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

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.

Caricatures by H W G Hayter Monday, May 6 2013 


From ‘The Rattle’ (1896)

Henry William Goodenough Hayter (1862-1915) was the editor of ‘The Eastern Sketch’, an illustrated weekly in Shanghai’s International Settlement in early twentieth century. His cartoons on Sketch’s  front cover were satirical, lampooning Shanghai’s Who’s who. The July,1896 edition of ”The Rattle’ (another publication) includes his caricatures of Sikhs. One of the illustrations, titled ‘Hide and Sikh’ distinctly depicts a very black-complexioned Sikh beating a Chinese ‘coolie.’


From: ‘The Rattle’ (1896)

Hayter’s cartoons of various eminent Shanghai personalities found a place in his 1902 book published in Shanghai by ‘Kelly and Walsh’, titled ‘Caricatures’ .It contained 32 color illustrations. Most were taken from his collection in  ‘The Rattle’ but few new ones were also added. The book included 5 original cartoons that he’d sketched for the Shanghai Race Club.

Here’s a well-known Shanghai Municipal Councilor who’d penned some humorous verses for ‘The Rattle’  – J.O.P. Bland. Hayter titled Bland’s caricature as ‘Tung Chia.’  Unfortunately not much is known of Hayter. He is, however,credited with introducing the caricature genre in Shanghai.

(I am not sure what the meaning of Tung Chia is but the inference could be ‘wise one’  or worldly wise.)  Anyone knows what it means?

J.O.P. Bland from 'Caricatures' by Hayter

J.O.P. Bland from ‘Caricatures’ by Hayter

In Public Gardens, Shanghai Tuesday, Apr 30 2013 

In Public Gardens, Shanghai

Source: Old China postcard sets on flickr

Friedrich Schiff: The Shanghai cartoonist Sunday, Apr 28 2013 

Friedrich Schiff (1908-1968) , was an Austrian cartoonist in Shanghai in 1930s and 1940s and sketched for several newspapers and illustrated publications. He was deeply impacted in his works by everyday life in China. His book ‘Maskee’ on Shanghai is well-known.  But it’s his collaboration with Ellen Thorbecke nee Catleen, a German photojournalist that produced a delightful China series including one on Shanghai depicting life in this city of contrasts and of course included my favorite:the Shanghai Sikhs.  North China Daily News advertised it as a keeper, which it certainly is. The Sikh traffic cop visuals are classic and highlight how ubiquitous they were in Old Shanghai . At the end of the post is the video link to view the book in its entirety.



Video link for the book :


Ricksha coolie’s ferocious oppressor. Tuesday, Apr 23 2013 

The oppressed rickha ‘coolie’ plying his humble vehicle in the Far East colonies of Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai was tasked with monthly inspection British law. The inspection would be for renewing his ricksha license which invariably was conducted by a Sikh policeman imported from India. The Sikh policeman was considered to be unbearably harsh and aggressive, liberally using his truncheon, damaging the ricksha and hurting even the ‘coolie’. The ricksha laborer’s livelihood was dependent on operating the ricksha and hence loss of earnings was naturally attributed to the much detested British Sikh bobby. Many western onlookers and passengers have narrated in their travelogues and accounts of the plight of the puny ricksha coolies at the hands of the towering Sikhs who used excessive violence and brute force.


1910 Singapore

Even in present times the caricatures of the Sikh policeman in popular Chinese culture continue, symbolizing the humiliating past and the cruel face of imperialism.

Japanese air raid in Shanghai Thursday, Apr 18 2013 

Japanese air raid in Shanghai

One casualty of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai was the Sikh policeman directing traffic in his tower. His lifeless and bloodied form hung there for some time. This photo appears in LIFE magazine as well. 1930s pic.

Sikh sojourn in Shanghai Wednesday, Mar 20 2013 

download (1)

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.

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