Unglamorous Histories : Sikhs in the Far East Colonies Saturday, Sep 21 2013 

One factor for less coverage and documentation of histories of the British Sikh policemen in colonies and quasi-colonies like Shanghai is that the their histories are considered less glamorous and also complicated. This particular segment was the laboring class with no decisive powers and really were the outliers. The only prominence they gained in recorded histories is for their  role as the British soldiers in British wars, be it Boxer Rebellion, WWI or even WWII.

Yet, they are in far more advantageous position than the Sikh women in Shanghai who largely played the role of subservient homemakers. The Sikh women have been relegated to the inconspicuous terrain of perished narrative as zero records report their China journey. The Sikh policemen (as well as watchmen) found a voice albeit again through the very colonial lens in newspaper reports for their litigious disposition or “traitorous” anti-British stance.

Examining the framework of Shanghai Sikh requires analyzing their economic, political, social and religious habitat. It has to go beyond the mere British representation of stereotypical “loyal and brave” subject. Isabella Jackson, in her scholarly journal article (“The Raj on Nanjing Road”) on the Sikh policemen in China (and prominently so in Shanghai, as that was where the largest Sikh population was concentrated)  provides us with vital information on some of the main players in Shanghai Sikh history. Jemadar Buddha Singh, granted the title for Sirdar Sahib for his loyalty and his subsequent murder by his compatriot underline the uncomfortable relations that existed within the community itself that was split into pro-British or anti-British as well as Malwa and Majha caste conflicts.

North China, 1908 snippet from the report of Sikh gurdwara's opening ceremony in Shanghai

North China Herald, 1908 newspaper snippet from the report of Sikh gurdwara’s opening ceremony in Shanghai

After analysing archival and non-archival data and image sources, I would conclude that there is much more that has been left unsaid. Apart from the very obvious ambivalent Chinese-Sikh association signified time after time with disputes and distrust, the Sikhs in Shanghai eked out a living in a country vastly different from theirs. It is this aspect that interests me. It is not very pretty but it is not monotonous either. The Shanghai Sikhs had more spark and the verve to stand up and be counted in history. This is what makes their China sojourn so exciting.

‘Shanghai’ by William Leonard Marshall Friday, Aug 30 2013 

Memoirs and narratives about Shanghai (prior to 1949), have provided varied perspectives of the international city. The focus has largely remained the western inhabitants, the refugees, stately buildings and the seedier side usually dominated  by the native Chinese or Europeans. The intrigue, the danger and the various Chinese & western brothels have proved to be nourishing fodder for writers, historians and film-makers, documenting a city with multiple facades. The Sikh policeman , too, has featured in such works, to give the authentic aura and flavor of a very multicultural place.  Be it fiction or non-fiction, the Shanghai Sikh policeman makes a guest appearance. Either as a stolid yet  imposing cop or a bumbling one. His giant frame, bushy beard and fiery nature have certainly merited a cursory sentence or two.  In Shanghai’s British history, the Sikh will remain synonymous with imperialism and its unfairness and is, thus generally, poorly caricatured.

william marshall bookNot many books delve deeper into the life of Sikhs in Shanghai. So, when I came across William Leonard Marshall’s crime fiction book, ‘Shanghai’, I wasn’t expecting to be pleasantly surprised. Published in 1979, this book is well-researched and encapsulates the maneuvers and machinations of Shanghai  Municipal Police (S.M.P.) and of course the western Shanghai.

The book begins in 1923 when the protagonist Jack Edge, an Anglo-American and Chinese by self-definition,  a sergeant in S.M.P.  is put to test. Tested because of his marriage to a Chinese woman which has cast doubts on his loyalties. His superior, Inspector Moffat, a supercilious Scot, asks him to shoot 2 young Chinese men who have crossed the International Settlement boundaries. Edge,  wavers and fails. Promotions are withheld and his Chinese wife leaves him. The setting shifts to Sino-Japanese conflict (just weeks before Pearl Harbor) and much of the action is around the death of 2 Japanese men and the cat and mouse game played by the Westerners & Japanese military officers investigating the incident. Moffat, now a Deputy Assistant commissioner recruits Edge for the job, clearly as the task is better entrusted to a lowly sergeant. Unfortunately, Edge is still in Moffat’s poor graces , hence, has not progressed at work and is being used as a stooge.

Vivid setting, rich with very believable characters and taut pace make this book a page-turner. Constable Singh, Edge’s colleague and crony actually gets a speaking part. Marshall, also very cleverly utilized a real life incident involving the failed hanging of a Shanghai Sikh to weave it in the very crisp narrative.  Clearly, the news clippings on the incident came in handy. But, Marshall, also provides a little more insight (read the book to find out) and maybe relied on unofficial sources as well to get more meat on the story.

The backdrop of the Sino-Japanese conflict is essential in defining and delineating the main characters as ‘Old China Hands’ or China lovers and others. The latter are more clear in their intent in leaving the sinking ship because of the inevitability of Japanese domination.  Constable Singh, falls into the latter category and we are given to believe that he fakes his own drowning to escape to India , to be with his family.

Marshall, has done justice to Singh, depicting him as a smart foil to Edge’s loyal Old China hand character.  Betrayal, triumph, love , hate, all the masala ingredients make ‘Shanghai’ a must read. Apparently this was Marshall’s most ambitious work (the author’s brief bio states it so). Marshall, born an Aussie worked as a journalist, photographer  and took on some very interesting jobs (morgue attendant, for one)  and lived for several years in the Far East.

The cons : in order to make the characters plausible, sometimes they come off as stiff and contrived.  Moffat’s departing speech is one such example, making him a look a little too inept for an S.M.P.  Secondly, despite intensive research, Marshall slips a little by calling the Former French Concession as the French part of the International Settlement. But, I’ve put that aside (superciliously!) merely because he made the effort to detail a Shanghai Sikh constable and got most of it right.

One gets the uncanny feeling that Marshall has based some of the main characters in the book on real Shanghai folks. One Valdmir Mischensko, a Russian,  became a naturalized Australian in 1924 and served the Australian military forces. By 1930 Vladmir, who’d changed his name to William Marshall, moved to China and was employed in Shanghai Municipal Police. He met and married Vera, a Russian in Shanghai. After the Sino-Japanese war, they repatriated to Australia. Vladmir claimed that he’d applied to rejoin the Australian army but the British felt his services were essential in Shanghai. By 1950s, Vladmir and Vera were living in Sydney and their son was attending a high school there.  Could be mere coincidence…or maybe not. Maybe, Vladmir was a source for the book, ‘Shanghai?’ Author William Marshall was born in 1944 in Australia. Could there be any connection?  The above information on Vladmir is documented in a book titled ‘ Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War II’  by Christina Twomey.

Marshall’s book on Hong Kong (A Yellowthread Street Mystery) is next on my to-read list.

Desmond Power and the Tianjin gurdwara Tuesday, Aug 20 2013 

Recently, I posted on the Tientsin gurdwara, established for the Sikh policemen in the former British concession. The gurdwara that really no one knows about or has escaped notice like so many histories in Old China. Based on archival notes, I was aware that there was a Sikh temple in Tientsin. Maps, J J Singh of Kapurthala’s book provide sufficient evidence of a gurdwara’s existence in Tientsin, today’s Tianjin.

By sheer stroke of luck, my post on Parsees in Old China helped me connect with Angela Elliot. She knew the DhunjiShah family from Tientsin. She also knew Desmond Power. Long story short, Desmond Power actually knew of the Tientsin Sikh temple and had mentioned it in passing in his book, Little Foreign Devil. He didn’t know much about the temple, except that it had a Sikh guard at the entrance. In one of the photographs (from his own collection)  there is the fuzzy yet undeniable evidence of the Sikh emblem flag post.  In a generous gesture, for which I am deeply grateful, Desmond Power furnished a sketch of the Sikh Temple’s whereabouts (See map below).

Tracing the gurdwara is a herculean task in itself, especially given the fact that old buildings in China have been demolished in the name of modernization,   but I am optimistic more information is available somewhere. Similarly for the Hankow Sikh temple. As long as we have an inkling we can rebuild the Sikh and Indian history in Old China.

Map drawn by Desmond Power

Map drawn by Desmond Power

Talati House Hotel, Tientsin Sunday, Jul 28 2013 

Source: Internet

Source: Internet

Apart from Old Shanghai, British Indians made their way into other Chinese cities and treaty ports as well. Sindhi businessmen, Ismaili merchants and the Parsi community made significant gain in Old Shanghai and places like TsingTao/Qingdao and Tientstin/Tianjin.

Talati House Hotel, Tientsin was jointly run by  S B Talati and  his nephew Jamshed Talati and DhunjiShah*. S B Talati, a penniless Bombay businessman,  made his fortune in China, in Siberian fur trading and then went on to become the proprietor of the Talati House Hotel (now known as Tianjin First Hotel) in 1924/1929, on 246 Victoria Road.

After Japanese occupation, foreigners in Tientsin were interned in Weihsien civilian camp. The Talati and DhunjiShah family members were inmates of this camp till its liberation in October, 1945. The DhunjiShah family flew out of China. Talati, it seems stayed back, though his daughter Katy Talati escaped to London*.  Talati, in the internment camp had been sick and was given the choice for freedom (by the Japanese)  if he renounced his British citizenship, which he refused to do. After the communist takeover, Talati was asked by the Chinese government to pay his 100+ hotel staff in lieu of taxes. But, Talati very well could not pay as the hotel had no guests.  This ‘tax’ wrangle caused exhaustion and eventually his death.

Anecdotes and fragmented memories are all that’s left of the Talati and DhunjiShah’s China sojourn.  Books , oral and written histories provide a narrow glimpse of the Tientsin Indians. Too many Indian histories in China have been overlooked and remain unobserved.

*Further fact checking is required to outline the Talati and DhunjiShah family tree in China and properly identify the members.

Tianjin gurdwara Monday, Jul 22 2013 


Source: University of Texas.

The above c.1912 Tientsin map identifies the location of a Sikh temple. J J Singh of Kapurthala royal family, mentioned in his writings, of Sikh policemen stationed in Tientsin, approaching him for funds for a gurdwara. Then there is a picture of 2 Sikh soldiers/policemen, where one of them is holding a chaur used ritually for the holy book Guru Granth Sahib.  

Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any photographs of the Tientsin/Tianjin gurdwara. Yet. Again, the topic requires research and fact-finding to ascertain and explore the life of Tientsin Indian Sikhs.

WWII Pacific War propaganda part 2 Wednesday, Jun 26 2013 

In my earlier post, the pro-Japanese propaganda posters targeting Indians and Sikh soldiers stressed on India’s lack of freedom and British manipulation.Some of the posters point the apathy of the colonial masters, highlighting the plight of Indians pushed in the line of fire even as their “White”  officers enjoy a cushy life.

The allied forces counter-attacked with their own posters and pamphlets addressing the axis forces’ subterfuge, deception and depicting Japan as maniacal in its power and blood-thirsty quest. The American radio broadcasts of the time are downright racist and extended to print propaganda as well.


Source: Internet

Some posters designed for British India depicted Subhas Chandra Bose  as the villain who was accused of selling his motherland to the Japanese and thus termed a quisling.


Source: stampomania blog

Of course the impact and success of the propaganda posters issued by Japanese or anti-Japanese forces would make for an interesting study. Air-dropped or distributed the posters aimed at Indians, purposefully sought the loyalty of the Indian/Sikh soldiers. Eventually through ruse, brute force the Japanese manipulated the Indian India League and the evidence of that can be seen especially at Rabaul camp where the Indians were tortured, cannibalized to dig underground tunnels for the Japanese.

Indian history portrays Bose as a patriot, war hero but the world history paints him as a power hungry politician eager to side with the Germans & Japanese to achieve his  quest to rule India. Certainly, the anti-Japanese propaganda posters pin him as the guilty party and had he survived he would have been trialed for war crimes along with the Japanese military generals.

World War II Pacific War Propaganda.. Thursday, Jun 20 2013 

The propaganda posters/literature created for World War I & II provide substantial historical fodder for analyzing the significant role of Indian soldiers in the British empire. Enticing, motivating, exhorting Indian soldiers to actively participate was a strategy deployed by Japanese army in WWII Pacific war and well countered by British and American war office  propagandists.  Assisting the Japanese, at the time, were the members of the Indian Independence League (later Azad Hind) headed by Subhas Chandra Bose.


Source:Kings Collection.org

The Japanese emphasized the use of Indians as mere tools in British scheme of things. The 1919 Jallianwallah Bagh massacre incident featured in their campaign to highlight Indians  as exploited by the their British masters.  American, British and other allied forces depicted Japanese as animals, i.e. Octopus, Rat caught or trapped by allied forces.

The pro-Japanese campaign posters detailed the discrimination, racism and freedom fight against the Empire, stressing on ‘Asia for Asians’ theme. The Far East was no exception where Indian policemen and soldiers were placed by the British to man their colonies.The 1941 invasion of Malaya by the Japanese provided a plumb opportunity – captured Sikh soldiers, police POWs were “asked” to fight by joining the Indian Independence League. There was little option. It was either become a collaborationist or be a tortured enemy prisoner and face execution. Shanghai, too, had a small unit of Indian Independence League (not POWs) inspired by Bose and aspiring for Indian freedom. Bose visited Shanghai & broadcast his 1940s radio speech through German controlled air waves in the area.

chiang kai shek

The propaganda posters/leaflets/magazines were air-dropped or distributed. But, the Japanese propaganda does appeal to the national socio-economic Indian politics of the time: it definitely was well researched and was perhaps successful for this reason? . Though the text in few of the posters indicate that it was devised/written by someone not that well-conversant with Indian colloquialism.

So, what about the Allied forces’ propaganda? More in the next post..

Sikh women in Old Shanghai Tuesday, Jun 11 2013 

In narrating Old Shanghai history, the lost Sikh stories (especially of the men who served in the municipal police)  can be at least reclaimed to some extent. But, what of the women: the wives and daughters of Shanghai Sikhs?

The Sikh police force in Shanghai Municipal Police(S.M.P.) were predominantly bachelors. But,  a small percentage of married Sikhs also found employment in S.M.P. and were allotted separate barracks. Their wives came with them or joined them at a latter date. The adjustment to the Chinese society must have been rough, bleak and isolating. From archival material one can build a superficial picture of their lives.Because of poor, unhygienic living conditions many Sikh women contracted Tuberculosis or other respiratory diseases. That’s when they attracted attention, especially in the medical reports filed for Shanghai Municipal Council.

The Sikh gurdwara was a place of worship and also provided the much needed social interaction for the Sikh women. They would cook, clean and decorate the gurdwara on special festival days. The Indian provisions and of course the Sikh staple, the clarified butter or ghee was shipped from India which was rationed to the Shanghai Sikh families by the granthi or the Sikh priest. The Sikh women would have used the ghee for their own household cooking as well as in the gurdwara for special days of  langar.

Their traveling to and fro from India, the social, language and other barriers they must have encountered hasn’t been studied at all. Their colorful traditional attire, i.e. salwar kameez and head-scarf like dupatta  in a diverse Old Shanghai would have piqued cursory curiosity, at least. Friedrich Schiff, the Austrian cartoonist certainly noticed and depicted Indian women in his collaborative book on Shanghai, with Ellen Thorbecke.

As police wives, they may have attended sports day or annual awards day. But without photographic  and full-fledged evidence we can only conjure the fact. Establishing their Shanghai presence along with religious and social interaction within their own ethnic circle is simple. But delving further to elicit richer textures of their Shanghai life, including information on their offspring, has proven to be stumbling block.

Hence, in the case of Shanghai Sikh women, especially the wives of the S.M.P Sikh policemen, their irretrievable narrative is a disappointing and jarring actuality. In contrast, the affluent Indian women visiting/living briefly in Shanghai commanded more attention including one charlatan princess for her smutty lifestyle. Eminent social activists, writers and few others who sojourned to China  and were effectively able to channelize political and social networks for their objectives found a stronger voice and are reported in India-China history.

Can you spot the Indian couple in this Schiff cartoon? The Indian woman’s attire is typical of what the Sikh women would have worn as well in Old Shanghai.


Source:; fulltable.com

Hello ‘Dolly’! Wednesday, May 29 2013 

trains-worldexpresses comSince last week,I have been examining the old sea routes from India to China that must been have been undertaken by sailing vessels and steamers since 1880s onward.The Shanghai Sikh policemen would have to take the train journey from their native village or city in Punjab to Calcutta or Bombay ,as these were the two important ports where shipping companies offered Indo-China voyages.

Interestingly,  P&O,British Shipping company was one such establishment whose passenger & cargo steamers sometimes sailed from Bombay/Calcutta to Hong Kong and then to Shanghai via Singapore,servicing the Indo-China route.The maritime company’s employee,one D’Oliver Leonard and captain of S.S. Kutsang often navigated the Indo-China waters and in his spare time wrote books under the pseudonym ‘Dolly.’

‘China Coasters’  on archive.org, though has been credited to one Mrs. Vernon F. Creighton. But, a search on the topic quickly unveils ‘Dolly’ as D’Oliver Leonard.  China Coasters,published by Kelly & Walsh, 1903, was not his first book.’Tales of Hong Kong’,a scarce edition also bore his penmanship.

China Coasters, we learn is a term used for many things:the steamers that ran up and down the China coast, the sailors on these steamers:the officers, engineers and the Captain and the fanciful and humorous yarns told by them, which forms the basis for this book.

It would be truly ground breaking if any of these ‘China’ based commentaries actually deigned to depict other communities like the Parsees or Sikhs. Not holding my breath on it though.

Other books authored by ‘Dolly’ include:

Tales of Hong Kong in Verse and Story, 1891. In 1902, published as Hong Kong in Verse and Story. Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, 1902.  

Paul the Pretender: A Romance of Hong Kong. Shanghai: Shanghai Times, 1912. A novel. 

The Vampire Nemesis and Other Weird Stories of the China Coast was published but in Bristol by J. W. Arrowsmith in 1905.  

P R Kaikini – poems on Shanghai (1939) Friday, May 24 2013 

Recently, I came across a mention of 1930s poetry book , titled ‘Shanghai.’ The author was one Prabhakar Ramrao Kaikini. Unsurprisingly, this book is scarce. It was listed on Abebooks and I placed an order , only to have it canceled later by the seller, as it was out of print.

P.R.Kaikini ‘s known (poetry) works include  Snake in the Moon (1942), Poems of the Passionate East (1947), Some of my years (1972), This Civilization, (2006)  and others. Described as an Indo-Anglian  prose poet , Kaikini  it seems in his earlier works was  very much influenced by Rabindranath Tagore’s writing style.  Here’s a sample of his poetry.

But, after 1937, his poems were increasingly about blood and war and even the style changed to free verse. This transition was impacted strongly by nationalism, events in the East. Goverdhan Panchal (well-known exponent of Sanskrit theater) in his introduction of Shanghai (as mentioned in Abebooks website) provides a clue.  Panchal states ” These poems will help the reader, especially the foreign reader, to understand something of the contemporary movement in this country in relation to the Indian national movement for political and economic freedom.”

How did the battle of Shanghai, the Japanese invasion impact Kaikini? Was he a witness to the bloody events? Or was he a supporter of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who had visited Shanghai around this time?  The political awakening and national identity question had swept a nation  and the unfolding war that reached India as well was perhaps expressed by this poet, looking for his country’s freedom from all kinds of imperialism. Or was the book title more of a creative metaphor?

I am hoping I come across a physical copy in a US library. Till then we are left with the thought that, at least, there is this added, still unexplored, reflective element in the Shanghai Indian saga.

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