“Come, let us have some tea and continue to talk of happy things.” – Chaim Potok
Little India is a South Asian neighborhood in Singapore that dates all the way back to the 19th century where early Indian immigrants lived. Today, it serves as a cultural enclave where many ethnically Tamil businesses are located, e.g. spice stores and sari shops.
Its bustling, colorful atmosphere makes Little India a popular tourist spot. However, two young Singaporean Indians, Razy Shah and Dhawal Shah, noticed that it was not frequented by their other local friends. It also did not help that in December last year, an Indian migrant worker was killed by a bus there, angering a crowd of over 400 people who began pelting stones and setting fire to vehicles. After this incident, which was considered Singapore’s worst public disturbance in 40 years, new laws were implemented to maintain public order in Little India, including an alcohol ban and enhanced police powers to raid a place without a warrant.
In light of these recent happenings, Razy and Dhawal decided to do something to remind Singaporeans of South Asian hospitality, a trademark that Little India has always been known for. Razy and Dhawal run a digital agency and decided to use their marketing expertise to come up with Free Chai Day – an event to foster harmony through the simple act of drinking tea.
They roped in four Indian restaurants to be involved in this inaugural event, which took place on 27 January 2014. On Free Chai Day, customers of these participating restaurants were served a free flow of chai to encourage the forging of friendships and conversations.
“We were inspired by the book Three Cups of Tea, where this proverb is shared: ‘The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.’ We wanted to convey this message of our culture’s warm hospitality, and what better way to do that than through chai,” Razy said.
I dropped by Taste of India, one of the restaurants in Little India that took part in Free Chai Day this year, and met a friendly group of people from diverse backgrounds who were more than happy to make new friends over cups of milky sweet chai. I chatted with people who gave me nifty tips about visiting tea plantations in India, and with people who were from financial, travel, and government sectors. I found many things in common with my new friends (most notably, a love for tea). The restaurant owner, Karthik, even brought in special “matka” terracotta cups from India for us to drink chai from, and he kindly gave me one to bring home.
Razy and Dhawal hope to continue Free Chai Day in the years to come and even make it a global movement. Already, there have been queries from tea drinkers in other parts of the world about holding Free Chai Day in their countries. I’m totally for this, and am thrilled that tea plays this much-needed role of unifying people in this fractured world.
Images courtesy of the contributor.