Kolkata’s Chinese community celebrates Mid-Autumn Festival

Local people of Chinese origin gathered in Fo Guang Shan Kolkata Buddhist Centre in Tangra to mark Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept 11, 2022. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

NEW DELHI – Christopher Chang, an engineer from Bengaluru, flies to Kolkata to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival every year.

Since most of his family members and relatives stay in Kolkata, every year before the festival he gathers with them to enjoy feasting on mooncakes, playing with lanterns and going moon-gazing as part of the festivities.

The Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals, has been celebrated by Chinese communities every year since they began to settle in Kolkata in the late 18th century. Since then a sizable Chinese community has been living in the capital of India’s eastern state of West Bengal. The festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar when the moon is usually believed to be at its fullest of the year.

According to Chinese custom, on this day, family reunions,  "moon viewing", eating moon cakes, fruits, shell-boiled groundnuts, and green tea are quintessential parts of the festival. The festival falls on Sept 10 this year.

For Christopher in his 40s, the best part of the festival is family reunion and feasting on mooncakes.

Over the course of time like all other communities, we have also changed, spread out and still we find time to come together during this festival and celebrate.

David Chen, Member, Chinese community in Kolkata 

“During the festival, my grandmother would prepare dinner. Afterwards, my mother and grandmother would call me to have mooncakes, go moon-gazing and wait for the night-blooming cereus (epiphyllum) to blossom," said Christopher. 

This year, though, his grandmother is no more with them. The family’s ancestral home is in Tiretta Bazaar, India’s oldest China Town, in central Kolkata.  

"It is the second most popular festival for the Chinese next to the New Year,” said Thomas Chen.  

Chen’s family is one of the few ethnic Chinese Indian families who still call Kolkata home. Chen’s paternal grandfather came to Kolkata during World War II from Sihui in the Guangdong province of China.

Mooncakes are also offered as a mark of respect to senior members of the community as well as an offering to the spirit of the ancestors, said Thomas who is also joint secretary of Indian Chinese Association for Culture Welfare and Development.

Buying mooncakes is a recent phenomenon because earlier it used to be made by the family members, said Janice Lee, a fourth-generation Indian-Chinese born and brought up in Kolkata. The famous Pouchong Sauces, the oldest sauce shop located in central Kolkata, was founded by Lee’s grandfather.

In her household too there was a long tradition of baking mooncakes. "It was a lot of fun growing up with this tradition of the moon festival," said Lee. 

"We also baked these delicious cookies that came in the shape of a moon made of salted duck eggs and red beans pasted inside. It is salty and sweet", she said. The moon cakes are also available at the Tiretta Bazar about a few days before the festival, also called the Mooncake Festival among locals.

For many years the association used to organize cultural events like singing, drawing competitions for children at the Sacred Heart Chinese School located in Central Kolkata. Around 20 to 30 children from the community would gather and take part at the cultural event during this festival, recalled Chen. It is 2015 that the cultural event was organized last time, she said.

Nowadays the children have grown up and generally there are dearth of children from the community as most of the new generation has moved out from the city for better future and livelihood, rued Chen.     

Another popular ritual was making lanterns. It is also customary to organize lantern parades, people used to release countless floating lanterns into the sky.

“Even a few years ago, the association would hold lantern parades,” said David Chen, a senior citizen from the community who sighed about its discontinuation.

Cultural activities feature parts of the celebrations at Fo Guang Shan Kolkata Buddhist Centre in Tangra to mark Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept 11, 2022. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

“Over the course of time like all other communities, we have also changed, spread out and still we find time to come together during this festival and celebrate,” said David Chen. 

David Chen’s father came to Kolkata in 1935 from Kwang Tung, now known as Guangzhou, in southeast China.

To mark the festival, this time on Sept 11, hundreds of Chinese community gathered in Fo Guang Shan Kolkata Buddhist Centre in Tangra, offered prayer and tasted moon cake. Chinese Consulate General in Kolkata, Zha Liyou graced the event. 

Kolkata once boasted a significant population of over 20,000 ethnic Chinese-Indian nationals living in Tiretta Bazar (Old Chinatown) and Tangra (New Chinatown) in east Kolkata with their own schools, social clubs, festivals and newspapers. 

Now less than 2,000 of them still live here, said Thomas Chen. Moreover, there’s "a high chance that the Chinese community might vanish" from the city in a few decades, said Chen.

Chinese migration to then Calcutta (the former name of Kolkata) started in the late 18th century and some of them stayed and made the city their home, according to historians. The community had been traditionally involved in tanneries, finished leather goods, dentistry and also carpentry.

“The community needs nurturing, opportunities and encouragement to arrest the shrinking numbers,” added Thomas Chen.

The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.