Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Chinese Connection

(The official inflight magazine of the World’s Best Low Cost Airline AirAsia)
February 2014
Page 80

South Asia’s only Chinatown is located in Kolkata,the capital of the state of West

Bengal in India,and this sizzling spot brims not just with hot Chinese food but a

delectable wealth of history.If you’re a connoisseur of exotic food and happen to be in

Kolkata, make a trip to the Old Chinatown in Tiretta Bazaar (named after an Italian

architect and town planner) located down Bentinck Street, where Chhatawala Gully meets

Sun Yat-sen Street.Since everything is freshly prepared, and sold by eight o’clock in

the morning, one has to be there at the break of dawn.

Chopsticks start clicking before the cock crows or the city buses start rolling out.

Chinese ladies with their straight black hair pinned up in tight buns set up stalls to

sell soup from large tureens,momo (pork, chicken and shrimp dumplings)with pau (steamed

buns), fish balls swimming in light gravy, and ‘moon cakes’ (a traditional baked

dessert) stacked on large trays, as well as numerous varieties of mouth-watering dim

sum.Dim sum and momos are in high demand at Tiretta Bazaar.

Among the crowd here are young journalists, call centre staff and policemen– night owls

most of them. The ambience is that of a classic oriental food court: Noisy and crowded,

with delectable aromas wafting through the air.

A local patron, who looks a thousand years old, assures me that the food, cooked home
style, is delicious. I tried a bowl of soup, a pau and some pork momos, and fell in



Tiretta Bazaar, a stone’s throw from the city’s police headquarters at Lalbazar,retains

a buzzing Chinatown vibe. I see an old man ambling along Sun Yat-sen Street.My

photographer Bijoy Chowdhury, who is familiar with the area, whispers, “Here comes
Paul Chung, a walking encyclopaedia on the Chinese in Kolkata.”

Soon, we are chatting with Chung over jasmine tea and learning about the Chinese of
Kolkata. “The Chinese started coming to India along the Silk Route in the second

century.Buddhist monk Faxian (Fa-Hien) came to India in the fifth century to study

Buddhist scriptures. Then, in the early 15th century,Admiral Zheng He arrived in Bengal

on his sixth voyage. The Sultan of Bengal gifted his pet giraffe (brought from Somalia)

to the admiral,” explains Chung.But things only started happening after the arrival of

the English East India Company.

According to Chung, Tong Achew, a tea trader from Guangdong, landed at Budge Budge
(a suburb of Kolkata today) in the late 18th century. The then Governor General Warren
Hastings granted Tong land to set up a sugar cane plantation and sugar factory.Folklore

has it that Tong wooed Hastings with a packet of tea, and Hastings offered him a plot

of land 10kms from Budge Budge, provided that the Chinese could mark the area of the
land within 24 hours. Tong marked out 650 bighas(a little under one square kilometre)
of land on horseback! He then imported 110 workers from South China to run his

plantation and mill. “These workers,” Chung continues,“are the ancestors of most of the

Chinese population of Kolkata.”


Tong Achew’s name lives on in Achipur, the site of his sugar cane plantation. Located

33 kms from Kolkata, Achipur can be reached by a bus service, which operates from

Esplanade in the heart of Kolkata, and stops at a place called Chinamantala meaning

‘the place of the Chinaman’.

On the Sunday after the Chinese New Year, Kolkatan Chinese make a pilgrimage to Achipur

to pay tribute to the man who started the first Chinese settlement in India over 230
years ago. The sleepy hamlet comes alive with the beating of Chinese drums and

Cantonese being spoken, and the Achipur temple is filled with Kolkatan Chinese offering

prayers to Chinese deities. While candles and incense sticks lend the place a divine

aura, a tempting spread of delectable food items sets a festive
spirit. Here, you can hear the older people exchanging greetings softly:“Yĕxŭ shàngdì
ràng mĕigèrén dōu jīngshénjuéshuò” (May God keep everyone hale and hearty) or“Kĕ
zàihépíng Táng Achew de línghún ānxi!”(May Tong Achew’s soul rest in peace).

The temple houses the male and female deities Khuda and Khudi, distinctively Chinese in

appearance. The low ceiling,the pillars and the walls are decorated with Chinese

calligraphy, while the prayer halls are lit with candles.

Chinese fortune tellers make a brisk business here, and people light candles and
incense sticks to pay tribute to Tong Achew at his red horse shoe-shaped burial site
overlooking the Hooghly River.


While the Chinese in Kolkata have retained their culture and traditions, many of them

feel an affinity to the city and to Bengali art and culture. Paul Chung feels that

there are many similarities between Chinese and Bengali traditions. Both Chung’s

daughters have married Indians – one of them a Bengali. When I ask Chung if he’d like

to spend his last days in China, Chung says, “My motherland is India; I
am an old Calcuttan (Calcutta was the old name of Kolkata). I was born here. Why should

I leave the city? Yes, I go to China, but only as a visitor.Wherever I go, I return to

my home in Calcutta.”

Love for Kolkata rings in the voice of shopkeeper Stella Chen, who I meet when I
pop into her Chinese provisions store, Hap Hing on Sun Yat-sen Street. Chen tells me,
“My grandfather came here over one hundred years ago. I have an umbilical attachment to
the city. My father opened this shop in 1934.” The store, where a single tungsten bulb
hangs from the ceiling emitting more gloom than gleam, is a piece of China, right here,

in Kolkata. You can find exotic green tea, pickled plums, rice noodles, orange peels,

sun dried mushrooms, and pink-edged prawn wafers,as well as a unique assortment of

Chinese medicine – from the ever popular Tiger Balm to strange medicated oils and vials

of secret panaceas. It is charming that Chen prefers to use a suan pan(Chinese abacus)

rather than a pocket calculator

Even the younger generation, forced to migrate due to economic reasons, miss Kolkata.

At Chen’s shop, I meet her nephew Michael Lou, a dental surgeon in Montréal,who is

visiting Kolkata where he spent his childhood. He says, “Look, we may have left
the city to seek greener pastures, but Kolkata lives on in our minds forever.”

Back on the street, I am pleasantly surprised to hear a young Chinese man cheerfully

sing a Bengali song: Tumi je amar... chirodiner-i(You are mine forever). I come to know

that his name is Dominic Lee. His friend Joe tells us, “Dominic is madly in love with

this city.”


Locals believe the word chini meaning sugar is thought to have been inspired by Tong

Achew, a Chinese trader who set up a sugar factory in Kolkata and mapped
out the boundary of the first and only Chinatown in South Asia.This Bengali word for

sugar is unique among languages descended from Sanskrit.The word for sugar is sharkara

in Sanskrit,sacchar in Latin,zucker in German,sucre in French,sakhar in Russian and
shakkar in Hindi – all with Proto-Indo-European roots.


As lunch time approaches, we head to Tangra,the New Chinatown on the eastern fringe of
Kolkata. In the past, Tangra was nothing more than a cluster of foul smelling tanneries

– now closed down and relocated. Although the hint of an odour lingers on occasion,

Tangra is now a centre for authentic (typically Hakka style) Chinese cuisine. The

ornate gateway to New Chinatown, with its beautiful Chinese characters, is evocative of

days gone by.

At a typical big ticket Chinese eatery in Tangra, the food and the service are both

without parallel. Here, I meet Monica Liu, the owner of a chain of restaurants

including the immensely popular Beijing Restaurant. She serves delicious food that she

cooks herself, and declares, “Kolkata keeps its doors open to outsiders. I have a very

special respect for this city.” Arguably, the biggest name in Tangra is the elaborately

laid out Big Boss restaurant. Its owner Xie Ying Xing left his tannery business
and built the restaurant on Matheswartala Road. An astute restaurateur, he realised
the importance of adding a touch of spicy Schezwan flavour to his fare as a concession
to local tastes. To this end, he introduced various vegetarian delicacies. Giving a

twist to paneer, a soft Indian cheese, somewhat similar to the Greek feta, Xie created

dishes like Kung Pao-style paneer to woo Kolkata’s significant vegetarian population,

comprising the Marwaris and the Gujaratis.

The Chinese in Kolkata today work in diverse fields as tannery owners, sauce

manufacturers,shoe store owners and restaurateurs. A number of them run beauty

parlours, and the younger generation is again taking to dentistry – a
traditional occupation. They’re a driven people, ambitious and determined.


With the steady economic decline of Kolkata,which began right from the end of the

British Raj, the Chinese population in Kolkata has declined in number, which is quite

evident in the drop in sales of India’s only Chinese-language newspaper:The Overseas

ChineseCommerce in India.Today, the small but fiery Chinese community in Kolkata

strives to hold on to their proud legacy and remember their roots.

 Sunday,Feb 16,2014,Kolkata

Tai Chi More Effective Than Yoga ?

After years of being exalted as an exotic form of martial arts, Tai chi is now seen by the medic world has an answer to most physical grievances. Week after week, researches are bringing to light the many healing benefits of this form, which includes it being beneficial to people suffering from osteoarthritis, diabetes, musculoskeletial pain triggered from working on computers. It is also being looked upon as an alternative option to yoga.

Tai chi is a series of bodily movements that's performed in a slow and graceful manner, each movement flows to the next without a pause. The technique was first introduced by a Taoist monk who got his inspiration from watching a crane and snake at war. Says Sensei Sandeep Desai, "Tai chi is largely under-utilised here! I've been teaching Tai chi for more than two decades, and I see only those who are spiritually inclined trying to learn this form. But Tai chi is more than just a form that helps you spiritually or helps you attain flexibility. It's an internal form of martial arts, deep and profound. It is not meant for instant gratification or instantaneous results."

Purnima Shah feels that Tai chi helped to bring an attitudinal change in her when dealing with chronic back problems. "It instilled a more positive attitude, and helped me divert my mind from the pain. The pain has reduced to large extend, and my body is no longer stiff, " she shares.

About Tai chi being seen as a better form of yoga. "I have specialised in both tai chi and hathyoga. The stretch in tai chi is not done at the cost of causing discomfort. This is significant, as when you stretch beyond a certain point, the body goes into a shock and recoil state, this is bad in the long run. Tai chi does not encourage that, and usually follows the movements of a cat. Sleep and stretch just enough to be able to spring back into action," explains Desai.

With varied benefits like efficient breathing, flexibility, balance, calm and reduction of stress hormones with minimum effort, it's not surprising that tai chi is taking over yoga.

Types of Tai Chi

Chen Style Tai Chi
Chen style Tai Chi Chuan is the oldest form of Tai Chi from which all the other styles derived. Chen style is known for its lower stances, silk reeling, jumps, stamps and Fa Jing encapsulated within a smooth flowing powerful form.

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan
Yang Style Tai Chi are arge and relatively simplified movements and is the most popular styles practiced in the world today.

Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan
Sun-style Tai Chi is recognised by its small high postures with flowing movements forwards and backwards accompanied by connected arms movements.

Lee Style Tai Chi
Lee Family Tai Chi can be traced back to Ho-Hsieh. His teachings looked at all aspects of Chinese health and martial arts.

Guang Ping Tai Chi
This form incorporates a solid differentiation between yin and yang, as well as a number of well-defined silk drawing movements. Made up of 64 movements which relate to the sixty four hexagrams of the I Ching.

8 Diamond Form Tai Chi Chuan (8 Energies)
8 Diamond Form Tai Chi Chuan Form is based on the foundations of the eight key energies: peng, lu, ji, an, leigh, tsai, kao, zhao. These energies are fundamental to the practice and development of any Tai Chi Chuan Form and any Tai Chi Chuan practitioner. This form is short, simple and has a lot of depth.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Small  is  beautiful

Peter Chan, an ethnic Chinese born and brought up in Calcutta, is one of the world's leading bonsai experts and gives Prince Charles gardening tips. Sajeda Momin meets him

When he was a young boy, he grew potted plants picked up from the footpaths of Sealdah in the balcony of his Entally home in Calcutta. Today, he gives gardening tips to Britain's Prince Charles. Peter Chan — an ethnic Chinese born and brought up in Calcutta — is one of the world's leading experts of bonsai, the ancient Japanese art of growing miniature plants.

You can take a Calcuttan out of Calcutta but you can't take Calcutta out of him. As we sit chatting in his beautiful Surrey home, about 100km south of London, on a cold and wet afternoon, his old hometown crops up again and again in our conversation.

Chan, now in his 70s, has vivid memories of the city he left over 50 years ago. "I have always felt more Indian than Chinese and continue to do so," he says, showing no trace of bitterness towards the country which branded him and thousands of other ethnic Chinese as traitors during the 1962 India-China war and herded them out of their homes.

He and his four elder sisters escaped the camps set up in Deoli (Rajasthan) that many Indian Chinese were interred in. As their Hong Kong-born mother was a British national, Chan and his sisters were able to seek refuge there in 1963. But he felt he didn't "belong" there and soon moved to Britain, he says, looking out at the seven and half acres of beautifully landscaped gardens that he now owns.

It was Chan's grandfather who first came to India in 1890 and settled down in Calcutta. "He and his younger brothers set up the family carpentry business K.T. Hing Bros which mostly manufactured carriages for trains, but also made the furniture for King George V's durbar in 1933," he says proudly. Chan's grandfather also ran a cinema in Calcutta's Chandni Chowk which showed Chinese films and even brought actors from China to stage plays.

As the family flourished Chan's father, who studied engineering in Milwaukee, US, started working for Clyde fans. But tragedy struck the family when he was killed during the Calcutta riots of 1947, possibly caught in cross-fire on his way to work. "I was seven. My mother was widowed and penniless and had to bring us all up. It was my eldest sister, Eleanor, who worked as a secretary and paid for us all to go to college."

Though gardening was his passion, Chan followed in his father's footsteps. After studying at the Calcutta Boys School and then St Xavier's, he studied engineering at IIT, Kharagpur. "IITs in India were considered institutes of excellence. Yet when I came to the UK, I was told my IIT degree was not recognised," Chan says.

He finally got a break when an interviewer at the British Electric Board realised his potential and hired him. By the age of 29 Chan was a senior engineer.

Bonsai came to Chan only in his later years. Well-settled with his wife Dawn, an Englishwoman, and their two children, he began to spend more time on his passion for horticulture. "I was fascinated by bonsai and how these miniature trees could live for centuries and so began to do more and more research on them," he says, sipping tea, and surrounded by his beloved bonsai.

Chan, who learnt the art mainly through books and by experimenting at home, published his first book Bonsai — the Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees in 1985 and it became a bestseller. Since then he has written eight books including Bonsai Secrets — the bible for bonsai lovers around the world.

In 1986 he bought a beautiful plot in Lingfield, Surrey, and set up home and Herons, Britain's premier bonsai nursery. "There were herons on the lakes here and in Chinese mythology herons are the harbingers of good luck so I kept the name."

The nursery is a treasure trove of miniature plants. The outdoor flowering plants include pyracantha shrubs with white and red flowers, rhododendrons, wisteria trees and chillies. Among the fruit trees are crab apple, edible fig, mulberry and pomegranate. The indoor varieties include tropical and semi-tropical plants such as the Chinese elm, jade, pepper tree and orange which actually bear small, perfectly edible fruits.

Helped by Dawn, Chan began to take his bonsai to the UK's most prestigious flower show, The Chelsea Flower Show. Soon he had started winning gold medals for his exhibits. He has a record-breaking 21 gold medals from the Chelsea show, most of them presented to him by Queen Elizabeth II.

"She is extremely gracious and would always come and admire our Japanese garden and bonsai displays," Chan adds.

Prince Charles, another royal gardening enthusiast, invited Chan to his country retreat at Highgrove to learn about bonsai. "He is a lovely person, very interested in gardening and the environment. He wanted me to help him design and set up a Japanese garden at his home, which of course I was more than happy to do," Chan says modestly.

The heir to the British throne may be the most high profile of Chan's students, but he is not the only one. Chan travels the world holding workshops, classes and one-on-one lessons on maintaining bonsai.

"I have been to India many times for workshops," he says. "My pupils there tend to be the wives of the rich and famous, who have the fascination and the money to cultivate bonsai as a status symbol."

It is certainly an expensive hobby as an average bonsai plant at Heron's costs about £200 (approximately Rs 20,700). The cheapest plants are for around £45 (Rs 4,660) while at the top-end some rare and old miniatures are priced at about £40,000 (Rs 41.4 lakh).

Three decades on, Chan has no complaints. "At IIT I had wanted to change from engineering to architecture but wasn't allowed. But life has come full circle and my desire has been fulfilled by landscaping beautiful Japanese gardens," Chan says. "I am a lucky man living in these silken surroundings," he adds, gazing over his little bit of heaven.

Short and sweet

Tips on bonsai

• You can make bonsai out of any plant

• Bonsai does not have to be expensive

• Calcutta's climate is ideal for ficus, jade, juniper

• Don't forget to water the plants daily — since they exist in pots, they need regular water

• In summer keep them in the shade; the rest of the year in full sun

• Prune regularly


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
The compilation of various articles by authors and some pen by yourself are interesting and well written! Good to refreshen memories of stories, places and of Hakka folks in Tangra.
Thanks for the updates. Will read more when time permits, but great job so far!

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