Emigres’ world
Aradhika Sharma

The Last Dragon Dance: Chinatown Stories
by Kwai-Yun Li.
Penguin. Pages 122. Rs 199.

The book has special meaning for those who have lived in the city of Calcutta. And I say Calcutta deliberately as opposed to Kolkata because that’s what the spirit of the book demands. The Last Dragon dance is about the emigre community of Chinese who settled down in Calcutta and who lived and worked there, making the city their own and giving it their own flavour.

Kwai-Yun Li grew up in the city and has captured the bittersweet taste of the existence of the Chinese emigrants. Indeed, apart from the Chinese, the Jewish and the Armenian communities were also visible on the cityscape; but`A0while the latter two were reasonably well-to-do communities, the Chinese were not so affluent and ran restaurants, made shoes and sold them, had hairdressing salons and furniture shops and`A0laundries where the bhadralok gave their ‘good’ clothes to be laundered.

For the reviewer, who grew up in the city, the atmosphere that the author has managed to create around each of her 11 stories has a particular essence of nostalgia and longing for times bygone. In fact, the reviewer can almost taste the authentic Chinese food in small restaurants. The food was cooked and served by the members of the Chinese family that ran the restaurant and it was a custom for the reviewer and her family to go to their favourite restaurant for Sunday dinner.

She can smell the peculiar odour of leather when she was marched off to buy shoes from ‘Henry and Wong’ in New Market and remembers the smiling Suzie who cut her hair, once in two months at the big hairdressing Salon. The reception desk of the salon was manned by the immensely fat and autocratic Chinese lady who would bully her scurrying staff (mostly girls from her family) mercilessly. `A0All these people come alive again in the Last Dragon Dance. And this time they have real lives and are not just the hairdresser, the shoemaker and the restaurants owner whom the reviewer would sporadically meet.

The characters that people the book include "the mother who fixes her six-year-old daughter’s marriage to her neighbour’s son (on a hot summer day in 1942, sitting outside her shoe shop in Bentinck Street); the widow who converts a part of her house to a temple so that she can support her family with donations. And the gentle bookseller and his daughter who disappear in the middle of the night when they are deported to China for the father’ political sympathies."

The Chinese were, in fact, an integral part of the city’s cultural and commercial landscape but at the same time they carefully cherished their distinct identity and customs. In fact, the book is a compilation`A0of 11 episodes that are actually more insights into lives than stories.

Kwai-Yun Li talks of the lives and times and the conditions of the people who lived in Chinatown and in Tangra, a Chinese pocket within the city. (Her own mother sold bean sprouts in Chinatown. Her Hakka parents had emigrated from Moi-Yen in China in the 1920s). She focuses on the lives of the people who, because of political and economic upheavals, have been forced to abandon their country and homes.

The author, however, is never overly sentimental or gloomy; her writing is wry and honest and she captures the mood of the time with sure yet subtle strokes. Perhaps it is because she escaped the life in India (she got married and immigrated to Canada at age 22) that she can clearly see the idiosyncrasies of her community but she is always kind and never caustic or complaining against her host city even as she captures the squalor of`A0Kolkata’s Chinese neighbourhoods in the 1950s. The Last Dance is Kwai-yun Li’s second book about Kolkata. Until The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories, her first book, which was published in 2006, there were actually very few accounts of what it means to be a Chinese in Calcutta.