On 2 January, 2014, the CHA Project hosted its first conversation with the Chinese community of Kolkata city. Around 24 representatives of the community participated in the Workshop held at the Institute for Leadership,Entrepreneurship and Development (iLEAD). Titled “My Chinatown”, the objective of the session was to understand the community’s views on an urban revival of their neighbourhood, and how they saw it as a platform for their own aspirations coming alive.
As a facilitator, my job was to draw out an otherwise extremely shy and wary set of people who had paid a heavy price for their ethnicity and origins –the memories of the incarcerations and the internment camps and the anti Chinese sentiment following the Chinese Aggression of 1962, are still raw and painful.
The workshop started with a short presentation on the inspiration and plans behind the CHA Project and introductions to some of the key players – Mr. Pradip Chopra, Dean, iLEAD; Mr. G.M. Kapur, Convenor, INTACH Calcutta Regional Chapter; and Ms. Rinkoo Bhowmik, founder of The Cha Project whose big ideas and energy shape the journey.
With this set-up, we eased into a conversation about the status of things now in Tiretta Bazaar and Tangra. We started with their pain points because for a project such as CHA, it is imperative that the needs of the community should be at the heart of the design for revival. It was imperative that we create a safe atmosphere for the people to air their issues, fears, concerns and anxieties, as these become the biggest invisible derailers towards implementation of any plans later. The community spoke unreservedly and honestly about its past, the pains of facing rejection on a daily basis, the frustrations of being a minority community (which does not even have a ‘minority status’) in the city of their birth, their issues with civic amenities such as garbage disposal, sewage, lighting etc, amongst others. They expressed their fears regarding the future, about engaging the youth
and providing them their rightful place in society – in the city in which they were born but still feel alienated. The conversation was however not only despondent. After a somewhat cathartic session on their problems, we moved on to solutions with an emphasis on those that were doable and the
mood turned buoyant.
Some good suggestions and solutions that came up were: Highlighting the problems to the municipal authorities through CHA to help with immediate clean-up of Toong-On Church and its environs; creating a platform through CHA to help the youth set up new businesses with fresh ideas and be motivated to stay on in the city; through CHA creating their own unique identity in Kolkata; and through CHA showcasing their varied their contributions, such as in food, beauty services, medical and dentistry services, restaurants, sugar refining technology etc, to the rest of the country; and finally highlighting their contribution in bringing tea, the eternal beverage that unites the two races.
After about ninety minutes of engagement, I felt a sense of ease and thaw in the room. Smiling faces, more laughter, more side-chats, some jokes indicated that vital human connections had been made. Things were looking more plausible. The trust quotient had shot up significantly. We ended the day in iLEAD’s warm and cosy café aptly called ‘Chinatown’ with cha, samosas, and the excitement of next steps and infinite possibilities.
(Nandini Das Ghoshal is a Knowledge Consultant & Learning Facilitator and Co-Founder & Partner of Insights & More, Singapore.)