By Damini Singh
The Chinese community in India celebrates the Chinese New Year with great fervour and zeal, just like in the rest of the world. There are some limitations, which restrict the full-blown celebrations, but a lot of the traditions and rituals are still performed. As the Chinese community all over the world celebrated and ushered in the Year of the Dog, Kolkata’s very own Chinese community was not far behind. Marking the beginning of the lunar new year, the year is represented by one out of the twelve animals that symbolise the Chinese zodiac. It also signals the start of spring, hence is also commonly known as the “Spring Festival”.
The history of the Chinese community in India
The Chinese immigrant community in India emerged centuries ago, but rose to prominence in the late 18th century, as trade between China and India increased under the British rule. The arrival of the workers in ports like Madras and Calcutta led to the establishment of a community in these cities, and eventually, this community went on to contribute towards the social and economic life in Kolkata, mainly through the manufacture and trade of leather products, as well as the running of Chinese restaurants, a cuisine that is immensely popular in every nook and corner of the country.
The Chinese people living in India, today, comprise of two separate communities, based on their origin and settlement. One is of the emigrants living in the country, usually in terms of 2-3 years. The other consists of Chinese immigrants, as well Indian people of Chinese origins whose ancestors settled in India many years ago. Calcutta used to be home to over 50,000 Chinese in the 60’s and 70’s. However, migration to Canada, Australia and the Middle-East for job opportunities and education led to a decline in the overall number. Now, barely 5,000 members of the once-thriving community live in Kolkata in areas such as China Town near Tiretta Market and Tangra.
Celebrating a new year with the same traditions
As the new year approaches, there is an aroma of festivity, as people gear up to celebrate the auspicious occasion. During the build-up to the big day, there is extensive cleaning of the houses, dishes are prepared, decors are hung up, shiny Lai Shi envelopes filled with cash money are collected and gifted to children. The scale of the celebrations might not be the same as those in mainland China, but the traditions are followed with the same dedication and in the same archaic ways.
People celebrate by bejewelling their houses in traditional decorative pieces that are predominantly red in colour. Red is considered an auspicious colour and in the Chinese culture, it is believed to bring prosperity, happiness and health. Traditional decor includes Chinese lanterns, that are lit and hung inside houses and on the streets, red banners, flags and streamers, that adorn streets and courtyards.
The New Year’s Eve, in the Chinese culture, is far more important than the actual day itself. This is the time when families get dressed the finest of their clothes and get together for a huge feast. The dishes prepared and eaten are symbolic. They are considered to represent one’s wishes and wants for the New Year. Meat represents plenty of good fortune, hence special fish and meat preparations are enjoyed by people.
The one tradition that familiarises the entire world with the Chinese New Year is the animal dance. Multiple participants get together to dress up in huge animal figurines, the most common being the Chinese dragon. Festivities are also incomplete without the Lion Dance, which is less about fanfare and more about meaning, adding grandeur to the celebrations.
The burst and smell of firecrackers are symbolic of scaring away demons and other evil spirits, and the red envelopes exchanged are filled with money to ensure prosperity and a good financial year. As is evident by all the above traditions, the Chinese New Year is heavy on symbolism, adding deeper meanings and hopeful wishes to every act of fanfare.
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