Toong On Church, Rebirth of a Chinese Temple
Toong On Church, Calcutta (Kolkata)
Rebirth of a Chinese Temple
Also see: My blog post on Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinatown
March 2008: A beautiful two storied brick red building stood in the shadows of the multi storied office of Kolkata Telephones. The entrance was not easily approachable and the door perennially locked. Above the door in beautiful Chinese calligraphy was written Toong On Church. The building once housed the Toong On Church at the first floor and the Nanking Restaurant on the ground floor. A decade long court case have kept the building under lock and key and the Toong On caligraphy was all that remained of the buildings glorious history.
Feb 10, 2011: I was out to explore the Chinese Temples of Tiretta Bazar, with fellow photographer Amitabha Gupta. We made our way past the garbage dump to the entrance of the beautiful two storied red coloured building only to find the Chinese calligraphy being replaced by a temporary banner of Nanking Restaurant.
Oct 13, 2012: It was the Calcutta edition of the Scott Kelby Photowalk 2012. I took a detour past the garbage dump and made my way to the entrance of the Nanking Restaurant. To my utter surprise I found the Nanking Restaurant banner replaced by the Toong On Church banner. Strangely the door was open and I made my way up to the first floor, straight in front was the alter housing the strange idol of the warrior God Kwan Ti. Sadly apart from the alter the room was totally empty and lacked the ambiance and glamor of the surrounding Chinese Temples.
Jan 20, 2013: It was the Footsteps Photowalk and again I made my way to the entrance of the Nanking Resturant and Toong On Church only to find that the temporary banner of Toong On Church have been replaced by a permanent beautiful bright red Chinese calligraphy.
Set up in 1924 the Nanking Restaurant is considered as the oldest Chinese restaurant in Calcutta (Kolkata) and probably in the whole of India. It has always been a favorite hunting ground for celebrities and its long list of celebrity clientèle ranged from Bollywood stars Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor to author Sunil Gangopadhyay.
But unknown to many the gorgeous Nanking Restaurant housed an equally gorgeous temple in its first floor. The temple dedicated to the warrior god Kwan Ti was beautifully decorated with antique furniture and a sets of weaponry.
The Au family who own the Nanking Restaurant have always kept the existence of the Chinese Temple a secret and never allowed any one inside. Although the temple trust owns the property, the papers ended up in Au’s hands, thanks to Calcutta Telephone’s real-estate appetite that threatened to engulf Nanking in 1961. Au family went to court and the temple trust handed the original deed of conveyance over to them, which they never returned. Nanking Restaurant survived because there was a place of worship on the first floor.
Nanking closed its door in the late 1970s and Au family made several unsuccessful attempts to sale the property. Being unsuccessful in his attempt Au Yau Wah started removing artifacts and idols from the temple at the “dead of night” and started selling them.
In July 2008, Toong On got a court order staying the sale. Au Yau Wah died a few months later. With his heirs uninterested, the case is stuck in judicial limbo, though as of July 2012 the trustees got possession of Toong On.
In 2013 Toong On faced a new problem. For years, an open garbage dump stood at the entrance to the lane. That was awful enough, but the municipality decided to move it into the lane, adjacent to Toong On, and erected a structure for it there.
After several protest from the Indian Chinese Association the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) finally decided to move the newly constructed garbage vat, but till date nothing much has been done. One literally has to walk through garbage to enter the Toong On Church.
The Toong on Church has recently been at the hub of many cultural activities ranging from minority community meets to kung – fu classes. Plans are even being made to set up a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Indian Chinese. The events are being promoted through the Toong On Church Facebook page.
On April 21, 2013 I attended one such meet at the Toong On Church. The meet was chaired by Paul Chaung, the chairman of Indian Chinese Association. Local MLA Sikha Mitra, INTACH Kolkata chapter conveyor G. M. Kapur and Prof. Maria Fernandes vice chairman Minority Commission spoke on different aspects of the Calcutta (Kolkata) Chinese.
As I reached the Toong On Church I was surprised to see the entrance free of garbage. Banners hang from the building saying “Save Heritage Toong On Church from garbage.” As I entered the building a giant Buddha statue greeted me at the ground floor. Sadly the beautiful statue probably marked the end of an era called NANKING. As I took the stairs to the first floor I found Prof. Maria Fernandes, vice chairman Minority Commission, speaking on Calcutta Chinese food. No wonder it was a strange coincidence.
- Special thanks to Dominic Lee providing me the photo of Chinese Calligraphy of Toong On Church
- Temple for Sale by Soumitra Das, The Telegraph, Calcutta, June 1, 2008
- Strung Out by Dilip D’souza, The Caraven
- Warrior God wins a battle by Zeeshan Jawed, The Telegraph, Calcutta, Aug 13, 2012