Tangra may be the most well-known Chinatown in India, but Kolkata’s Tiretta Bazaar has the distinction of being the very first. The city, after all, is one of the few places in the world that can boast of having not one, but two distinct Chinatowns. The neighbourhood of Tiretta Bazaar in central Kolkata is one of the oldest continuously running marketplaces in the city around which the Chinese community first settled when they migrated to the city in the late 18th century.
Commonly called “Cheenapara” by locals even today, after the Chinese migrants who began living there, the neighbourhood has managed to preserve some of its architectural and cultural heritage that symbolises the area’s unique identity and its history, although much has been replaced by modern construction over the years. Every day the streets of Tiretta Bazaar in central Kolkata are filled with vendors selling fresh vegetables and fruits, not unlike any other local bazaar in the city.
What sets it apart is the availability of Chinese breakfast foods like steamed buns, and hot dumplings, wontons and momos, served steamed or fried for as little as Rs 50 per serving. The breakfast vendors save the best they have to offer for Sundays, a tradition that has carried on in the market of Tiretta Bazaar for decades, when the spread of the Cantonese-style breakfast foods are larger and the crowds even bigger.
Tiretta Bazaar first finds mention in Upjohn’s map of Calcutta in 1790, and other historical records show that the bazaar possibly got its name after Edward Tiretta, an Italian living in Calcutta who owned the bazaar and several plots of land in the city; Edward perhaps being an Anglicised version of the original Italian ‘Eduardo’. The most comprehensive details about Tiretta can be found in the writings of Kathleen Blechynden, a British author who was born in Bengal in 1856, and wrote of Tiretta in her book ‘Calcutta: Past and Present’, first published in 1905: “Edward Tiretta was an Italian of good family, who, having had to (flee) his own country for a political offence, drifted to Calcutta, where for many years he held the post of civil architect to Government…”
There isn’t any available information on what Tiretta had done that constituted a political offence in Italy that caused him to flee, but he seems to have lived a life of means and prominence in Calcutta after finding refuge in the city. Among his many roles in the city, Tiretta also became a land-owner and a lottery promoter. In a departure from the norm, the bazaar named after Tiretta was a private enterprise and did not belong to the East India Company. The fact that it was incorporated into Upjohn’s map of the city in 1790 is an indicator of its size and influence because although several small private local bazaars existed during that time throughout the city, not all found themselves featured on official maps.
Despite the wealth that Tiretta acquired in Calcutta, he did not live a happy life. He lost his 18-year-old wife in 1796, the orphan daughter of Count de Carrion, a French officer in the city. He buried his wife in a cemetery he founded, that existed diagonally opposite to where the South Park Street cemetery is today. What happened to Tiretta after, is not known.
In 1791, however, according to city records, Tiretta seems to have transferred the ownership of his bazaar to one Charles Weston, who lived in a residential premises opposite the bazaar. Weston took the earnings of Tiretta Bazaar for his personal use but did not make any attempts to change the nomenclature of the bazaar. Over the decades, Tiretta’s cemetery on Park Street was entirely razed and today, a block of buildings stands at the site.
Tiretta Bazaar began developing as a predominantly Chinese neighbourhood around the mid-19th century, when Chinese sailors who had been on the Indo-China maritime trade route, made stops in Calcutta and stayed back in the city instead of returning home with their shipmates. The Calcutta Review of 1858 mentions the “opium and gambling houses” of Tiretta Bazaar and calls the Chinese immigrants “a peace-loving people only desirous to make a little profit”.
According to the Review, by the mid-1800s, intermarriage had started between the Cantonese and the Hakka immigrants, two distinct groups, as well as between the Chinese and “Hindustanis” and the Chinese and the “Eurasians”. The primary occupation of the Chinese community in Tiretta Bazaar, states the Review, appeared to be that of “shoe-makers, opium sellers , carpenters, cabinet-makers, and hogslard manufacturers”.
Jayati Bhattacharya and Coonoor Kripalani, in their research paper ‘Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities: Comparative Perspectives’, said the Chinese migration to Calcutta increased during the 1930s and 1940s. Historical records show that overall, emigration from the People’s Republic of China peaked between 1927-1949 due to domestic conflict in China and the nation’s conflict with Japan.
The Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) caused food shortages, insecurity, instability and unemployment for ordinary citizens. People began emigrating from China to Southeast Asia in droves and some ventured further south-west to India where the presence of the Chinese community in Calcutta was well-known.
For a long time, Tiretta Bazaar was the city’s only Chinatown. But things began to change for the Chinese community during the 1950s when the Calcutta Improvement Trust built a long stretch of thoroughfare that cut across the heart of Tiretta Bazaar, fragmenting the neighbourhood into smaller sections. As per Bhattacharya and Kripalani, the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 severely impacted the community in Tiretta Bazaar. The Cantonese who lived in the neighbourhood had primarily been carpenters who had worked the Calcutta docks and in private companies. The war resulted in the loss of jobs for many in the community, forcing them to emigrate elsewhere, including returning to China.
Although some had stayed back in Tiretta Bazaar, many Hakka families had relocated to the neighbourhood of Tangra in the outskirts of the city during the Second World War, where they processed rawhide and opened tanneries and restaurants, following the footsteps of their predecessors who had made the move to Tangra in 1910, when the area was still a marshy wetland, not fully developed. For a long time, the Hakka community in Tangra lived in their own bubble, cut off from the rest of the city and to a large extent, from the community that had remained in Tiretti Bazaar. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese community of Tangra saw their fortunes change for the better and became more prosperous than the community living in the area around Tiretta Bazaar.
Today, little remains of Tiretta Bazaar’s Chinese community although not everyone has left. Some of the neighbourhood’s older residents can still be seen in the area’s bylanes, while others have shifted to other neighbourhoods in the city. The Chinese breakfast foods are still sold on Sunday, albeit on a smaller scale, along the stretch of Sun Yat Sen Street in the neighbourhood and the foods have evolved over the years to conform more to Indo-Chinese cuisine than the original Cantonese and Hakka recipes. A few Chinese churches and shops selling sauces and cooking ingredients remain, holding on to the tangible remnants of the city’s original Chinatown.