18 June 2013

Sea Ip Club, Calcutta


Relegated to a corner where it can be conveniently forgotten amidst the bustle & noise that defines a regular day in the life of a Calcuttan, & accompanied by the ruckus raised by hundreds of vehicles that ply close to it, the din raised by the forever-chattering passer-bys, the peddlers trying to make some extra rupees & a heavy smoke that emanates from the vehicles as well as the smoldering piles of garbage heaped close by, the Sea Ip Club is unique – as a structure it is relatively young compared to many of its counterparts in this old (nay, ancient) city, as a relic of a culture it belongs to the Chinese community who are almost marginalized in the city that has been the bastion of Hindus, Muslims & the British, & as a symbol of faith it is referred to as a church/temple only by those who are not very intimate with its history (it is a “Quan Ti” or a men’s club, & not a church/temple even though it is used for congregational purposes by the Chinese community who have called Calcutta their home for almost two & a half centuries).


Sea Ip Club


As the Chinese poured into Calcutta when it was modeled by the British into a colony, they began constituting clubs & groups catering to the social & cultural needs of the different demographics that formed the bulk of the recent immigrants. The community built a niche, an enclave for itself, complete with traditional architecture, customs, language & practices - there were dragon & lion dances to be seen, dragon motifs all around, paper lanterns embossed with Chinese characters, brilliantly painted homes, signposts & doorways. Chinese food with its unmistakable aroma & flavors became the most famous item, closely followed by the celebration of Chinese festivals – the New Year, Rice Pudding Festival & the Moon Festival. One of the largest groups that settled in Calcutta & became an inseparable constituent of its homogenous identity were the Sea Ip (“Si-yi”, literally “Four Districts”) who hailed from the Guangdong Province in China, spoke Cantonese & were exceptional carpenters. Members of the community set up the Sea Ip Club for recreational purposes with donations raised from amongst them in the year 1905. The Sea Ip Club is one of the largest of the Chinese Clubs in Calcutta, though not as large as the Nam Soon Club about which I have done a previous post here – Pixelated Memories - Nam Soon Club

Spread over two floors of a small red-colored building that looks more like a shop than a club or a religious structure, the Club boasts of a meeting place on its ground floor & a shrine dedicated to Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of war, mercy & love (isn’t writing war in conjugation with traits like mercy & love an oxymoron??). It is the shrine that interested me when I chose to visit the Club on a chilly February morning a few days before the Chinese New Year. As I had feared, the Club was closed for some much-needed repairs & a cleanup drive as a run up to the upcoming celebrations. Thankfully, some of the local men of Chinese descent were present in the Club, discussing matters of family & daily life when I reached the Club. Following much persuasion, I was allowed to visit the shrine under the watchful gaze of the caretaker & cleaner of the Club (I think her name was Kamala, nonetheless apologies for forgetting not remembering it clearly).

The shrine consists of an idol of the Goddess seated within a much larger ornamentative frame that is crafted exquisitely & painstakingly in traditional Chinese style. Next to the larger frame is a smaller one in which sits another idol. However the idols are not alone in their placement – though they take up the prime center space within their respective frames & catch the eye almost immediately, the central idol shares space with several smaller porcelain idols of other deities while the idol in the adjacent frame is flanked by traditional Chinese porcelain vases.


Kwan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of war, mercy & compassion


More eye catching than the idols are their large, impressive frames that are carved with vegetation, dragons, humans & several species of birds & are decked with brilliant red Chinese lanterns & wind chimes. A large, golden canopy hangs in the front portion of the sanctum & beneath it rests a small table on which are placed more idols, candle-holders & a metallic joss stick holder. Except for the two idols within the shrine that look like they are made of metal, all the other idols in the sanctum are made of porcelain & painted in vibrant reds, blues & yellows. Near one of the walls stands a large cupboard stuffed with several more of the porcelain idols (there are “Laughing Buddhas” here too!!) that can be viewed through the glass display window. The walls are decked with several traditional ornamentations & hangings, including metallic plates that are surmounted on poles & marked with heads of metal reindeers, spears, fish motifs & bands of cloth embroidered with Chinese characters. Though the ceremonial red candles (“Lap Chok”) & the fragrant joss sticks (“Siang”) have all fizzled out even before they could burn properly, the sanctum is filled with their fragrance. The cleaner lady throws buckets full of waters on the windows to get the dirt off & inadvertently wets me too (thankfully no harm to the camera, though my wet socks ensure my feet are shriveled up & have turned pink by the end of the day!!).


Close up of the frame that encloses Kwan Yin's idol


On closer inspection, the idols within the frames look more Hindu than Chinese – wrapped up in pink clothes, a garland of marigolds & another of rupee notes round their necks, headgear resembling the traditional Hindu “mukuts” & LED panels to top the headgear which remind one of the peacock feather that Krishna (said to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life, sustenance & preservation) donned on his headgear. Are the Chinese trying to blend in with the local population?? Perhaps a better question would be why should they try to blend in & not preserve their unique & beautiful culture.


Sophisticated!!


There isn’t much to do except photograph the shrine, one can go out in the balcony that overlooks the space outside, but then except for a few hand-rickshaws stacked next to each other, the occasional beggars & the peddlers, & the steady stream of traffic that flows like a never ending stream next to the Club, there isn’t much to see here too. The cleaner lady asks me to get out of her way unless I wish to be soaked wet again. I humbly follow orders. Her wide smile enters her glistening eyes when I look terrified at the thought of being drenched with pails of cold water again. I realize that we are quicker in our movements when we are afraid (as in my exit from the shrine) than when we are excited (as in my clambering up the stairs to reach the shrine).


The plethora of porcelain idols that grace a side cupboard in the sanctum


The crowd of the old men gossiping downstairs has thinned, though it wasn’t even a crowd when I came in, I could have counted them on my two hands. Perhaps that says something about the Chinese community & their steadily diminishing numbers in Calcutta following migration in search of greener pastures such as Australia & Canada & a bid to avoid humiliating persecution & deportation during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Today only about 3,000-4,000 Chinese are left in Calcutta, at one time there were more than 20,000. Though we Indians pride ourselves when it comes to ours being a secular, all-encompassing & all-accepting society, we haven’t been fair to the Indians of Chinese descent (they are Indians, as naturalized as me or my grandparents who came to India from Pakistan in 1947), a case that can also be made by looking at the sad state of the Sea Ip Club. Dejection often makes us look at the brighter side of things, I couldn’t find any except the hope that my article brings to light the state of a marginalized community & their places of congregation/worship to the notice of many who might be in a position to do some good. Amen!


Scene marked on one of the panels in the sanctum


Location: India Exchange Place (Extension), close to the Kolkata Improvement Trust (KIT) Building, Tiretta Bazaar Area (Pronounced Tiretti Bazaar)
Open: Sunrise to sunset
How to reach: From St. Andrew’s Church in BBD Bagh Area (refer post Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church for identification), ask directions for Poddar Court, it lies straight ahead into one of the roads that emanate from the Church. From Poddar Court, ask for KIT Building, Sea Ip is next to it.
Entrance fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Nam Soon Club
  2. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church
Suggested Reading - 
  1. Academia.edu - pdf download "The Chinese of Calcutta" by Sipra Mukherjee
  2. Jawharsircar.org - pdf download "The Chinese of Calcutta"
  3. Rangandatta.wordpress.com - Chinese Temples of Tiretta Bazaar
  4. Themeridiansociety.org.uk - pdf download "The Chinese from Bengal"
  5. Wikipedia.org - Chinese community in India
  6. Wikipedia.org - Siyi dialect

4 comments:

  1. An interesting read!

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  2. Shahil, good to see that you choose other than Delhi topic.. I was watching Jyaka india ka and I recall Vinod Dua talking about Chinese Community in Calcutta. Was not knowing their condition is such a pitiable one.

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  3. Hey Rakesh
    Thank you for dropping by. The condition of Chinese in Calcutta is actually much worse than I can portray - most members of the community have migrated abroad, those who remain are out of jobs as a result of the Govt. & Court orders to shift out all the tanneries that employed them out of Calcutta, many of them faced legal & police harassment following the war with China (1962), their jobs have been taken over by locals & the land mafias & the builders are eyeing their enclave (the only China Town in the country) since it sits on prime property in the center of Calcutta.
    I wish there was something we could do about the same. The community needs to organize themselves into a unified legal & cultural unit.

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  4. Nice post! the pictures were great!

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