February 17, 2013

Nam Soon Club, Calcutta

The best things in life, though always close to us, are often hidden out of view by their simplicity. A few days before the Chinese New Year, I travelled to the China Towns in Calcutta to see the clubs (“Quan Ti”) set up by the first Chinese settlers to the country. These settlers came to India in the year 1780 as workers of the sugar factory set up by the Chinese sailor-merchant Tai Pak Kung aka Yong Achew who was granted land by the British. The British had then turned Bengal (& later the rest of the country too) into a colony, a trading outpost. The settler’s colony was christened “Achipur” after Achew – but Achew soon lost his fortunes & had to take heavy loans against his own personal signature from the British East India Company. Achew died broke & broken-hearted, however he stamped an unforgettable change in Bengal’s demographics - his fellow settlers soon moved out of Achipur & settled in the modern day Tangra & Tiretti Bazaar areas. Here they built more clubs - the clubs were set up with material donations from their communities & slowly took the form of temples dedicated to Chinese Gods (they were called churches during British rule). While other foreigners who arrived in colonized India have since disappeared, the Chinese stayed back & left a deep imprint on Calcutta’s society & traditions, especially the food & music. As the population increased, Tiretti Bazaar, once the largest Chinese settlement & an assortment of Chinese clubs, monasteries, opium-dens, gambling haunts, eateries & temples, soon turned into a maze of narrow, claustrophobic streets that wind back onto themselves & induce a feeling of being lost & trapped.

The small but striking doorway leading to the courtyard of the Nam Soon club, painted red & green & featuring the name of the club in Chinese characters, is a blink-and-you-miss thing despite its out of place decor & colors. Just like the Black Residence in the Harry Potter franchise, this doorway too is so well hidden that even those specifically looking for it would have trouble locating it.

Found it!

I visited the six clubs located in the Tiretti Bazaar area & the last & the most impressive was the Nam Soon, located at the far end of a narrow street lined with hand-pulled rickshaws & meat shops. The largest & the oldest among all the Chinese clubs in Tiretti Bazaar, Nam Soon was built in 1820 & has since been preserved in its original state. It boasts of a large courtyard, rooms for travellers & the aged, a vibrantly painted & well-maintained shrine, & a small school imparting the knowledge of Chinese traditions & language to several young children of Chinese descent. The club was originally built for the members of the Chinese provinces of Nan Hai, Phan Yu & Shun Tak who share similar traditions & compatible customs. Some of the members donated the idols & the objects used for rituals, others helped monetarily – the names of all these donors are preserved in the club still. Initially only men could register themselves as club members – the womenfolk had to depend on their husband’s/father’s membership at the time of ceremonies. But now the clubs have been thrown open to all.

Glitter glimmer

Inside the club, the presence of the young girls & a single boy is a welcome relief – not for reasons you might come up with!! But because all other clubs in the area have either none or very old residents. All the people, except for the caretaker who was very old, in the Nam Soon were in the age group 14-17 – strikingly beautiful, with Mongoloid features, jovial smiles & an amazingly fluent command over English. The boy insisted that the club was closed at that time of the day, but some magic words (“Delhi”, “Writer-blogger” & “Documenting”, not necessarily in that order) ensured the caretaker welcome me in gladly.

Here be dragons!

Like its outside, the club is very spacious on the inside too. In front of the shrine stand three red tables over which hangs a golden canopy. The canopy depicts Chinese scenes, complete with buildings topped with curving roofs, humans & birds. The last of these tables is embossed with birds, foliage & lions in deep golden, lush green & blazing yellow. All the d├ęcor in the room is blood red & a panel extends along the side walls through which thin poles project vertically. Each of these poles is vaulted by Chinese symbols – spears, fancy daggers, sacred scrolls & such. One pole on each side is fixed with a very thin, golden-painted plaque depicting mythical battle scenes, held in place by small, golden replicas of reindeer heads. 

But all that glitters...

The shrine is made up of three separate altars – the central, being the largest & more elaborately ornamented, houses a large idol of Kwai Yin, the Chinese Goddess of war, mercy and love. The other two altars house the idols of Kwai Yin’s war companions. As is the custom in Chinese churches, a large bell & an even larger drum hang on either side of the entrance. On one of the side panels is affixed a yellow Chinese man in a martial position & holding a hook in his hand – the man might have looked like a warrior were it not for his bulging belly & blood-red eyes!!


Back in the courtyard again, the children had started practicing the dragon dance – the girls were wearing dragon costumes & enacting scenes to the beats of a drum that another girl beat. There were two dragons – a large green one manned by two girls & a small pink dragon manned by a single girl. The boy informed me that they were preparing for the Chinese New Year performance & got busy clicking pictures of his friends. I looked at the eldest girl (who was the green dragon) dancing for permission to click - a smile & a nod made my day. Mesmerized I looked on (& photographed) as the two dragons moved to the beats – the green one being cowed down by the pink one. The performance lasted twenty minutes after which the girls took a small rest before starting again – it was then that I took my leave from the group & walked out of the club.

Happy Chinese New Year!

For a long time I walked, & thought, about the club, its beautiful girls & deep colors of tradition. A foreign language & traditions, resounding in the heart of what is largely a Bengali Muslim locality. The feeling of transportation to a different world, a different culture system, is so complete that the structures receding into the depths of anonymity leave a mark on the visitor – a deep respect for the varied cultures in this diverse country is blossomed. Infecting everyone with its contagious happiness, the club stands as a forgotten oasis in the middle of a crumbling poverty-stricken locale.

Location: Tiretti Bazaar Area
How to reach: From Esplanade Bus/Metro Station walk or take a taxi to Writer's Building. Turn right from Andrew's Church & walk straight. Ask for Kolkata Telephone Kendra - across the street on the left of the building is a narrow lane that leads to Nam Soon. Nam Soon is at the very end, tucked between other crumbling buildings & usually hidden from view by the wares hung out by other shops.
Open: All days
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Relevant Links -
Another Chinese church/club nearby - Pixelated Memories - Sea Ip Club
Other monuments/landmarks in the immediate vicinity -

1 comment:

  1. nice pictures and post...and the intro line is great
    The best things in life, though always close to us, are often hidden out of view by their simplicity.