The legend has many versions but what is important is the pride and admiration that the Chinese Indians have for their colourful and mystical ancestor, a fortune-seeker from China who landed in Bengal in the 18th century. Tong Atchew (or Yong Tai Chew/Yang Dajian) was granted a piece of land by Warren Hastings, the governor general of Calcutta at that time. British records indicate that in 1780 Warren Hastings gave 650 bighas of land in the district of 24-Parganas, 6 miles south of Budge-Budge at a yearly rent of Rs.45 to this man from China.
Yong Atchew, a tea trader according to some accounts, came (like many other fortune-seekers from China) with the object of earning wealth and then returning home. Once he acquired the land from Warren Hastings, however, Atchew decided to settle in Bengal and established a sugar mill. He brought labourers from his homeland to work at this sugar mill. Other Chinese immigrants also arrived in the region, that came to be known as Atchepur (now Achhipur), about thirty-three kilometers from Calcutta, to work as shipbuilders for the British. There were other Chinese drifters who came to town looking for employment and better livelihood. In fact, economic prospects made eighteenth and nineteenth century Bengal one of the favorite destinations for migrants from the southern coastal regions of China. Sometime in the early 20th century however, Calcutta, then the capital of British India, emerged as the place of choice for Chinese immigrants. Many Chinese residents left Achhipur and began settling in Calcutta, which provided more economic opportunities. Some settled in Mumbai and other cities of British India.
Even now the Chinese Indian community attaches a lot of sentiment to Achhipur. It has the tomb of Atchew and two kilometers away from the tomb, on the river banks, is the temple of the two deities who are believed to have brought Atchew to safety. Although there are no traditional Chinese rituals or ceremonies that take place in the town today to mark the arrival of Atchew, Chinese Indians, especially those in Calcutta, make it a point of visiting Achhipur every year during Chinese New Year.
Memories of Trips to Achhipur
During the first half of the twentieth century, members of the Chinese Indian community used to visit Achhipur frequently. Mr. John Lee, a resident of Calcutta, remembers that a contract ferry used to take them down along the river to Achhipur. “The two-hour ride”, he explains, “was fraught with exciting things – gambling, food stalls, games, lion dancing and merry making.” He recalls that some Chinese used to take up the contract for the boat themselves and organize gambling sessions for those on board. Space was also rented out for the food stalls. No fare was collected from the people since the contractors made their money from the gambling they organized. Another Chinese Indian resident, Ng Yee Tung, remembers that “until the contractors made their money, the ferry kept going up and down the river and then we were brought back [to Calcutta]. One year we returned at 11 in the night from Achhipur.” Gliding down the river to Achhipur was an annual ritual eagerly awaited by the old and the young alike. Anthony Wu recalls the fun he and his friends used to have on board of ferries, “those were exciting times and with the lion dance on board, we looked forward to it”. He recalls how he used to gamble on the boat and then beat a hasty retreat when he had won enough.
The India China war of 1962, like every other aspect of the livelihood of the Chinese Indian, had a significant impact on these annual trips to Achhipur. Liang Yuen Lin had taken many trips down the river to Achhipur and cannot remember a single year when she missed the annual pilgrimage. “After the war of ’62, visiting Achhipur has never been the same again. Though we did not take permission to go there but at that time there were many other problems to think of and no one then paid much attention to Achhipur.” This neglect is evident to visitors. Since no one maintained the historical sites, local residents have slowly encroached on the land. Only the tiny temple and a little space around it is all that is left of the original 650 bighas of land which was given to Atchew.