American chopsuey, red Chinese lanterns and your horoscope on a place-mat. Nina Varghese investigates the disappearance of the original Chinese restaurant.
The other day, as I was going through my mother’s old recipe books, I remembered that my first taste of Chinese cuisine was at the home of Omana Paul, the legendary Syrian Christian cook. Mrs. Paul, the wife of a naval officer in the cantonment area in the Nilgiris, was my mother’s friend. She introduced my family and the rest of the folks in Ooty and Coonoor to the delights of Chinese food. We were introduced to such treats as American chop suey, fried rice, sweet corn soup and all kinds of other goodies at her house. Mono sodium glutamate (MSG) was an important taste enhancer in those days. Amen to that.
The love for Chinese continued even after my move to Madras in the late 1970s. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Madras (better loved than Chennai), had a sprinkling of Chinese restaurants around the older parts of the city. Madras back then was a sleepy, seaside town better known for music, Marina and Moore Market. For young people who were perpetually cash-strapped, options to hang out were few. The choices were between the beaches, Woody’s Drive-In or the endless cinema shows in Blue Diamond. We’d eat at Parry’s Corner, which served simple homely food with dim lighting (so you couldn't see what you were eating, or the rat or two that scurried past). The other favourite was the cart man in Burma Bazaar, dishing out appetising Khow Suey. Slightly more up-market was the ₹ 2 fried chilly beef at Southern Chinese or the ₹ 3.50 fried rice in Waldorf. These family-run Chinese restaurants were the answer to a prayer; they were inexpensive and so became an essential part of eating out. Red gingham-covered tables, Chinese lanterns, joss sticks and the ubiquitous bottles of soya and tomato sauce set the scene for a romantic dinner or a rumbustious lunch for college kids.
The sudden wave of memories that followed the simple act of flipping through a recipe book overwhelmed me — a visit to Liu’s Waldorf, a small Chinese-owned restaurant, nestling on the side of IIT Madras on the bustling Sardar Patel Road, was long overdue. Susy Liu, an old friend, who also owns Liu’s beauty parlour, is the current owner.
Waldorf, a popular haunt of young people in the 1970s, hasn’t changed much. It still had the red Chinese lanterns, and place mats that help you find your sign in the Chinese horoscope so you can read your fortune while you wait. The American chop suey arrived, replete with the tomato sauce, and tasted much the same. But unfortunately, our taste buds had matured and we were now used to more subtle flavours. However, the fried rice and chilly beef did take us back to the old glory days. The prices stayed reasonable and the service, quick and excellent. Just as it used to be! Minus the MSG, of course.
While restaurants serving Chinese food are still all-pervasive, almost all Chinese-owned restaurants have shut shop. Intrigued, I did a bit of digging. And that's when I realised that a vibrant silken thread had unravelled itself from the rich mosaic of Madras’ culture and history. Whatever happened to all those Chinese restaurants, and to the many Chinese families who ran those businesses for decades?
The years flew by, tastes changed. The economy opened up, and imperceptibly Chinese-owned businesses, especially restaurants, wound up. And with them, a memorable slice of Madras disappeared without a trace. Waldorf remains the last man standing, in the city’s southern precinct of Adyar.
Susy, the wife of the late Ken Liu, the man who started Waldorf, is from Calcutta’s China Town — a place most Indian-Chinese call home, or as we like to say, their ‘native’. Ken decided to start a restaurant in Madras after a Professor in IIT Kharagpur told him of the potential of the southern metro. Ken, a hotel management graduate, was employed in Waldorf, near IIT Kharagpur, owned by his sister and her husband.
In 1974, Ken found that the few Chinese restaurants in the city were on, or just off, Mount Road (now Anna Salai), while there were none in Adyar and the neighbouring areas of Besant Nagar, Gandhi Nagar or Kasturba Nagar. These localities were separated from the older parts of the city by the sometimes-beautiful, most-times sluggish, River Adyar.
Finding a place to lease near IIT was not easy, but he managed. “After Ken paid the lease, re-modelled the place and bought basic groceries, he had no money left to buy sweet corn!” Susy tells us — to make his signature Sweet Corn Chicken soup. So he borrowed two tins of sweet corn from his Chinese friends on Mount Road.
Waldorf was a success from the beginning, thanks to a captive clientele from IIT and Anna University. The young people loved the small open courtyard, the contemporary music and the inexpensive food. The fact that the family lived upstairs from the restaurant only added to its appeal. Here, the nerds, the jocks and the chicks, ate their chilly chicken and talked quantum physics late into the night.
The Liu’s success story was one of a kind; other Indian-Chinese was not so lucky. The hard working community took a big hit in 1962 when large numbers of them were interred in camps in Deoli in Rajasthan, under the Defence of India Act 1962, when India and China fought a war in the upper reaches of the Himalayas — a conflict yet to be resolved. Many of them were forced to sell their property and leave the country. This soured relationships, and was one of the main reasons why large numbers of them left the country.
The Chinese immigration to India spanned centuries and reached its height at the end of the 18th century. By the 1960s there were more than 50,000 Chinese living in Calcutta’s China Town. A great majority of them came to British India in search of a livelihood. Susy’s father, a tailor, from a small village in southern China decided to come to India, in the beginning of the 20th century. After a fruitless search for work in Hong Kong, he turned towards India, where it was rumoured life was easier. So, he joined other poor Chinese immigrants in the steerage of a ship sailing to India and landed in the great port city of Calcutta.
“It was a hard life,” Susy says, “But we were happy.”
Susy Liu and her siblings Lucy and Peter continue to live in Chennai; a city that, on the surface, is very different from the old Madras. Chennai’s soul has stayed the same though; there is music, and Marina, and a hundred little places to meet. And in the southern part of the city, the Adyar still snakes its way past the riverside mansions and huts, to the Bay of Bengal.
Nina Varghese is a writer with a passion for history, tea, food and a lifelong love for the Nilgiri Mountains.
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