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.

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

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.

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.

The curious case of Captain E.I.M.Barrett Sunday, May 19 2013 

E.I.M. Barrett

E.I.M. Barrett seated 3rd from left

In my earlier post on Captain E.I.M.Barrett, I had mentioned a 1934 book (published by Lovat Dickson)  that was written by him under an alias, Charlie Trevor.  The book titled ‘Drums of Asia’,  it appeared had been a source for much angst for India Office in Britain, which was in “correspondence with publishers on suggested changes prior to publication” (IOR/L/PJ/12/469, File 657/33).

The book was not easily available. Finally, I requested Professor Bickers, University of Bristol for his help. In his blog post, Professor Bickers sheds light on the book’s story line and the much intriguing and bemusing India Office shenanigans that eventually highlight that E.I.M.Barrett, in fact is not the author at all! It was perhaps a quasi-doppelgänger, one Captain J.G.Barrett from Straits Settlement police who had arrived in Singapore in 1906 with the Royal West Kent regiment as a sergeant and finally retired from service in 1935. (Update: The Imperial War Museum lists Oswald Barrett as the author of ‘Drums of Asia.’  http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/publication/61343)

It does make sense because E.I.M.Barrett though bestowed the Companions of the Order of the Indian Empire(C.I.E.) honor for his role prior to and in the First World War had largely spent much of his service in Federated Malay Straits and Shanghai. His sports accomplishments merited plenty of attention , thanks to his cricket , rugby and shooting records, world over. A prolific Hampshire county cricket player, Barrett based on archival records does not come across as spy material. Though, in handling the Shanghai Sikh contingent from 1907, sometimes a very inept and insecure Barrett shapes up.

Barrett was forced to resign from his position as Commissioner of Shanghai Municipal Police in 1929, when an investigation on police methods was conducted by the Shanghai Municipal Council. Yet, there are many mysterious parts to Barrett. His second marriage to one ‘Kitty’ from Shanghai, his being sued for a contract breach by a colleague and ultimately after resigning his quiet disappearance to Britain.

More research is needed on this elusive figure.

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 emory.edu

1908 Shanghai Map

Photo studios and fire arms Monday, May 13 2013 

Photography in twentieth century Old Shanghai and especially in the International Settlement makes for an interesting study.  The western run photo studios published photo postcards (as was the trend those days) with many a times the subject being the finely attired Sikh policemen, soldiers or cavalry.  Messrs Denniston & Sullivan located on Nanking Road(today’s East Nanjing Road) was one such studio and in its repository included the images of Shanghai Sikhs and the opening ceremony of the Sikh gurdwara in 1908.

The Sikh Gurdwara : Denniston & Sullivan pic

The Sikh Gurdwara : Denniston & Sullivan pic

The studio opened in 1900 was operated by Denniston & Sullivan but soon changed hands. In 1906, the new American owners, L.L. Hopkins & J.J Gilmore retaining the studio’s original name stocked photography equipment, processing supplies, typewriters, magazines, etc and also firearms.  See this print ad, for instance, where fire arms sold by Denniston & Sullivan was advertised.  

denniston and sullivan

Shanghai was dangerous, harboring local and international criminals. As no visa was required to enter Shanghai, it also became a haven for those fleeing the law. The arms dealing, though, was a nefarious affair.


Another photo studio owned and operated by Ned Widler dealt in arms, probably on a larger scale. Widler purportedly met his death through poison because of his involvement in arms and was also accused of espionage (more on the Widler family in a future post).  His family member, Elly Widler was an arms dealer and wrote a book on his prison experience, titled’ Six months prisoner of the North Schezwan military.’


Picture of Elly Widler demonstrating his wares: the bullet-proof vest. Source: spysgrandson photostream on Flickr

elly widler spysgrandson flickr

Since there were several studios in Shanghai, selling of firearms would have required a license or permit I assume. A more in-depth examination of the various photo studios in the International Settlement would be required.

Cricket Club in Shanghai Thursday, May 9 2013 

Cricket Club in Shanghai

Interport cricket matches were held at this venue.

More on H W G Hayter’s caricatures Tuesday, May 7 2013 

Sikh caricature from 'Letters from a Shanghai Griffin'

Sikh caricature from ‘Letters from a Shanghai Griffin’

In my last post on H W G Hayter, I referred to his 1902 book,’Caricatures’ among other things.

Henry William Goodenough Hayter (1862-1915) edited or illustrated for other well-known Shanghai or China related books, besides contributing to dailies or weeklies such as, ‘The Rattle’ or ‘The Eastern Sketch.’ In ‘Letters from a Shanghai Griffin’ he includes again the caricature of a Sikh policeman. The author of the book, Jay Denby, provides a tiny description of the Indian contingent in the Shanghai Municipal Police:

“The police force is composed principally of Indians, who also supply a great deal of the crime. They are of two castes, viz.,Malwais and Manjhas.”

Denby meant Malwas & Manjhas/Majhas  and this was essentially how the Sikhs were categorized in Old Shanghai and other colonies. The legal disputes involving Shanghai Sikhs took enormous amount of the H.B.M. court’s time and with language complexities included many a times, the Sikh policemen.

Not much information is available on H.W.G. Hayter except to state his role as a caricaturist in Shanghai.

What follows below is my puny attempt to create a bibliography of sorts (along with online links/physical formats) for H.W.G. Hayter’s books on China/Shanghai. Please feel free to email me at sikhsinshanghai@gmail.com for any additions/modifications.

H.W.G Hayter’s select China bibliography

Lays of far Cathay and others. A collection of original poems. By “Tung Chia.” [pseud. for J.O.P. Bland] Illus. by H. H. ( 1890 by Kelly & Walsh iShanghai) 
View at http://openlibrary.org/works/OL5790248W/Lays_of_far_Cathay_and_others

The amateur circus of 1901 by J Em Lemière;H.W.G.Hayter(Toole-Stott, Shanghai, 1901) (No online views available)

Available at http://www.worldcat.org/title/amateur-circus-of-1901/oclc/65911432&referer=brief_results

Caricatures bH. W. G. Hayter (Kelly & Walsh, Shanghai, the Oriental Press, 1902)

View at  http://openlibrary.org/works/OL16526853W/Caricatures

 Pidgin English rhymes : being the strange adventures of Wei Man-Man and Ossaw Tee / by H.W.G. Hayter ;  (Shanghai : China Print. Co., 1909) 

View (U.S. only) at http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011985006

Folk songs of China / by A.K. ; illustrated by H.W.G. Hayter (Shanghai : China Printing Company, Ltd., Publishers, 1909 )

Available in National Library of Australia. http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/4697287

Letters of a Shanghai Griffin … Illustrated by H. W. G. Hayter  Jay Denby (Author) aka Letters from China and some Eastern sketches (1911)

View at http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24150540M/Letters_from_China_and_some_Eastern_sketches

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