In the 1970s the Chinese were a major presence in India, Mumbai’s Kamling restaurant being a symbol of their staying power
Text by Sidharth Bhatia Photographs by Suleiman Merchant
To walk into Kamling, the Chinese restaurant near Churchgate station in South Mumbai, is to enter a time capsule. Outside, a large sign has the name in Mandarin, something that has become increasingly rare in recent years. The décor – brush paintings, red walls and tasselled Chinese lanterns, traditional music piped through the speakers – is redolent of an earlier time, circa 1970s. It would delight an art director searching for a location for a period film. As for the food, new dishes have been added over the years, but the staples remain, because to banish them would upset customers. In a city where the newer Chinese – and other – restaurants promise a cool, minimalist, ethnicity-free look and where pricier has come to mean better, Kamling stands firm in its stolidity, harking back to a simpler time. Mumbai’s swish set is more at home in watering holes carved out of once humming factories or set in crumbling old bungalows. Kamling could seem a relic of an older, pre-Reforms India, when options – and awareness – of ‘foreign’ cuisine could only be limited. Sweet corn chicken soup, spring rolls, chicken sweet and sour, Hakka noodles and mixed fried rice, were the high-carb staples. The choice then was between fancy restaurants in five star hotels, where the middle classes feared to tread or restaurants serving mainly north Indian food, which meant meat swimming in oil. For a family that wished to be adventurous and go beyond the familiar, standalone Chinese restaurants were a good compromise – exotic enough, but yet somehow familiar and comforting. Kamling and many others fulfilled that need in Bombay for decades.
But today’s Mumbai offers a wide range of trendy restaurants where one can have Sushi, Pasta, Chorizo sausages or Crepes. The well-travelled, global-minded consumer, who is a regular watcher of food shows on television, is loath to go where the masses go. If at all he craves Chinese, there is no dearth of fine dining restaurants which will rustle up even a Peking Duck at short notice. Besides, those are the restaurants where the stars and celebrities hang out. Why then go to Kamling? Because it still dishes out excellent chow and delivers value for money. It is one of the last few Chinese restaurants owned by the fast dwindling Chinese community of Bombay. Tulun ‘Terence’ Chen, who runs the restaurant, is now a community elder and has held on to the place even while other joints – Nanking, Mandarin, Ssi Hai – have shut down and only Ling’s Pavilion, Flora and China Garden survive. But Kamling has history on its side. Chen insists the food served at Kamling is authentic. Authenticity is a tricky concept at most times, and world-weary sophisticates are notoriously sniffy about anything that may have been diluted to pander to local tastes. And it is true that Indo-Chinese cuisine, the bastard child created to satisfy the spice cravings of Indian taste buds, is a travesty, even if it is wildly successful. But Kamling has resisted going down that route. As Chen says, “I could easily throw in some masala and make the dishes palatable to Indian tastes. But I have refused to do it.” His restaurant offers a combination of Hakka, Hunan, Cantonese and Sichuan food, a wide representation from China. Chen, now in his 60s, has been running Kamling since 1968, when he acquired it in the strangest of circumstances. As he tells it, Kamling was set up in 1938-39 by a group of Chinese who had been working in Bombay. Bombay had a small, but thriving, Chinese community.
Large numbers of Chinese workers had been moving to India from the early 1800s – mainly to Bombay and Calcutta – to take up odd jobs in the docks, working as sailors, carpenters and mechanics with the East India Company. The Imperial connection with Hong Kong and trade between India and China meant that ships moved between the two countries and it was not unknown for sailors to get off at Indian ports to try their luck here. Though exact numbers are difficult to come by, there were thousands of Chinese in Bombay by the early 1900s, most living in and around the dock areas. They missed home food and a few restaurants had come up to service them. The oldest recorded one in Bombay was Lok Jun (apparently set up in 1895) on what is now called Shuklaji Street in Kamathipura, which had gained notoriety as the city’s red light district with its infamous “cages” from where prostitutes operated. The street got the name “Cheena gully” because of its Chinese residents and small businesses. Kamling’s founders were obviously a bit better off because they chose as the location for their restaurant the newly constructed Nagin Mahal on Churchgate Street near Marine Drive. The entire stretch was built on reclaimed land in the 1930s in the latest Art Deco style and Churchgate Street was where fancy restaurants, such as Gourdon’s and Bombelli’s, serving European food to British residents also came up. It is here that the city’s fledgling jazz culture took root in the 1940s and right next to Kamling stands the Ambassador hotel, the favourite nightspot of the city’s well-heeled of the time, known for its nightly entertainment. The sole Chinese establishment on the street caught on fast. But the British administration was wary of the Chinese. A weekly confidential circular of the Special Branch of the CID also detailed the shady activities of Chinese nationals in the city, listing those from China who had entered the country but had not got themselves registered. The police kept a close eye on their activities, such as the formation of clubs and associations. The Chinese Seaman’s Association, founded in 1944, for example, interested the police greatly, which reported it to the Intelligence Bureau in Delhi. The interests of the community were closely monitored by the consulate of the Republic of China which, in a letter to the Bombay government assured that the Association was formed to look after the interests of sailors and coordinate with shipping companies. The consulate’s letter pointed out that there was as yet “no association formed which can claim to look after the interests of the Chinese population in general”.
After the British left, the police did not give up its scrutiny of the community. But it was not until the early 1960s, when relations between India and China deteriorated that the Chinese community settled in Indian cities came under suspicion. Large numbers of Chinese were shipped off to internment camps, most of them to Deoli in dry and hot Rajasthan where they languished even after the war of 1962. Many were repatriated to China and some chose to migrate to Canada. Kamling shut down and went into receivership with the original owners fighting amongst themselves. In 1967, Chen, then a teenager, was walking near Victoria Terminus station when he came upon a commotion. An old Chinese gent had fallen on the road and a crowd had gathered. Chen rushed him to a hospital where he looked after him for a few days. The man turned out to be Tham Monyin, the sole owner of Kamling, and he lived alone in a small room with no one to care for him. All he wanted, he said, was 3200 rupees, enough money to fly to Hong Kong – he had decided to leave India. Chen and his friends collected 4500 rupees between them and bought him a ticket. A year or so later Chen got a letter from a lawyer’s office in Hong Kong – Tham, it said, had died and willed him a restaurant in Churchgate. Chen’s father was a well-regarded dentist in Bombay and there was no one in the family who had any experience in running restaurants. Chen senior suggested he take the help of the Thams, a prominent Indian-Chinese family who owned the Mandarin restaurant in Colaba. Chen took the plunge and soon Kamling was refurbished and re-opened.
Bombay at that time was humming with Chinese food restaurants. Most of them were in Colaba, the premier shopping strip in south Bombay and nearly all were owned and managed by members of the local Chinese Indian community. After jobs in the docks dried up in the wake of the war, the Chinese, many of them Hakka and from Canton, Hupeh and Shandong, opened restaurants and the women set up beauty salons. Chinese beauticians were in great demand in the city. Tham’s in Colaba was an institution, where the crème de la crème came to get their hair done. For Hindi film actresses, a Chinese hair-dresser was a must-have accessory. Leather goods was another popular business. South Bombay was dotted with Chinese shoemakers who got their raw material from the tanneries of Tangra, Calcutta’s own Chinatown. Some, like Chen’s father, became dentists – there are still a few of them dotted around Grant Road. Less visible to the general public but known to the well-informed were the dark, dank opium dens, presided over by Chinamen, where you went to get your shot of the drug. Though significant numbers of Chinese migrated abroad, for others, Bombay – or Calcutta, Kolhapur and other cities they lived in – was home. They spoke the local language and though they tried to keep their customs and language alive, assimilation was difficult to avoid. Inter-community marriage was not always possible; in the Raj days, a husband or wife could be imported from Hong Kong, but it became difficult later.
Like the other Chinese restaurants, Kamling became hugely popular. Whatever their views about China as the aggressor, Indians loved Chinese food. It had three vital attributes that made it appealing to their palate – it had gravy, starch, and most of all, it could easily be made spicy, either with red chilli powder or the addition of the condiments and sauces provided at each table. Some dishes like the infamous Chicken Manchurian – marinated chicken balls deep fried after dipping them in ginger-garlic flavoured cornflour and garnished with spring onions and – and its vegetarian version with cauliflower were practically invented in India to appeal to the Indian customer.
By the 1980s several Bombay restaurants had shut down, often due to internal family issues and sometimes because the next generation had other plans. Migration reduced the community’s numbers to barely a few thousand – Chen, who is also the long-serving president of the Maharashtra Chinese Association puts the current figure at around 3,000 in the state. Calcutta, which has a bonafide “China Town” in Tangra, where old tanneries have shut down to make way for restaurants, has about 10,000 Chinese. With the declining numbers, many of the old community institutions in Bombay too died: the language school in Agripada, the Hakka club off Grant Road station, the old hookah parlours of Shuklaji Street where opium was smoked, have all gone. There are still a few dentists around and some hairdressers too, but the shoemakers are almost all gone. Young Chinese Indians, though perhaps the most comfortable in India, have their sights on Toronto and Sydney or want to take up other jobs in India – Bangalore is the hot new destination.
In Nawab Tank Road, in the heart of Mazagaon in central Bombay, where many Chinese had settled because of its proximity to the docks, is a small temple dedicated to Guan Gong, the god of courage and justice. The familiar Chinese motifs are all there – fortune scrolls, incense sticks and the dragons – but it is usually quite empty. Though most Chinese are now Christians, they assemble here in large numbers on Chinese New Year day to pray and feast. Every year the congregation looks slimmer. Every community has its own special needs. In his capacity as the chairman of the Chinese Association, Chen approached the Bombay collectorate for more space for the tiny Chinese cemetery in Wadala, which was falling short; the authorities responded by giving an additional 10,000 square feet, almost doubling the current plot. He is also trying to get funding for the language school to ensure that youngsters don’t lose their link with their culture. But his bravest fight has been to keep Kamling going. It could have easily gone under; with trends and fashions changing and with some heavy-duty competition from five star hotels and international chains, it is a miracle that Kamling still survives and thrives. Churchgate has lost some of its cachet as the city’s nightspot. Now the action – and the money – is in the northern suburbs. In Bandra, restaurants like Hakkasan, with its pricey menu and its nouvelle Chinese cuisine, with items like Duck with Ossetra caviar are the go-to places for the rich. Vijayan Gangadharan, the F & B Director at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Santactruz, which runs the popular China House restaurant, explains how a discerning new audience is constantly searching out newer experiences and is much more aware than the previous generation was about Chinese food and what it should taste like. “Our customers have travelled all over the world. They know what they want, and they can detect it if we try and needlessly Indianise the food,” he says. The hotel decided to go in for Sichuan cuisine, knowing that its spicy notes would be a hit with the Indian consumer. In keeping with that theme, China House does not have too many traditional Indian favourites, though it could not avoid a dim sum section, which is Cantonese. Yet, China House customers are ready to try out abalone and ginseng-based dishes, which are new to Mumbai.
A meal at these fancy restaurants can set one back by a mini-fortune, at least when compared to Kamling, where prices have been kept at moderate levels. Kamling falls somewhere between these upscale restaurants and the low-priced ones with greasy spoons dotted all over Mumbai where short order cooks can rustle up a carb-heavy, spicy noodles dish as easily as they can make chicken, Mughlai style. Scores, even hundreds, of such multi cuisine hole-in-the-wall joints have cropped up all over the country, testifying to the fact that Indians now consider “Chinese” food their own. Restaurants serving Chinese food in different parts of India – most of them run by non-Chinese people – will gladly cater to the taste buds of their Punjabi or Gujarati customers, since they are amongst those who eat out a lot. Kamling has resisted all such market pressures, says Chen. He still imports ingredients from Hong Kong and Singapore and his famous dishes – Chimney soup, for example, which has remained on the menu for decades – is as authentic as it can get. “Chinese and Korean expats come here regularly, because they know they can get real Chinese food,” he says proudly. The secret of his success is also linked to his understanding of his customers and occasionally bending his own rules for their convenience. Kamling has had its loyal patrons for generations, some who came there with their own parents and now come with their children, and Chen has worked out many of their preferences. He knows the Parsi penchant for sweet and sour – garlic prawns are among their favourites – and a discreetly scribbled P on the order slip lets the kitchen know how to slightly modify the dish for the customer.
But it is his Chinese heritage that has really worked to his advantage. Chen, the unlikely restaurateur, is passionate about food and Kamling and is a regular sight at the docks early in the morning, looking for the freshest fish from the catch that has just been brought in. His visits have now reduced, after an accident left him somewhat weak, but he still eats in the restaurant and goes around suggesting new dishes to diners. The profile of the Kamling customer has somewhat changed – in the afternoons it is the young executives from neighbouring offices who come for the All You Can Eat buffet; at night, families still come but the typical customer has become older. Chen knows that Indians play it safe, so will occasionally send them a complimentary dish to help them move beyond their comfort zone. He knows he has to move with the times. Keeping that in mind, Chen is also thinking of changing the décor of the restaurant. He isn’t revealing what he has in mind – perhaps something minimalist, in keeping with current styles, or maybe a trendier, hipper place to bring in younger crowds. Will the renovation mean goodbye to all that Chinoiserie, the Ming vases, the Chinese lanterns? Will the menu change too?
As the restaurant approaches its 75th year, a refurbishment to take it forward could certainly be an option. On the other hand, its loyal customers would not want a large-scale makeover; Kamling not only has its place in Mumbai’s culinary landscape but is also a part of the city’s cosmopolitan history. It deserves to go on and on, unchanging and unmindful of passing fads, to remind us that some things in a fast moving world will always remain the same.
Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of the book Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, published earlier this year. He also writes on national politics for publications including DNA, The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle and The Asian Age.