Mr Yuan: The Parsee Fire Temple caretaker Tuesday, May 21 2013 


Mr Yuan, on the right

Last year, in 2012, I was trying to understand the Parsees sojourn to China.  Traders and merchants apart from the famous ones like Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai, Readmoneys and Tatas also resided in Old Shanghai. The Shanghai Parsee community obviously grew enough to have an Agiary  to preserve and sustain the Parsee faith.  Away from home and family ties, Parsees needed their own worship place to celebrate festivals, keep the traditions alive by employing a Dastur for Parsee rituals, occasions and also to induct the young members to the Zoroastrian faith with the initiation Navjote ceremony.

I read about Sam Tata who was born in Shanghai and his photo collection on Shanghai. He emigrated to Canada and really not much was known of the community. Books, periodicals refer to them in mere passing or list their offices in business gazettes. Searches on these names hardly produce any data.  Dehulling however constantly presented a Chinese professor’s name.  A professor who had extensively studied the Parsee religion, traveled to India, had been refused admittance to the Bombay/Mumbai Agiary (non-Parsees are prohibited)  but invited for seminars in India & abroad to talk about the Parsee faith and his research.

Finally, we met and he was kind enough to introduce me to Mr Yuan who was the caretaker for the Shanghai Agiary, after all the Parsees had left or evacuated, after Japanese invasion in 1937 and thereafter. Mr Yuan worked for a businessman,one, S.M. Talati (no obvious connection to the Tianjin Talati family) and was entrusted to look after the Agiary. It was a very interesting meeting but one thing bothered me. Parsees are extremely particular about one little detail: No non-Parsees can ever step inside an Agiary, even in desperate times. So, it seemed odd that S.M. Talati had entrusted the task of the Shanghai Agiary upkeep to a non-Parsee. After discussing S.M. Talati’s family, I felt that the question had to be asked. The answer surprised me. It was a non-Parsee for sure but it was a Sikh gentleman:  Mr P.Singh, an official in the then Shanghai Indian consulate office, who was paying Mr Yuan, in case the Parsees returned to Shanghai. Unfortunately, they never did and S. M. Talati died a bankrupt man.

As for the Agiary, there’s a  mid-sized sky-scraper, some kind of a school, with gleaming windows in its place.

Saishin Shanhai chizu, 1908 by Tanioka Shigeru. Wednesday, May 15 2013 

Saishin Shanhai chizu, 1908 by Tanioka Shigeru.

Click the map to view it at

1908 Shanghai Map

Komagata Maru journey and the Shanghai Sikhs Saturday, Apr 6 2013 

Komagata Maru - The Sikh gentleman is Baba Gurdit Singh.

Komagata Maru – The Sikh gentleman is Baba Gurdit Singh.

During early years of the twentieth century, Indian economic migrants who were largely Sikhs made their way to Canada and Pacific west coast of USA. This was before the Asiatic Exclusion Act came to be enforced with the intention to control the East Indian immigration.  Ghadr had been established by Har Dayal and followers in San Francisco, urging mutiny and to overthrow the British rule in India. The Indians in Canada too, because of discrimination faced especially in British Columbia supported the call of mutiny. In Canada, the 1908 Continuous journey act stipulated that East Asian immigrants seeking entry should have proof of ‘continuous journey’  from their place of citizenship or birth. In 1913 a small group of Indians  apparently won on a legal technicality and gained entry.

Komagata Maru , a Japanese steamer was chartered by a  Sikh businessman, Baba Gurdit Singh, in 1914 to challenge the act.  376 passengers were on board and on reaching Vancouver , from Hong Kong via Shanghai and Yokohama were denied entry and even food and water and the steamer was disallowed to disembark as the journey was not undertaken from India. The exclusionary clause of  ‘Continuous journey’ was invoked.   After 2 months impasse  wherein only 20 odd passengers gained admittance,  the steamer was escorted out by the Canadian military and was forced to sail back to India. On arriving, 19 passengers were shot dead by the British. The incident brought into sharp focus for Indians the question of political identity.

111 passengers from Shanghai  are supposed to have boarded the Komagata Maru. In April 1914, a newspaper reported that 600 passengers on board Komagata Maru reached Shanghai and that the affluent charterer was visiting all China ports, collecting passengers keen to head to North America and possessing a minimum of 20 pounds in addition to passage money.  Were ALL the Sikhs heeding Baba Gurdit’s call to challenge Canada’s immigration act? Who were the Shanghai Sikhs? Were any of them policemen or the security watchmen? Was there German involvement?

At least one Shanghai Sikh, Mastan Singh, an S.M.P. boarded without any political activism intentions. On arrival to India, he escaped and remained in hiding, till his death. This is based on a written account sent to me by Mastan Singh’s descendant accompanied by few documents(photos were taken from a mobile phone but  seems a very genuine account). The descendant’s family inherited his savings and prospered thereafter.

Many such untold stories remain scattered.

British China photographs of Indians – pet peeve Wednesday, Mar 27 2013 


Funny thing, Sikhs don’t smoke. Minor detail.

Yes, this post is a pet peeve. And,also a major whine. Take any China photograph prior to 1949 with an Indian person in it. Be it a British Indian soldier from the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) time frame. Or a Sikh policeman (1885-1940s) looking statuesque with the striped turban and braided beards, captured by a Western lens intent on recording China memories. Photo studios and amateur photographers would scribble in the date and give a general description of the subject just clicked. At no point, did any photojournalist or studio make an attempt to note the names. It may have been cumbersome or totally unnecessary.

Much after 100 years have passed, Boxer Rebellion pictures continue to fascinate historians and writers alike. Similarly with Shanghai Sikhs. Denniston and Sullivan’s (an American owned Shanghai photo studio) pictures are available in university libraries and websites. Usually, there is a  small descriptive phrase at the right-hand corner indicating the year and the place – example a Sikh gurdwara that was officially inaugurated in 1908 and was quite a crowded event. Then, there is a photograph of 8 mounted troopers with their lances. Such photographs were published for official purposes or in books on Shanghai and circulated worldwide. Newspapers, too, utilized such pictures.

Not Sikh policemen.

Not Sikh policemen.

The pet peeve is not because pictures are not available – they are abundantly available but it is about the miscategorization that can typically occur, even today. It is no doubt a difficult task and therefore one can appreciate the hard work a museum or university archivist has to face.  There are many examples of Boxer rebellion pictures where the subject is a Rajput but since the photographer assumed Rajputs and Sikhs looked alike – after all they ALL wore turbans – so one and the same – hence all are Sikhs,one way or the other. Well, that’s what should bother historians writing on Asia specifically India. That essentially is my pet peeve – that history when recorded through an (un)observer’s eyes tends to be quite skewed.

History is very much dependent on the written word and heavily relies on official documentation of its times. The British China documentation including Shanghai Municipal Records and publications such as North China Herald with their myopic colonial gaze and prejudicial reporting are cited by historians and writers alike. After all not many other ‘official’ sources are available. This is where the story of Indians in China goes awry.

During my research I would come across anglicized and misspelled names and even half-baked facts that have not been viewed with a bigger, better and more encompassing magnifying lens. It would easy to dismiss the various accounts as biased and incomplete but I think Asians, too, were not very adept in maintaining their version of history – lack of sources, genealogy disinterest, etc contribute to this historical illiteracy.  And the problem is we are letting it continue.

I see no collaborative efforts or vision to check the history misinformation flow. That definitely is my grouse – pet peeve if you will on research methodology which should not be so antiquated in this modern, digitized world. Will I be able to do justice to the Sikhs in Shanghai piece -well not absolutely, if I have to rely on fuzzy picture information and sources that are misquoting by leaning on erroneous data. Essentially, any history will represent a view or dimensional perspective and cannot be considered a well-rounded interpretation as much as one wishes it to be. But, at least it can be rectified and variety of authentic and genuine information can be processed to provide a larger, bigger picture,as opposed to the small subsets currently floating in their respective scholarly corners.

Sikh sojourn in Shanghai Wednesday, Mar 20 2013 

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Indians arrived in China with Opium wars and noticeably so during the 1898-1901 Boxer Rebellion period. Pictures and old prints from these wars showcase the Rajput, Sikh , Gurkha and Baluchi soldier from the British Indian infantry and naval forces. As British Indian subjects they fought wars for the British and were responsible for doing most of the grunge work.

Missionaries and foreigners in the Peking Legation quarter besieged by the Boxers waited for relief to arrive and when it did, the first sight they saw were the Rajputs and Sikhs riding on horses, in their magnificent turbans.  Indian guards would be later employed by Chinese Christians as well fearful of attack upon them. In Singapore, in Burkit Brown ,the cemetery of  a Chinese businessman has statues of Sikh guards, a telling sign of the reassurance and protection that became synonymous with Sikh soldiers.

In 1880’s however, Shanghai’s International Settlement administered by Shanghai Municipal Council would hire Sikh policemen to allay the fears of Bubbling well road residents in the wake of Sino-French war. As part of Sikh contingent in the Shanghai Municipal Police, their history has remained obscure. Much of the documentation and photographs of the policemen comes from the western perspective, hence is quite angled.

The Sikh policemen community in quasi-colony Shanghai’s international settlement was distinct on account of their appearance and harsh treatment of the Chinese especially the ricksha coolies who came for monthly inspections. The British rulers’ manipulative placement of the Sikhs between themselves and the Chinese cleverly transferred much of the Chinese aggression and ire towards the Sikhs. Even in present times, the Sikhs derogatorily referred as Hong-Tou-A-san (which loosely can be translated as the 3rd being) are remembered as the odious representatives of the British rule. With Opium wars treaty ports like Shanghai were opened up for trade and commerce and foreign companies and merchants flocked to conduct their businesses. Sikh policemen were soon employed in Tientsin (Tianjin), Hankow(Hankou) and other treaty ports. Their presence was met with interest but the dynamics of Chinese- Sikh relationship would alter .Despite the fact that Sikhs were proportionally paid less than their western  counterparts, they still were better paid than the Chinese policemen. This further underlined their lowly status and naturally became one of the factors for Chinese resentment of the Sikhs.

The Pacific world war saw division of loyalties. Growing support for Subhas Chandra Bose and Indian National Army found Indian converts in Shanghai too who believed Bose to be the answer to British tyranny. Bose visited Shanghai around this time and a small unit of Indian Independence League was raised to support his cause. At the time of Japanese occupation (1937) there were many collaborators and renegades as Professor Wasserstein has mentioned in his book ‘Secret War in Shanghai’ and clearly many Indians believed Bose would attain the elusive Indian freedom.

After the Japanese were defeated and the winds of Communism were strengthening Sikh policemen and families heeded the Indian government’s call for evacuation and boarded chartered steamers for foreigners to Hong Kong, India and other countries.

This is a simple synopsis of the Indian and Sikhs’ sojourn to China and Shanghai specifically. In reality there were so many twists and turns that it would be a shame to keep their history obscure and not be genuinely understood.

Exotic yet unobserved. Monday, Mar 4 2013 

A British Indian soldier, policeman or laborer photographed numerous times, stands out – the attire, the turbans, the stalwart frame – exotic subject captured by a western lens evokes endless admiration for his finery. Yet, sadly after the first glance, the sepia photograph is forgotten. British troops, policemen and indentured laborers stationed in the Orient or Africa and other far flung places serving the empire, would have grappled with several issues – language, adaptation, survival, climate and more. But, at the time, no one cared to delve deeper –  one click and that was enough. You see such men in rare albums capturing the glory of the empire, always in the background -images of 1900 China Boxer Rebellion come to mind, saluting the ‘Sahib’, rescuing the besieged foreigners. Who were these men? Did they have families? What were their living and employment conditions like? What happened to them?

Even to this date, it  is dismaying to note  that British Indian empire sojourners have found little fame in history. Colonial era history amnesia (because of its discriminating implications and unappealing revelations) as an excuse trivialize the sacrifices only underline the absent voices that complete the period history. Genealogy may not be the top most priority for South Asians but for research to occur collecting scattered vital records is essential.

It can be done  – academic folks may argue that there is plenty of collated data in this regard but the audience for such kind of work is limited and definitely not accessible to the interested ‘general’ public. Conserving heritage must be all inclusive – a special attempt must be made, bypassing academic ‘speak’ to reach to an audience that is perceptive, interested in voicing the forgotten narratives and can and would like to participate. The stories remain as heirlooms with the sojourners’ families.  Oral and written histories will help preserve memory, beyond just the sepia stained images. A public project and a collaborative initiative can help reclaim lost stories.

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