Hakka Legacy: Kolkata's "Don of Chinatown"
Raise your hand if your family celebrated almost any accomplishment or occasion at an Asian fusion restaurant! Depending on where you’ve lived, perhaps you’ve had the luxury of trying Hakka cuisine. I’m looking at you Torontonians and Houstonians [emphasis added]. People may often describe Hakka cuisine as a South Asian adaptation of Chinese food. While the description is not far off…there is more to this culturally rich cuisine than what meets the eye. In this article, we are going to dive into the history of Hakka cuisine, through one of the most well-renowned Hakka restaurateurs in India. Our restaurateur of choice is Monica Liu, who is known as the notorious Don of Kolkata’s Chinatown.
Outlook Business: Monica Liu [Don of Chinatown] at her Restaurant in Tangra, Kolkata
While I’m excited about recounting Monica Liu’s life, it’s important to delve into the context which sparked her journey towards dominating the Hakka cuisine sector in Kolkata.
Some of you may be wondering, how is the Hakka influence so prominent in Kolkata? To answer this question, it’s imperative for us to reflect on the history of the community which introduced this world-renowned cuisine.
From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many Chinese people migrated to India. The migration to India was the result of scarce economic opportunities in their native lands, and a wealth of opportunities in India. The most notable of this group was the Hakka community, which primarily settled in the Tangra region of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). One of the earliest Chinese pioneers of Kolkata was a trader named Tong Atchew.
Tong Atchew established a sugar mill in Achipur, as well as a Chinese temple. Atchew’s efforts in building these infrastructures led to a greater number of Hakka individuals settling in Kolkata. Atchew’s legend still leaves a profound influence on the visitors even to this day as they honor him by paying homage to his red tomb located on the banks of the Hooghly River.
Outlook Business India’s Outlook Traveler: Tong Atchew's Red Tomb Located in the Hooghly River
The power of Atchew attracted more migrants to settle in India and this peaked the Hakka community population, especially since 50,000 lived in Kolkata alone. The safety of India’s Chinese community came under threat, following the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which was mainly provoked by a border dispute in the Himalayas. The war resulted in Sino-phobic sentiment that resulted in the internment and deportation of many Chinese residing in India. As a result, the population experienced a steep decline. Recent population estimates put Kolkata's Chinese community at about 3,000 people. Monica Liu and her ancestors were a part of that migration.
The Hakka community in particular found an economic gap within the dominant Indian society. This example is evident in the labor force; many local Hindus and Muslims generally avoided the tannery and leather businesses because they were historically reserved for the lower caste. The labor gap posed an economic opportunity for many Hakka, so they filled that gap and ran approximately 350 tanneries throughout a congested Tangra. Many of those who didn’t work in the tanneries ended up running their restaurants, which was the case for Monica Liu’s parents.
Now let’s fast forward to 1962 when the Sino-Indian war broke out. As mentioned earlier; the war was invoked by a border dispute between India and China, and many Indo-Chinese fell victim to Sinophobia as a result. The war jolted the lives of thousands of Chinese across India - Monica Liu’s family was no different. That same year, thousands of ethnic Chinese people were uprooted from their homes and sent to the Deoli Internment Camp in Rajasthan. The government detained them, claiming that those who were captured may have been Chinese spies.
In an interview with 101 India, Liu mentioned that people of all ages were detained, including babies. She recalled being only 8 years old when her family was taken to a jail in Shillong for 15 days. From there, her family was taken to Deoli, Rajasthan, where they spent more than 5 years in an internment camp. In camp, people did not have names, instead, they were given roll numbers – Liu was only 8-9 years old at the time when she received her number .
The Wire: Deoli camp barracks
After more than 5 years in the internment camp, 14-year-old Monica, her parents, and 4 siblings were finally freed. Like many other ethnic Chinese who were detained, the Liu family had lost everything. Their home, friends, and all of their belongings, were gone. Many other Indian-born Chinese detainees were deported to China. Liu recalls a conversation her father had with her mom after being released from camp. “My father was talking to my mom - he said, “I have only 24 rupees in my back pocket, what to do?”
To make ends meet, the family split up into 3 homes. After a month, they were able to afford their own home to rent. Liu, along with many other young Chinese, was finally starting school at the age of 14. The Deoli internment camp offered little to no education, which is why Liu started school so late. In order to make ends meet, Monica’s mother decided to make momos so that Monica and her sister could sell them at school. This continued for much of her teenage years since Liu grew up around her parents’ restaurant business.
Later in 1971, she married her husband in Kolkata. Initially, she did not continue in the food business. Rather, she entered the industry that her husband and so many other Hakka engaged in – leather goods and tanneries. Liu in particular sold chemicals for leather on a commission basis and this job paid for many of the family bills.
Outlook Business: Monica Liu and her husband
After spending time selling chemicals for processing leather, Liu decided to open up a salon. She recalls working long hours and coming home late, all of which interfered with her providing for her children. The salon’s interruption of her family life ultimately led her to the food industry. Although she grew up amongst restaurateurs, she recalls being a young wife who couldn’t even cook rice properly. Nonetheless, in 1991, she renovated a run-down building along with her family. 45 days later, Liu and her family opened her first restaurant and named it Kim Ling.
In her early days, she recalls dealing with customers who would eat and then insisting on getting the meal for free. Liu’s stern attitude towards customers seeking a free meal gave her a reputation that even compelled goons to pay. Since then, Liu has been infamously regarded as the “Don of Chinatown.” Liu spent a couple of years perfecting Kim Ling, which became a gastronomical authority in Kolkata. Over the years, she studied the palettes of the Indian and Bengali demographics to create a delicious menu that heats the jackpot! Once Kim Ling began earning a healthy stream of revenue, she opened her second restaurant named Mandarin in 1993.
Hindustani Times: Monica Liu at her Beijing restaurant in Tangra, Kolkata
In 1998, she opened Beijing; in 2001 she opened Tung Fong; and shortly after, she opened a second branch of Mandarin. Now, Liu operates 5 Chinese restaurants across Kolkata, where she employs 250 people. In a single lifetime, Liu went from a refugee in an internment camp, to one of the most successful Chinese restaurateurs in Kolkata, making her the Don of Kolkata’s Chinatown.
Despite the dwindling Hakka and Chinese communities in the Indian subcontinent, people like Monica Liu have left the world with a legacy that will never be forgotten.
About our Author: Kamran
"I’m a technophile by day, and a history buff by night. No impressive academic credentials here...just sheer curiosity. Outside of work, I enjoy spending time in the great outdoors, exploring South Asian, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern histories, exercising and working on passion projects like this newsletter and PlanEvents.ca (a reviews platform for South Asian weddings). Always happy to pitch in on things that benefit the South Asian diaspora!"