Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Aroma of leather and a flavour of Indo-China fusion in Kolkata’s nostalgic lane

Being tall has its privileges. However, it has myriad disadvantages as well. Having unusually tall feet is one of them. I come from that breed of people who have suffered throughout their lives for being ‘extraordinarily’ tall. As I touched my teens, getting a good pair of shoes was such a massive hassle that it’s difficult to explain in words. Shoe shops in my city generally tend to keep shoes that have sizes ranging from 2 to a maximum of 10. Blessed as I am with my wonderful height, my feet, unfortunately, had reached the 11 plus mark by my late teens. And thus, finding shoes of my size was next to impossible in my city.

I have endured terrible embarrassments because of this. Whenever I would enter a shoe shop, the staff there would just look at my feet and give me a smirk which would denote to them saying something like this: “We keep shoes for humans sir, not ogres.” I have also tortured my poor feet by forcibly putting on shoes of size 10 on them for a fair period of time in my life; as it was the maximum size that is available in most shoe shops. It resulted in me coming back home with terrible feet pain. There have been times where I felt like rushing back home just because of the uncomfortable pain the shoes would cause and would really envy my friends who easily brought swanky shoes and showed them off pompously. I had lost all hope. I thought that I am destined to a life of feet misery.

And then I found Sen-Fo.

Located in the nostalgic neighborhood of Kolkata’s Bentinck Street, Sen-Fo is one of those rare shoe shops (if not the only one) in the city which houses shoes and sandals that range from size 11-14, apart from the usual ones. The entire lane of Bentinck Street, in fact, has many shoe shops that have been there for several decades and are a vital part of Kolkata’s nostalgia. It is only Sen-Fo, however, that caters to the need of people like me.

I remember coming here with my father in my school days to get my school shoes. That was a long time back, but even then there was something about the shop that captivated me. The friendly ‘Chinese bhaiyas’ who worked here perhaps made me feel rather at ease. Over the years, I moved on in life and forgot about the shop. But perhaps it was fate that has made me rediscover Sen-Fo and its exclusive charm.

Myself in conversation with David Chen at his shop's back office
The shop, which has been in existence for more than 75 years, is quite small as compared to the other more renowned ones, but still keeps sufficient variety on its shelves that attracts customers from around the city. However, it is the large-sized shoes that really makes Sen Fo unique; at least for people like me. The shop’s owner, David Chen, is a happy-go-lucky and amiable person who elaborates further on why they keep these large sized shoes. “It was my father (the previous owner of the shop) who actually started keeping these shoes that ranged from size 11-12. When I took over, I too realized that there are people who are struggling to find large sized shoes. Hence, I continued the tradition to help the need of the ‘deprived section’,” says David with a smile.  There was also an instance a few years back where a backpacker from Germany had visited Kolkata and was in dire need of a size 14 shoe but could not find it anywhere. Having lost all hope, he tried his luck at Sen-Fo and David got his shoe specially made. “He was elated at getting the shoe and even though I wasn’t there when he received the shoe, he had promised to spread the good word about my shop in his country,” chuckles David.  

David got into the shoe business at an early age; after his father expired in the late 80s and he then took over the shop’s reigns. Since the shop had been operated by his family through generations, David didn’t take much time to excel at the business and establish goodwill. But didn’t he have any intentions to modify the business to something else? “Not really,” he says matter-of-factly, “Shoemaking is an art. It requires proper study and thankfully there have been many people in our community who are very skilled at it and hence it has passed on from generations. I thus thought of nurturing that skill and expanding it.” He further states, “If somebody comes with me with a special request for a shoe, I just can’t say no to him. I take it as my responsibility to serve him.”

Apart from the aroma of leather, there is another flavor that you can savour at Sen-Fo; the unique feel of Indo-China fusion. The 52-year-old David Chen is an Indian with Chinese descendants. Born and brought up in Kolkata, David’s family moved in from the Canton province in China to the city about eight decades back. He still has a few relatives in China whom he visits sometimes. However, he considers himself a true-blue Kolkatan or ‘Khaati Kalkatiya’ as he likes to say. “I might have Chinese looks, but I am as Indian at heart as anybody else from here,” says David simply. Incidentally, most of his staff- the friendly ‘Chinese Bhaiyas’- too are like him, Indians with Chinese descendants.

David claims that he has more Indian friends than Chinese and he likes it that way. He is one of those rare individuals who are privileged to enjoy the flavours of two vastly different cultures. He relishes Indian food like Butter Chicken and Sambhar-Dosa with as much gusto as he enjoys the Chinese delicacies like Noodles and Fried Rice. Today he has imbibed a lot of the Indian culture in him and wishes to take some of the finer things he has learned here to his own culture. “I wish people from my community looked at death differently. We tend to take it as a bad omen which is sad. We should learn to respect death. I wish I can change that,” adds David a little philosophically.

David Chen at his shop
It is these simple yet sensible traits in David that you will find striking.  He is at complete ease with his staff and the customers alike as he looks over their needs. The shop, however, is not a mean for him to mint money. It has provided for his and his family’s needs but David hasn’t let it become the focal point of his existence. He enjoys the smaller pleasures of life and hasn’t thought what the future holds for his shop. “Perhaps my daughter may close down the shoe shop and use this space for her own needs. I am open to it,” says David before getting into a deep conversation with one of his staff.

As I placed another gleaming black leather sandal on my feet from the shop’s racks, I pondered over David’s last words. What if he really closes down the shop? I wondered. For me, an honorary member of the ‘deprived section’, Sen-Fo is like a haven and heaven at the same time. It has given me the pleasure of shopping for and wearing trendy shoes and sandals when none other could provide for it. Coming out of my thoughts, I noticed that the sandal fit perfectly. Yet another of my prized collections from Sen-Fo!

As I bid David adieu, I wondered if I would ever find another shop that would house shoes catering to my size. Perhaps yes. But it would definitely not have the unique blend of Indo-Chinese flavour in it. And neither would it have those friendly Chinese Bhaiyas.


  1. hehehe awesome bhavesh...simply awesome...i like it sooo much coz i can completely understand how it feels and can relate with your major prob...nicely written..n congratulation u found shop where u can get ur shoe size..hehehe...

  2. I would say you better buy atleast a dozen Shoes and Sandals before David's daughter decides to permanently shut this shop off. Also, you can ask David if he knows of any other shops in town which may help in getting 11-14 sizes.