We arrive on my 47th birthday
in Calcutta. This is the Yeh family empire, our India East
story. Four brothers run the New Embassy, their wives and
daughters-in-law run the Sunflower Beauty Parlour -- and the
brothers all take turns once a month, like it was purgatory, at
Hotel Valentino up in Darjeeling.
We arrive at the restaurant for lunch. The contrasting dark cool
interior versus the blazing hot exterior reminds me of Havana’s
Bar Pekin. The small unassuming joint seems out of place and
dwarfed in the midst of the new gentrification of built-up
office towers and shopping malls. The neighbourhood has probably
become one of the nicer areas in Calcutta. The lunch crowd is a
mix of nearby civil servants and office workers with a few
Indian tai-tai’s on their leisurely shopping trek.
The kitchen is a disaster zone. What a big contrast from Ling’s
in Mumbai! There’s rubbish everywhere. The kitchen help have
brown gunk all over… including themselves. They look more like
the rejects from the “Dirty Dozen” chain gang compared to Ling’s
well-disciplined army. I haven’t seen anything this scary since
the kitchen at the Golden Dragon in Cape Town. It was a
priceless shot when I caught Samson Yeh whacking the Indian kid
across the back of his head after tasting the salty food.
Samson takes us to show off the Sunflower Beauty Parlour after
lunch. Not only have these Hakka women monopolize beauty
parlours in India but they’ve even continued this tradition else
where like back in Toronto and Vancouver where there are huge
Indian communities. My friend Eva has recently been taken into
this “cult”, as some of her girlfriends call it. She had her
eyes and aspirations set on pursuing a hardcore career in the
high fashion and film industry as one of the many overpaid hair
and makeup artists. But she gave it all up settling for a place
in her life partner’s family run Hakka Indian beauty parlour
business. Many of her girl friends worry that she’s been sucked
into a cult like Michelle Pfeiffer in “Married To The Mob”. Is
Samson like the Godfather in this Hakka mafia?
We get out of our cab at Maidan when we saw an anti-Iraqi War
demonstration in progress. They were members of the Communist
Party waving red flags everywhere with the amber Indian sun
shimmering behind. Ajay, an avid cricket fan finds a bunch of
kids playing and joins in. Cheuk gives it his best college try…
but I think he’s still in Blue Jays mode. The boys enjoy their
game while I film the incriminating evidence.
Ajay suggested we go find this Bengali restaurant for thala
tonight. The guys pick up a birthday cake on Park Street. This
is my second birthday on this shoot. I am two years wiser and
settled for a quiet evening instead of my 45th nutty celebration
with David back in Tamatave, Madagascar.