors with only one toilet in each floor. Each family had 5-6 children and the whole place was very crowded and noisy. There was no fan and no electricity and it would get really hot. After we first landed in Calcutta, we missed our village in Hamilton so much that for the first six months, we could not stop crying and wanted to run back there all the time. Slowly, we got used to living in cheenpada and settled down.

Our soda shop was part of a complex of eight tin rooms with tiled roofs. Four rooms in the front were shops and the rest were living quarters where all different communities lived. Next door to our soda shop was a shop selling chuk (rice gruel) and next to that was a chandu (opium) shop and next to that was a coal shop. The opium addicts called “chandu ah paks” (opium uncles) of all ethnicities bought their fix from the chandu shop and smoked it in the backroom. Some families in cheenpada those days sold opium to survive and my friend’s parents were also opium sellers owning the shop next to us. There were days when her parents had to cook the chandu at home and then she would be asked to mind the shop. She would pocket a little bit of money and give us a puchka (pani puri) treat that day.

We paid 15 rupees as monthly rent for the soda shop and would sell Byron company lemon juice; ginger ale and other colas at 25 paise a bottle. We could make a profit even after spending on buying ice to cool the drinks. To supplement our income, we also sold 6-7 types of cigarettes to the carpenters from Chen’s Carpentry across the road to our shop. They would take the cigarettes on credit and pay us back every week on their pay day. My mother and I would also stitch clothes to earn a bit more money. While she was in China, my mother had learnt how to stitch Chinese suits worn by women there and she could also sew delicate and very beautiful cloth buttons for the suits and gowns worn by the women. She taught me how to make these buttons and the two of us would take orders and thus we managed to eke out a living. My brothers started going to school but the 10 rupees monthly fees in the missionary school was a struggle to keep paying. They both dropped out and started apprenticing in the carpentry firm across the road, till the younger one came of age and ran away to sea and became a sailor. My mother ran the soda shop and tailored clothes till 1958 when the entire complex of tin sheds was broken down to make way for constructing new buildings.

Cheenapada when I reached Calcutta

When we moved to Cheenapada (Chinatown) in Calcutta in 1948, it was really very different from what it is today. There were so many shops, restaurants, temples, clubs and gambling dens serving the Chinese population. Because there were so many Chinese, there was a large number of stores selling Chinese ingredients like Haan Fat, Wing Yuen (Forever), Theen Yat Koon, Thung Yik (which was owned by someone from our district of Naam Soon). Some of these shops specialized only in Chinese medicines and others were general stores. There were three gold shops in Chinatown - Sung Hing, Chung Yan and Sing Cheung. They were taught gold setting by my friend’s husband who was a goldsmith back in China. My friend was Nepali but she later learnt Chinese from her husband and used to help him in his work. Sing Cheung (the now famous sauce makers) was a well-known gold shop. Only later they started a sauce factory. They brought over from China a specialist who taught them to make soya sauce. This same person later started Sing Ho Sauce company which one of our relatives bought and now owns.

Till about 1958, Chinese ingredients were freely available in these shops and the Chinese in Calcutta were not short of supplies. But in the revolution period in China, things got difficult there and with fewer ships plying, supplies were affected. Many things decreased and then 1962 happened and all supplies stopped for a long time after that. Most of the shops closed down then, including many of the eating houses.

Food in Cheenapada

Apart from the shops and the stores selling Chinese ingredients there was an abundance of food stalls and eating houses run by the Chinese in Cheenpada. Those days people used to come back home from work, bathe and have dinner by 5 p.m. At that time there was no T.V and the houses were so tiny and there was nothing to do. So, people used to visit each other, gamble or hang around the club houses and boarding houses and temples. Also, there were many bachelors living in boarding houses with no families and they did not cook. So, there was a big culture of street breakfast in the mornings and eating out in the evenings. The cheenapada streets were full of food vendors and cheap eating houses and people would eat in these places before going back and retiring for the night.

And then there were the bigger restaurants which most of us living in Cheenapada could only afford to see from the outside. Some better-known restaurants in Cheenapda during those days were Tung On (which is still there now), Wai Ying Lao, Heong Heong, Theen Yeen (for wedding banquets), On Lok Yuen (which was for ordinary, non-rich folks). One difference was that only Chinese people went to Chinese restaurants then as Indians did not know Chinese food. Only much later Indians learnt to eat Chinese food and then it became so popular. But back then, Nanking Restaurant was the most famous of them all. Film stars and Japanese army generals (posted in Calcutta during the war days) used to visit Nanking. Once, a huge crowd gathered outside Nanking to see Raj Kapoor who had come to eat food there. I also went with my brothers and we got pushed around a lot. Among the Chinese, only the very rich could afford to hold wedding and other banquets in Nanking. I myself have gone there to eat only thrice in my life. Two times it was for the wedding banquets of the sons of Chen’s Carpentry (who were very rich then and even had their own building with many apartments in Alipore). The third time I went to Nanking was when a rich man from our district threw a banquet to celebrate the foot binding of his daughter (that was the last foot binding we heard of in Cheenapada). Foot binding was done only for girls from very rich families - to show off the status of their families. It was very painful for the girls and I used to hear them cry in the nights when the binding cloth would be taken off. In Cheenpada, I have seen older women from the Woo Pak community with small feet which had been bound. Some of them knew very good kung fu and we were scared to cross their paths.

The Club Houses and Huiguans

In those days, there were so many temples and club houses too in Cheenapada. Different dialect groups from different districts had their own temple and their own club house for "their" people. Many of these served as boarding houses for the bachelors. One of the bigger club houses was called Kong San Huiguan was where my husband lived in after landing in India. There was a gambling den for a game called chee faa on one side and on another side was the club and boarding house. Many of the men in Cheenapada used to play that game in the gambling dens. It also destroyed many families. After 1962, all these decreased due to the chaos of those times and the opium dens also closed down and gradually things started winding up in Cheenapada.

Four years after reaching Calcutta, I was introduced to someone who came from the same district as we did and worked as a fitter in sailing ships. My uncle (Tai Suk) thought that being a sailor, he must be earning well and fixed my match with him. I was almost 18 years old then and my husband was 33 years. It was 1952.

To continue reading Part 3 of Ah Leen's Story, please click here To go back to Part 1 of Ah Leen's Story, click here

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