Sea Ip Church and a brief history of Chinese in Kolkata

Chinese have been coming to India for thousands of years, as traders, travelers as well as those looking for work. However, the most latest migration of our Chinese brethren can be traced back to the colonial times when Kolkata was the capital of British India. The stories from that era make for fascinating tales and I discovered some of them on my recent visit to Kolkata. The influence of the Chinese culture on the city can be seen from the six Chinese temples spread over China Town. The temples, food, professions...they call speak of the influence that our neighbors had on our country.

history chinese kolkata india china town
A Chinese man in Kolkata

History of Chinese in Kolkata

The early Chinese came to Kolkata in the early 18th century after Tong Achew moved to start a sugar factory. Till that time the concept of refined sugar didn't exist, and the Chinese were the first ones to introduce it to India. This new refined sugar came to be locally known as cheeni based on the people who made it, and the term is still in use throughout India. That does solve a mystery, right? :)

Now Mr Achew died soon after he started the sugar mill, and all the Chinese workers who had come to work with him then moved to central Kolkata, in an area now known as Tiretta Bazaar. This is where Kolkata's first China Town also came up. And with a China Town in place, Chinese temples also came into being, including the one dedicated to goddess Kwan Yin.

Over the years the Chinese population grew and their professions diversified as well, primarily into dentistry and shoe-making. Now only a few Chinese remain, but if you walk in Teratta Bazaar on a morning you are bound to come across many of them haggling with the street vendors in chaste Bengali, with only their features giving away their original ancestry. Needless to mention they are as much Bengali as anyone else in the city, and they even organise a special Durga Pooja pandal during the Navratris.

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Shopping in Teratta bazaar

Now there are a total of six different Chinese temples in the bazaar and one of the most well known is Kwan Yin temple, also known as Sea Ip Church in the year 1905.

Read more: Chinese Temples in Teretta Bazaar

Legend of Kwan Yin

Sometime during the 12th century a Buddhist Bodhisattva transformed from a male to a female, and over the next few hundred years the same came to be known as Kwan Yin, often now known as the goddess of war as well as peace and mercy. Her story is full of legends and the legend changes based on which country you try and explore her story. In Sanskrit she is also known as Padma-p├óni, or one who was born on a lotus. However, she is most popular in China and is often seen at the alter of Chinese temples.  (Reference)

Bengal's first partition

Now, it's very significant that Sep IP Church was born in the year 1905, an year which is otherwise remembered for the butchering of Bengal into two parts for the first time - East and West Bengal, based on the faith of people who lived one each section. This was essentially a part of Lord Curzon's strategy of divide and rule, and despite the opposition, it was implemented. This was a restive time in India's independence movement as well, with Indian National Congress fighting hard to gain political ground in administration of India. The concept of Swaraj also came into being right after the partition of Bengal.

Read more: Bengal's first partition in 1905

However, the two parts of Bengal were reunited in 1911 to stem the popular dissent, and pacify the general masses. It was in the same year that the British decided to shift their capital from Kolkata (then Calcutta) to New Delhi, and with this move also started the slow decline of the city. Bengal underwent another partition when British left India in 1947 and East Bengal became a part of newly formed Pakistan. Eventually, in 1971 East Bengal fought for and won independence from Pakistan and Bangladesh was born.

In the same year, 1905, in a small corner of Kolkata another small event took place - the birth of Kwan Yin temple in Teratta Bazaar. Though not the oldest, it's the most accessible of the six temples, located as it is next to the Indian Exchange Place (Extension), an exceptionally ugly building which is completely misplaced in this historical part of the city.

history chinese kolkata india china town
Location of Sea Ip Church

My visit to Sea IP Church

I was already exhausted with the early morning walk in Kolkata, and despite the early morning street chai, I wanted some shade. Located right on the main road, the Sea Ip Church was a prefect place to take some rest and explore this aspect of Kolkata's rich history. The two storey building is the only one of it's kind in the locality, and is a sight for sore eyes.

The ground floor is actually a library where you can read Kolkata's Chinese newspaper as well. We interacted with a local Chinese man whose forefathers also came to the city to work in sugar mills. He doesn't speak or write Chinese anymore and was way more comfortable with English, and Hindi.

sea ip church kolkata
Sea Ip Church 
sea ip church kolkata
Steps to the first floor

However, the most beautiful part of building is the actual temple which is located on the first floor. Goddess Kwan Yin sits on the alter, and is surrounded by many other Chinese gods and goddesses. It's not allowed for travellers to stay within the main shrine, and this was done to reduce the theft of temple articles by tourists. Sad but true...

Chinese after India's independence

The Chinese were considered as much Indian as anyone else in the country, and were also accepted as such. During the times of Nehru, India took many steps to become close friends with the Chinese. But the events of the decade following India's independence, primarily China's annexation of Tibet and Dalai Lama's warm welcome in India, changed the course of history.

The Indo-China war of 1962 brought quite a bit of strain on Kolkata's Chinese population, with many of them see with an eye of suspicion as spies. Many of them were deported, or interred in jails and this changed the course of their existence in India. This is quite similar to what happened to the Japanese in United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It was unfair in both countries, and was justified as part of national security.

history chinese kolkata india china town
Chinese newspaper from Kolkata

More and more Chinese started to migrate from both Kolkata after the war, and now their population is quite low in the city. But they continue to play an important part in bridging the communication gap between businessmen of India and China. (Ref. Livemint)

As we walked out of the temple, soaked in stories of faith, emigration and migration of the Chinese, I was even more convinced to explore and bring out even more stories of small communities which have made contributions to the fabric of India as we know it today.

Further reading:

Udvada and a brief history of Parsis in India
Neveh Shalom Synagogue and a brief history of Jews in Kolkata


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