Hakka Noodle: The Story of the Kolkata Chinese

A dish that bears little resemblance to many of the Hakka dishes found throughout East and South East Asia. A symbol of cultural fusion. The Hakka Noodle. This dish is commonly found throughout India as representative of Indo-Chinese and indeed Chinese cuisine. Despite its name, Hakka Noodles don’t actually exist anywhere else outside of India. Recipes for Hakka Noodle are also strangely devoid of any particular “Hakka” characteristic. Featuring soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic and ginger; this dish appears more to be a facsimile of what people thought was Chinese food.

The namesake of the dish “Hakka” (Kè Jiā, 客家), refers to a linguistic and cultural diasporic group that internally migrated throughout China in 5 major migrational waves from the 5th Century AD to the second half of the 19th Century. [1] The Hakka mostly settled throughout Southern China, most notably in Guangdong and Fujian. The history of Hakka is inherently tied to that of migration and movement. Large numbers of Hakka migrants emigrated from mainland China to South East Asia, Taiwan. India, especially Kolkota, saw smaller waves of Chinese Immigrants that arrived in smaller numbers compared to the SEA region, to curious effect. [2] The Chinese in Kolkata are most commonly found in two areas, Tiretta Bazaar and Tangra. “Chinatowns” are typically formed as giant, open enclaves where Chinese businesses and communities resided. The vast majority of these settlements formed in the 18th to 19th Centuries when Chinese migrants first arrived and settled in places as far off as Liverpool (1830). [3] Kolkata’s experience with Chinese communities began around the late 18th Century, centred around the tanning industry, in the district of Tangra and the surrounding areas of central Kolkata. [4]

Tanning was typically seen as an undesirable occupation that was fulfilled by lower caste individuals. This was due to the smelly and often dirty nature of the trade. In what Shivani Kapoor calls ‘Sensory Politics’, he describes the literal stench of the leatherworker and the industry as a whole influencing how society treated the profession. [5] Although this concept for Shivani was applied to the Untouchable caste tanners in Uttar Pradesh. Parallels can be drawn to tanners in Kolkata. As Vernon Briggs notes, it has long been understood that immigrants take the unwanted and often “dirty” jobs in their host country. [6] This was especially true in Kolkata, where Hakka migrants flocked to the tanning industry not because there weren’t any jobs available for them, but because they were willing to take on the jobs that no one else wanted. There was a massive demand for the luxury of leather goods, but very few were willing to supply that demand. Apparently free from the social dynamics of caste, the Hakka could take up these jobs that paid very well.

Kolkata’s Chinatown has many of the distinct elements that most others do, with Chinese style gates, businesses, and temples. What is most curious is the incredibly central location that this particular Chinatown occupies. In comparison to San Francisco, London and Tokyo’s Chinatown, which is relatively central but occupies only a small part of the city. Tangra occupies a comparatively large area in the Eastern part of Kolkata, in close proximity to important landmarks such as the Victoria memorial hall and central railway station. [7] There are assertions that Tangra was not the ‘original’ space that the Chinese occupied in Kolkata. Various other central districts such as Dharamtallah and Kasoitollah also featured important Chinese temples and businesses. Which indicates that the Chinese presence in Kolkata was even more important in centuries past.

The curious case of the Chinese tanner raises certain questions about how the Chinese immigrant community occupied such a prominent social and spatial position in the city. One could very well accept an application of Kapoor’s assertion of the politics of smell in the tanning trade, combine it with Brigg’s understanding of immigrant “dirty labour” and assume that the Chinese in Kolkata was a community that faced marginalisation and discrimination. [8] However, this did not seem to be the case. The earliest sources on the Chinese immigrant community to Kolkata pointed to a small number of Hakka migrants that occupied a central part of the city and appeared to be well established under the East India Company’s purview. [9] Did the supposed “otherness” of the Chinese allow them to avoid the restrictions of caste? Or were caste associations with the profession of tanning so strong that the social status of the Chinese community was impacted? These are some of the interesting questions that arise from this particular case study that don’t have answers at the moment, but that I hope to find through my research. These kinds of questions are not limited to just a study of social structure in India. It raises a whole host of further questions on how significant Diaspora populations integrated or found a place in the social structure of a particular state or even urban space. It questions the relationship between professions and social status. In the particular case of Chinatowns, it even questions the social and spatial fabric of a city’s present and historical reality.

The leather tanning industry in Tangra is still alive today and although the community has dwindled due to the Sino-Indian War of 1965 and the redevelopment of Tangra itself. Tiretti Bazaar and Tangra are still the heart of a vibrant Chinese food market. On the street, you can get momos shaomai (烧卖) and Baozi (包子). In restaurants, Pork with Mustard Greens, fish ball soup and sweet and sour pork. The Hakka have left their mark on Kolkata, in their profession, their culture and most of all, in their noodles.



[1] Hsieh Ting Yu, ‘Origin and Migration of the Hakkas’, 1929, <https://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/chin/HsiehHakkaHistory.html>[accessed 26 February 2022]

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Map of Tangra, Google Maps

[5] Shivani Kapoor, ‘The Violence of Odors: The Sensory Politics of Caste’, The Senses and Society, p. 164-176. 

[6] Vernon M. Briggs Jr., ‘Immigrant Labor and the Issue of “Dirty Work” in Advanced Industrial Societies’, Population and Environment, 14:6 (July, 1993), p. 503.

[7] Umang Sharma, ‘Open at 5am, Tiretti Bazaar In Kolkata Is A Paradise For Every Authentic Chinese Food Lover’, India Times, 2nd July 2017, <https://www.indiatimes.com/culture/food/open-at-5am-tiretti-bazaar-in-kolkata-is-a-paradise-for-every-authentic-chinese-food-lover-321337.html> [accessed 2 February 2022].

[9] Ibid