Shanghai

The Bund of Old Shanghai days.
Image Source – k-state.edu

In 2010, my spouse took up a secondment in Shanghai for 2 years. As a family we transported our apprehensive selves from U.S.A. to this international city in China. Little did I know that the city’s pre-1949 history would enamor me with such obsessive fervor. There are so many hidden mysteries and untold stories, be it architecture or people. Especially obscure is the Indian element. Parsee opium traders flourished in China after the Opium Wars earning their fortunes. British Sikh soldiers, policemen and watchmen were engaged in Shanghai’s international settlement. But, compared to Westerners the historical digging into the Indian aspect has been very trivial. When my curiosity refused to fade away, I found myself attending Historic Shanghai’s book readings and  lectures organized by founders Patrick Cranley and Tina Kanagratnam. In one book re-launch, Tess Johnston, introduced me to Professor Bickers who has been peeling layer after layer to reveal wonderful ephemera and stories of Shanghai’s quasi-colonial past. Finally, I mustered courage and navigated my way through Shanghai Municipal Archives. On occasions I was dismayed  particularly when reading the discriminating  imperial texts of that period but over time have learned to view it dispassionately. After all, when reporting history an objective lens is needed. Fortunately, during the research process I found “donors”  – generous image contributions were made on my Facebook  Sikhs in Shanghai page by an archivist (Lisa Nguyen, Stanford University, Hoover Archives), vintage image collector/author (Martin Fecitt) and Professor Victor Mair of University of Pennsylvania (sharing image and academic connections) and from multiple Facebook page fans. Because of  such fantastic folks, I am  many  times richer. I am enormously thankful to all for their support and encouragement.

Roving and fighting adventures under four flags : by Major S. O'Reilly.Published 1918 by T. Werner Laurie in London .

Foreign Police In Shanghai. copyright: Meena Vathaym

Here, I was in Shanghai, a displaced expatriate grappling with adaptation and assimilation, which in today’s context is much easier. Reading reports, letters, journal articles including Dr Isabella Jackson’s The Raj on Nanjing Road enhanced my understanding of the circumstances and Shanghai Sikh policeman’s employment terms but there was still that niggling hollowness. Surely, there were family members/descendants who could furnish personal evidence? Only few members I’ve interacted with have shared  to fill in gaps, narrate absolutely unknown facts. Some have been eager, some a little wary of publicly presenting oral or visual narratives. But, it is satisfying. Each account gives hope that more will come forward. Meantime, I do know that only the surface has been skimmed and more chapters need to be written to present the Indian angle from an Indian perspective. I know I have much research material to describe less known facts and portray Indian people who made Shanghai landscape all the more safe and colorful.  Because they were important. Because their memories must be preserved.

Advertisements