‘Chinese’ cuisine has been extremely popular in India over the past few decades. Known as ‘Indian-Chinese’ in the rest of the world, this fusion cuisine originated in the eastern part of India (around Calcutta), thanks to the Chinese that settled in that region. Popularized across the country by a few Chinese-origin, Indian restauranteurs, this delectable cuisine combines the staples of Chinese cooking (like noodles, sauces, cooking techniques etc) with Indian spices and seasonings.
But despite being born and raised in Bombay (now Mumbai), until recently, I knew very little about the Chinese who came to British India and made it their home. So I decided to dig a little into this aspect of Indian history.
The earliest Chinese came to Calcutta, the capital of British India, in the late 18th century. The port city of Calcutta was vital in British – China trade. Chinese tea and silk was shipped to Britain via Calcutta. Trade between British India and China multiplied when the British began to export opium from Calcutta to Canton. This led to several Cantonese moving to Calcutta on the ships that sailed between the two cities.
By the 1850s, several Chinese had settled in Bombay, especially in the leafy suburb of Mazagaon, close to the Bombay docks. It is said that till the early 1960s, there was a distinct ‘Chinatown’ in that vicinity. Today, there are about 400 Chinese-origin families living in various parts of Mumbai and they congregate annually at Mumbai’s only Chinese temple – the Kwan Tai Shek temple – to usher in the Lunar New Year.
And thus began my search for Mumbai’s only Chinese temple. The timing couldn’t have been any better. It was the first day of the Lunar New Year (9th February 2016).
After a long wait for a taxi outside Bombay Central train station, I found a cabbie willing to scour the streets of Mazagaon to find the temple. Despite being a local taxi, the cabbie had never heard of a Chinese temple in the neighborhood. We made a few stops for enquiries and were directed by a group of friendly strangers to 12 Nawab Tank Road, where the temple is located.
As soon as we entered the quiet lane, a pair of gold rimmed, bright red, half-doors caught my eye. That had to be the temple! My cabbie was really excited at having located the temple (I’m glad I could brighten up his day!) I thanked him for his enthusiastic company and alighted. The temple, along with the 3-storey, wooden-frame building in which it is located, are both nearly 100 years old.
On the ground floor of the building is a small shrine dedicated to Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. An air of reverence prevails with joss sticks, candles, fruit and flower offerings made to the deity. The main shrine, on the top-most floor of the building, was set up in 1919 by a group of Cantonese migrants who worked at the nearby docks for the East India Company.
Dedicated to General Kwan Tai Kon, this mighty warrior is venerated for being a paragon of justice and a great guide. The room is resplendent in red with gold accents and is decorated with paper lanterns and elaborately embroidered silks.
As I entered the shrine, an elderly lady (of Chinese origin) had just finished paying her respects. I enquired about the New Year celebrations and she replied (in chaste Hindi!) that nearly 300 people had gathered the night before to usher in the Year of the Monkey and watch the dragon dance.
Well, I had missed all the action but what better way to start the Year of the Monkey than with a visit to Mumbai’s only Chinese temple.
Gong Xi Fa Cai! Huat Ah! (Happy New Year! Be prosperous!)