Ratanshaw Beghampore Vakil, Tianjin Thursday, Aug 23 2018 

After my return  to Philadelphia from Shanghai in 2012, I spoke to my very dear Parsi friend, Khorshed, of my interest on researching Sikhs and other Indians in Shanghai, Tianjin & Hankou.  I also apprised her of Shanghai’s Fire temple and its unfortunate demolition. To my surprise, Khorshed, mentioned that her father had been to China and had worked in Tianjin.

Khorshed’s father, Ratanshaw B Vakil,  had been employed as a manager in the Talati House Hotel in Tientsin in 1948. He did not stay in Tianjin for very long & headed to greener pastures in Singapore soon after. Today, at the National Archives, Singapore I had the opportunity to hear an audio-recording of his experiences in Tianjin.

As a manager of the Talati House Hotel which was owned by another Parsi, Mr Talati, RatanShaw Vakil, found Tianjin to be unsavory and unpleasant. Within few months of his arrival he was assaulted three to four times.  And, as a manager he had to deal with difficult guests including the shabbily dressed Chinese National Army soldiers who would occupy a corridor with young soldiers lying in front of the room allotted to their  leader.  Not knowing Mandarin, his pleas and continuous requests for them to move would fall on deaf ears. Mainly because much of the communication would occur through gesticulation,

Vakil, also noted that some of the employees would earn tips from residing guests by getting ” female entertainers” for them. Wages were low and tips were the way for some of the employees to supplement their income. Guests would walk in to their room with such women. In one instance a Chinese guest fumed and shouted in Mandarin, taking his pistol out and aiming at Vakil. Clueless, Vakil finally had help from an interpreter who told him that he had offended the Chinese guest’s wife by making an insinuation that she was an “entertainer.”

After this incident, Vakil decided to pack his bags and leave. He sailed to Shanghai and from there took a flight to Hong Kong and then Singapore taking up employment in a firm.

Vakil, mentioned that there were only 3-4 Parsis in Tianjin unlike Shanghai which had a sizable Parsi community. He stated that Talati, the owner,  stayed back in China even after Japanese internment and later died in Tianjin.


Audio-recording: Ratanshaw Beghampore Vakil, National Archives, Singapore.








Sitting ‘shiveh’ in the Shanghai Sikh gurdwara Wednesday, Aug 22 2018 

Oral Histories can take on diverse forms. A memory that is a personal note/impression of events in a place can either be a happy (or otherwise) recollection, an anecdote or a song associated with a place and at times folklores and even urban legends. Oral Histories substantiate traditional history and add drama to an otherwise bland representation (not always!) of facts, events, milestones, etc

In the context of Sikhs in Shanghai, there are few anecdotes and some Oral Histories that make for an interesting version of unreported facts. In the 1980 Susanne Goldfarb (1933-1987)  recording on Holocaust survivors by  WisconsinHistory.org,  her Oral Transcript offers a glimpse of an interracial wedding held in the Sikh gurdwara in Old Shanghai. Susanne was six years old when she moved to Shanghai with her family in 1939 from Austria.The family took refuge in Shanghai fleeing from the Nazis.

On being asked on the topic of intermarriages of Jews in Old Shanghai , Susanne spoke of a marriage between an Indian man and a Jewish girl (from a Orthodox Jewish family)  in the Sikh gurdwara (presumably the Dong Bao Xing Lu gurdwara as that was the most prominent one) where the parents (Bengshens) of the girl sat in shiveh (seven-day mourning). Sitting in shiveh was a clear expression of the family’s disappointment in her choice of a Non-jewish suitor. The newly married couple later settled in Hong Kong.

Source:Wisconsin History.










3 Shanghai mystery books (non-English) Friday, Apr 3 2015 

Three Shanghai related mystery/fiction books listed on ebay.  $T2eC16h,!zcE9s4g4v2UBR1TRd,Zhw~~60_35 $(KGrHqJ,!pIFHHNp9SnWBR1TUkwICQ~~60_12 $_12 (2)

c.1914, Shanghai Tuesday, Mar 17 2015 

Btv8V25CMAAKC3TA photograph that strengthens the Shanghai Sikh photo collection besides underlining the significant historical presence of Indians in China.

The Gateway to China by Mary Ninde Gamewell Tuesday, Feb 17 2015 

A book published in 1916 becomes a luminous guide to life in China and yes, of course the Sikh policeman in the employ of Shanghai Municipal Police. Several books published by western sojourners have flagellated “the exotic, statuesque, stalwart Sikh in British China.” So, it comes as no surprise when Mary Ninde Gamewell, of the Methodist Episcopal Mission,  stays on course with the trite refrain of the tall, dapper looking  turbaned Sikh policeman in Shanghai International Settlement. “The picturesque red turbans of the Sikhs are conspicuous everywhere.”  (Yes, such a shocker!!) But, sarcasm aside, Gamewell expounds a tad bit more than many of her counterparts , who after the first, cursory look could care less for the “harsh, preserver of peace” that the Chinese so feared.

A snippet from the book intended to be a sort of Shanghai guide to “stimulate interest in China,” provides an idea on the punishment meted out to the Chinese by the Sikhs (a total of 450 were employed in c.1916). A punishment that was prescribed by the British officer and subserviently implemented by a Sikh policeman on  the Chinese even if it were the Sikh’s own delinquent colleague:


The Chinese as stated in the book  preferred punishment at the hands of the British rather than the detested Sikh. (Well, the strategy of “Divide and Rule” was working effectively.) Training was held in a recruiting station but the Sikhs and Chinese had different yard space. Owing to caste rules, Sikhs abhorred any food prepared by the Chinese.

What is interesting, of course, is the Gamewell’s presentation of the “lax” Sikh watchman. This was a view shared by the Sikh policemen supervising officer, Captain E.I.M. Barrett who considered the night sentinel to be shabbily attired (those outside the purview of Shanghai Municipal Police) and disrespectful. In Shanghai Municipal Archives (and North China Daily News), there is a tiny report in which Barrett is simply displeased with the disrespectful Sikh watchman. On one occasion the culprit Sikh watchman did not  salute Barrett, provoking latter’s ire.

While the book has very appealing in-depth aspects with chapters on “Street Rambles” and “Lure of the Shops” and heck of a lot more, it, still, simply presents itself to be the product of its times where stifling hierarchy was utmost. The Sikhs were somewhere in the bottom, naturally, and hence few words here and there on them sufficed.  In fairness, the book could not have encapsulated every tidbit on the Sikhs in Shanghai but it does go past the expected norm.

Gamewell’s book captures some engaging images. Here are few:

books (2) books

Shanghai, c.1901. Sunday, Nov 30 2014 

Shanghai North Railway Station Thursday, Jun 5 2014 

Shanghai North Railway Station

Not sure but there could be a Sikh/Indian in this image…

Kartar Singh Sangha – Old Shanghai history Saturday, May 10 2014 

2 days ago, I got an interesting email with photo attachments. The email  was sent by Jaskaran Singh Sangha and he had a very enthralling Shanghai Sikh history with family photographs to share. His grandfather, Kartar Singh Sangha served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service and lived in Shanghai from 1919 to 1961 (way past the revolution) .  The photographs are a rich reminder of the Old Shanghai Sikhs. They too led valuable lives and such stories cement the fact that we need to preserve this aspect of Old Shanghai history, lest it be forgotten. Here’s a ca.1936 photograph from Sangha family archives that captures Old Shanghai Indian history in a two pronged fashion. One, there are the Sikhs, the former Shanghai Sikh gurdwara in the background, Jaskaran Singh Sangha’s grandfather , standing tall in the light overcoat and dark turban. Secondly, he is right behind a familiar and famous Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It’s a moment that showcases the rich heritage that has been fast fading. 





Pocket Guide to China(1943) Tuesday, Apr 29 2014 

Published in 1943 for US military personnel, this pocket guide to China presents some useful information and attempts to explode stereotypes of the times. It has a chapter titled “Forget your old notions”  and another one “The Chinese are like Americans.” It provides also the Sino-Japanese war history, how the Chinese army is organized, dos and don’t, measurements (weights, etc) and quick phrases to use.

Here are some pages from the book:





Read more here:

Shanghai Sikhs Video footage Thursday, Apr 24 2014 


“Shanghai Municipal Police and crowd on road. Student leader addresses other students demonstrating against appeasement of Japan by Chiang, and calling for war with Japan. Students carry banners. Students march on road with banners. Truck moves, followed by procession of cars. Crowds lining sidewalks. British military in large armed vehicles patrol streets. Shanghai municipal police block street. Indian troops and Shanghai municipal police march on street. Students arrive. Policemen and Indian colonial troops guard road, backed up by British military in large armed trucks.Chinese students march off the roads and sidewalks.”


Still image from the video. critical past

Next Page »

Katya Knyazeva's scrapbook

Documenting the less observed history

Shanghai Art Deco

Documenting the less observed history

Sikhs in Shanghai

Documenting the less observed history

Colonizing Animals

A blog about beasts, Burma and British imperialism


:: Tatiana Pentes :: Geoffrey Weary ::

China Rhyming

Documenting the less observed history

Taj Mahal Foxtrot

Documenting the less observed history


The Odyssey of Indenture

My Hong Kong Husband

Third culture wife: Polish girl married to a Hongkonger, fresh off the airplane in Ireland. AMWF, lifestyle, culture, food, Asian fashion and a little bit of Cantonese

In the Dark World's Fire: Life in Occupied Hong Kong

Documenting the less observed history

Documenting the less observed history

Soft Film 軟性電影

Documenting the less observed history

Untold lives blog

Documenting the less observed history

Amitav Ghosh

Documenting the less observed history


Documenting the less observed history

Macau Antigo

Documenting the less observed history

Veritas Est Libertas

Documenting the less observed history


Documenting the less observed history