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Nanking Restaurant – first Chinese Restaurant of India started in Kolkata in 1925!

9 October, 2020 13:45:50
Nanking Restaurant – first Chinese Restaurant of India started in Kolkata in 1925!

The squalor and din on Chattawalla Guli of Kolkata’s Teritti Bazar will not let you forget that this is the central business district of the city. Lakhs of footfalls on any given day matched by almost an equal number of hand-pulled rickshaws, coolies and mobile vendors elbow their way frantically. There is not a moment’s peace on this road. As you walk westward, you take a turn on the fifth lane to your right. This is the Blackburn Lane and here, on 22, Blackburn Lane stands a quaint little red and white old-fashioned two storied building. This is the Toong On Church, a Chinese temple dedicated to the warrior God Kwan-Ti. This house was also once home to Nanking Restaurant, Calcutta’s and India’s first Chinese Restaurant. 

The Chinese have been visiting India since the time of Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang, but the earliest Chinese in modern Calcutta were probably deserters from ships which had docked here to trade. The first official settler was a man named Yang Daijang from Guandong (Canton) who the British called Toong Achew (or Atchew). The first Chinese settlement in Calcutta started around Kasaitola, near Dharmatala and extended further North, into the area that was then called Teretti Bazar. Immigrants from different parts of China went into different trades in Calcutta. Those from Shanghai went into the laundry business, the Hakka went into carpentry and leather, the Hupeh or Hupak went into dentistry while the Cantonese ran the restaurants. Each immigrant community started its own social club, which controlled a temple or “Church” and a burial ground. The Sino-Indian War of 1962, caused many Indian Chinese to leave India. The few who remain are settled around two areas; Teretti Bazar and a second, newer Chinatown in Tangra, in Eastern Calcutta, which was started primarily by the Hakka who built tanneries there.

Toongon Church

Cantonese migrants from Koon Toong purchased the plot on Blackburn Lane in 1917 and the Toongon Church or Chinese Temple was completed in 1924. In 1925, the Au family of Calcutta started the Nanking Restaurant on the ground floor of the Toongon Church building. It was a very posh affair, with violinists at the gate playing for customers as they came in, expensive furniture, and authentic Chinese food. Such was the fame of Nanking that it hosted film stars like Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Dilip Kumar, who would go up to the balcony on the 1st floor to wave to the crowds that gathered on the streets to get a glimpse of their matinee idols. On that first floor was the temple, which the Au family kept a secret, never permitting anyone from outside the community to enter. 

When China invaded Tibet in 1950, and Nehru’s government chose to give shelter to the Dalai Lama, head of Tibet’s government, relations between the two countries soured. Small border skirmishes with China exploded into open war on the 20th of October 1962. For the Chinese in India, dark days lay ahead. Bona fide Chinese citizens were now suspected as spies and a threat to state security. A massive sweep operation began all over India, but especially in the North East, to arrest all Chinese and send them to the Deoli camp of Rajasthan. They were held there, without due process for years. Many Chinese with longstanding jobs at Calcutta’s port, found themselves laid off overnight. In Calcutta, the Chinese found themselves boxed in, with special permission needed to step outside Teritti Bazar. No restaurant could prosper under such circumstances, and Nanking began a slow fall from grace. The restaurant that once served the biggest film stars became a “house of ill repute”, especially thanks to the curtained cabins along its walls. Nanking finally shut down in the late 1970’s.

A property dispute in the 1980s was the final blow to the restaurant and both the restaurant and the temple shut down for good. They remain locked to this day. It is a pity that foodies and connoisseurs of authentic delectable Chinese food can only get a second-hand experience hearing from old timers about the famous upper crust restaurant frequented by classy diners from different walks of life. The restaurant was patronized by the first Chief Minister of the state, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy as well as celebs from the film fraternity including superstars and lovebirds,  Uttam Kumar and Supriya Devi, who often dropped in here for a quiet lunch or dinner.  But all that’s lost in the annals of history. Though the Toongon Church operates from a nearby house in Bow Street in Bowbazar.

Story Tag:
  • Chinese Restaurant, Kolkata

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