China in Mumbai

While urbanisation and globalisation is slowly making the streets congested and adding stressors to lifestyles, its still the non-descript buildings at the end of dusty corner that knows how to reecount a story. That’s the beauty of history I guess. It holds numerous painful instances and untold horrors for many, but a chance encounter with the year gone-by truly showcases resilience and persevarance. Behind the glamour and glitz that often overtakes Mumbai, its the little known secrets that still astounds both the native and the tourists. I mean look a this building. Does it not make you think that just past those swinging red doors, a hot bowl of ramen and some delicious steamed dumplings are waiting? Well, don’t try it with my word as the source of inspiration!

The two-storeyed house actually marks the entrance to the century old, one-of-its-kind Chinese temple of the city, located in a tiny lane within Mazgaon, Dockyard. The fact that the architecture of the house resembles rest of Mazgaon chawl with its long balconies, wooden staircase and common bathroom space, gives this misconception that this is just another of those buildings that has been forgotten by all.

Afterall, normal depiction in Chinese temples would be distinct red colors and dragons or other chinese motifs easily visualised. What you encounter behind the deceptive facade is a wall mural of three Chinese gods of blessing, longevity, and prosperity staring at you while taking the staircase.

It was in the 1800s when thousands of Chinese citizens moved to India while they were working for the East India Company. India – Bombay to be specific – thus became home to a thriving Chinese community until 1962, when the Sino-Indian War broke out. In fact, the temple in discussion, Kwang Kung Temple was built in 1919. As a result of the war, many of the Chinese inhabitants migrated back to China and, of all places, (if history is to be believed) Canada. Yet after the outbreak, there were still a few families that decided to stick by their home.

The dramatic drop in Chinese inhabitants in Mumbai was largely due to the fallout from the Sino-Indian War which took place in 1962. But I dont blame the Indian people; they had to do their duty.

Liao Hung Hsing, one among the five to six Chinese families living in Chinatown. Liao describes the events as they transpired in the documentary film The Last Of The Chinamen

The community, formerly strong in numbers, has now shrunk to only a few hundred Chinese-Indian families living in Mumbai. The only remnant of this community is the Kwang Kung Temple with its shrine located in one large room, its focal point a red altar with gold carvings. The altar pays homage to the warrior god Kwan Tai Kwon, who is known to remove all obstacles. Overall, the temple is an interesting mix of Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu elements – In a room adorned with chinese colors, buddhist chants can be seen painted in chinese, hindi and English, while a garlands adorn the altar of the warrior god. Keeping with Taoist rituals, a wall on the second floor sports fortune-telling bills and a vessel to burn fake currency to appease the gods.

On a small table in front are the offerings—paper money, gold and silver paper, incense, envelopes filled with either rice or money. Worshipers at the site will also find Kau cim, or fortune sticks, small wooden sticks that are part of a fortune-telling practice dating back to the third century. There are Jiaobei or moon blocks available for those who are seeking some divinational tools to aid decision-making. Moon blocks are said to be wooden divination tools – each block is round on one side and flat on the other, denoting yin and yang. Ask a question and throw them to the floor – if they fall with the opposite sides up, it means the forces are with you; if not, it means that whatever you’ve asked for is something you should avoid! Definitely could use some of this in life!

There is a huge board, with files of bamboo sheets fixed under different numbers, in Chinese script. Each number has a corresponding fortune card where people read their fortune, annually. Following the prayers, the brass bell is rung three times, before chocolates are offered as prasad!

The temple comes to life during the Chinese New Year and Moon Festival when over 500 Chinese gather to seek blessings. Well after getting to know this nugget, the next goal is to try to find my way back to the place to see the street glowing up in typical Chinese festivities.

Note – During my visit in 2017, the building had an obscure charm with peach colour facade. Recently, (as of 2022) it has received some dramatic facelift, courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj, the Bollywood film director and producer, who shot a film here last December — Mumbai Dragon in the recent Modern Love: Mumbai TV series — and designed a facade to resemble a typical Chinese temple. The building now has a grand face with gold lattices, distinctively Chinese eaves that are curved at the edges, and the temple’s name carved in large, gold Chinese letters. Recently, the caretaker of the temple has converted the ground floor to a shrine dedicated to Goddess Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy. I was finally able to update NOW vs THEN images!!

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