Little-known story of Mumbai’s Chinese-Indian community by Abhishek Mande Bhot
The Chinese were once a thriving community in Mumbai… then the Sino Indian war of 1962 happened.
As a concise history of the Chinese-Indian community in Mumbai, Vishal Bhardwaj’s 'Mumbai Dragon' (part of the anthology series 'Modern Love Mumbai') gets a lot of things right. (Image: Amazon Prime Video)
Vishal Bharadwaj’s 'Mumbai Dragon' in Modern Love Mumbai features a widowed mother trying to hold on to her young son as he tries to make his way in life. The anthology segment stars Malaysian actor Yeo Yann Yann as the mother, Sui, and Indian Idol ’06 winner Meiyang Chang as Ming. Sui is an Indian of Chinese origin and the custodian of the Kwan Kung temple, while Ming, quite like Chang himself, is qualified to be a dentist but is keen on pursuing music as a career. Much has been written about the Chinese community in Kolkata, but 'Mumbai Dragon' brings to the fore the little-known Chinese community of Mumbai. And, if you watch closely enough, the episode also serves as a concise history of the community in the city. While Kolkata has a thriving Chinese community, the number of Chinese Indians in Mumbai is considerably lower. Their history here, therefore, is also far more poorly documented. For instance, even though we know about the first recorded instance of a Chinese person, Achi (or Yang Da Zhao), arriving and settling on the shores of Kolkata—Achipur is named after him—the history of when the Chinese arrived in the bustling metropolis on the west coast remains largely unknown. However, two important landmarks that remain today give some indication: A Chinese cemetery in central Mumbai’s Antop Hill neighbourhood, built on land bought by Chinese merchants in 1889. And the Kwan Kung temple that, though consecrated in the early '50s, is in a house built in 1919. It is in this temple that several of the scenes in 'Mumbai Dragon' with Sui and Pappi (Naseeruddin Shah) are filmed. The warrior god Kwan Tai Kung is the presiding deity of this temple that is spread across two floors. Painted red, the colour that the Chinese associate with prosperity, the Kwan Kung temple is located in Mazgaon, a neighbourhood in South Mumbai best known for its dockyard. RELATED STORIES
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Around this temple was a thriving Chinatown, complete with restaurants and shops, Chinese origin families that had made Mumbai (then Bombay) their home. This was one of two Chinatowns in Mumbai at the time, the second one was located on Sukhlaji Street in Nagpada, home to the city’s red light district, Kamathipura. There are no visible signs to indicate the presence of the Chinese Indian community on Sukhlaji Street, and the Kwan Kung Temple is the only remnant of the bygone era in Mazgaon. Albert Tham, a familiar presence in the temple and the custodian of the temple for decades, comes from a family that immigrated from Canton (Guangzhou). According to Sirfa Lentin’s article in Gateway House, it was Tham’s grandfather who built the place primarily as an institute to train young Chinese men as welders, fitters, and ship carpenters. While this helped the young men get jobs in the nearby Mazgaon Docks, it also served his business interests as he was a labour contractor for the British India Steam Navigation Company. To this day, the Kwang Kuan Temple in Mazgaon remains an important space for the tiny Chinese-Indian community in Mumbai. Every Chinese New Year, the temple comes to life and the lane sees dragon dances and fireworks (though the last two years the celebrations have been relatively muted and there have been no dragon dances). The Kwang Kuan Temple attracts people from different faiths. This is visible especially on Chinese New Year, when you’re likely to meet Hindus, Christians, even Sikhs. In that 'Mumbai Dragon' in Modern Love Mumbai is not incorrect to suggest the note of familiarity between Naseeruddin Shah’s Sikh character Pappi and Sui, whom he sees as a daughter figure. Yet another story that 'Mumbai Dragon' references is that of the invention of Sweet Corn Soup. Sui seems to suggest that it was her grandfather who invented the soup when a group of inebriated Europeans walked into the restaurant and demanded that the owner-chef toss up a meal, handing him nothing but a can of sweetcorn. While there remains no documented reference to this story a version suggests that this may have actually been true, except that the parties involved were the Lings who ran the immensely popular Nanking in Colaba and a group of Allied soldiers who weren’t drunk. Lings, incidentally, continue to do business just across the street from the now-shut Nanking in the lane that leads up to the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel from Ling’s Pavillion that’s been an iconic landmark for decades and would famously host the Kapoor family every other weekend. Thriving as the Chinese-Indian community was, it all came crashing down when China and India went to war in 1962. Even though most who had settled here weren’t supporters of the Communist Party, Chinese-Indians were asked to make a choice: either go back to China or spend time in an internment camp. Some left to go to a land they’d never seen before, others chose to stay in India. Several of those who stayed back spent a few years in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. This too finds a brief mention in 'Mumbai Dragon'. In that, 'Mumbai Dragon' in Modern Love Mumbai gets a lot of things right. It also does something that no fiction film-maker has done before: it brings into the spotlight what may well be the second tiniest community in the city, after the African Indian Siddis.