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Updated: 13 October, 2020 09:42 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

For a community that has had little documentation, a new website aims to be a living archive for the Indian-Chinese with oral memories and visual narratives

The Yee Hing Club is one of the few Chinese clubs remaining in Kolkata. Pic/Vidura Jang Bahadur
The Yee Hing Club is one of the few Chinese clubs remaining in Kolkata. Pic/Vidura Jang Bahadur

About 240 years ago, a Chinese merchant called Yong Atchew settled in India. With 650 bighas of land handed over to him by Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of India, he started a sugar mill 40 kms from Calcutta. Regarded by the Indian Chinese — Indians of Chinese ancestry — as their first ancestor, Atchew's story is likely also the story of how "cheeni" came to be known as sugar.

From approximately 50,000 people in the 1950s and '60s, the population of this community has dwindled to less than 4,000 people today — of this, about 1,500 to 2,000 live in Kolkata. But a new website called the Desi Chinese Project is an earnest attempt at telling their story and creating a living archive. You can learn fascinating nuances behind Indo-Chinese culture like their food — have you heard of kou gan or fan-t'sai? — or read up stories and see visuals of ordinary people like Ah Leen, who has been living in India for 87 years.

A photograph from the Liang Family Archives, Calcutta, 1960s
A photograph from the Liang Family Archives, Calcutta, 1960s

The project is helmed by Jennifer Liang, Jenny Pinto, Koel Chatterjee, Lawrence Liang and Vidura Jang Bahadur. Although the website was set up recently, the initiative was in the making for a while. Initially, Jennifer tells us, the project was supposed to be a book. "We had met last year and worked out the contours of the book. But once the Galwan Valley incident happened along with the community getting called names once COVID-19 came into the picture, we decided to put the project out on popular media and the book became secondary," she shares.

The five members have different backgrounds — while Bahadur has been photographing the community extensively, Chatterjee and Pinto have an interest in food — with one agenda i.e. to preserve the history of their community. Elaborating on the idea, Jennifer says, "We wanted to differentiate between Indian Chinese and Chinese in China. I have never been to China and don't know anyone there. So, we have quite a unique culture, which comes out interestingly through food — for example, the chowmein varieties that you get in India are mind-boggling, from paneer chowmein to pav bhaji chowmein." The project welcomes people from the community to share their memories as well as people outside it about their encounters with it.

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First Published: 13 October, 2020 09:02 IST

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