Hong Tou A-san 紅头阿三 Thursday, Apr 4 2013 

Sikhs played a vital role as British Indian subjects policing the British empire, as soldiers or policemen, manning the colonial outposts and ports especially in the Far East up to mid twentieth century. Sikhs from Punjab, India were the preferred fighting race for the British colonists. Loyal, strong and adept in the then warfare techniques, they made an ideal and strategical choice.

In China, Sikhs arrived as ‘colored’ members of the British regiments for the two Opium wars and noticeably so in 1898-1901 Boxer Rebellion. In 1860’s, Sikh policemen were recruited from their native Punjab state as part of the Indian contingent in Hong Kong and later in 1880’s in Shanghai’s International settlement, China for patrolling traffic. By early 1900’s, the China Sikh community grew to be a sizeable presence, built gurdwaras, formed associations and were organizing religious festivals. Inter-port networks were established and word on lucrative employment opportunities would spread and there was constant flux between the colony ports.

Schiff cartoon

Schiff cartoon

Naturally, the native Chinese resented the imposition of the British designed laws by the Sikhs. It was one thing to have the British masters inform or impose but to have another conquered Asian from a neighboring country do the same was even more humiliating The red turbaned Sikh was derogatorily termed as ‘Hong Tou A-san'(紅头阿三).  Hong Tou A-san has been interpreted in several ways ranging from literal to downright prejudicial. Literally, it means Red-headed-Number-3 denoting the lowly status of the Sikhs in the eyes of the Chinese. Hong-Tou refers to the red turbans, the Sikh policemen wore in Shanghai. The number three is the reference to the Chinese view of Sikhs occupying the third tier in the social hierarchy,  placed below the British and Chinese.

The China Sikhs learned Pidgin English and would say ‘I savvy’  (at times ‘Yes sir’ or ‘ I say’) which when transliterated in Chinese became ‘A-san’.  This by far is the most sedate analysis. Other references such as ‘red-headed flies’ or ‘red-bottomed monkeys’ are implied derision and was commonly used to emphasize the racist sentiment. Another A-san interpretation references the three lines visible on one of the arm sleeves in the Sikh policeman’s official attire. The exact origin is not easily identifiable. Ballads and caricatures referring to Sikhs in Chinese publications also reiterate the contempt felt. The Sikh was always seen as the opponent despite the fact that they themselves were British subjects.

During the May 30th, 1925 incident in Shanghai, Inspector Everson ordered his Sikh and Chinese S.M.Policemen to fire at the demonstrating crowd. This was a turning point in China’s history and brought about national awakening. Blame for this incident fell on Everson but more squarely on the Sikhs. Examples of this can be seen in the depiction of Sikhs in Chinese history of that time which ignores the fact that Chinese policemen also followed Everson’s orders.

‘Black devils’ was also used for Indian troops which was composed of turbaned men and largely Sikhs.

Boxer Rebellion, China Tuesday, Apr 2 2013 

Boxer Rebellion, China

                                                                                  A Bengal Lancer and a captive Boxer

Boxer Rebellion , China Friday, Mar 29 2013 

1900 boxer

Maharaja Ganga Singh and Bikaner Camel Corps in Boxer Rebellion Monday, Mar 25 2013 

Maharaja Ganga Singh and Bikaner Camel Corps in Boxer Rebellion

1896 pic – not a Boxer Rebellion image.
Indian regiments in Boxer Rebellion, China included Sikhs, Goorkhas, Rajputs and others. Even royal princes provided their services. At nineteen years of age, Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner raised a unit of 500 soldiers mounted on CAMELS – Bikaner Camel Corps or Ganga Risala as they were known campaigned as part of imperial troops in China, WWI and WWII. The Indian Military camel corps were disbanded after 1975.

Boxer Rebellion – can you spot the Indians? Saturday, Mar 23 2013 

Boxer Rebellion - can you spot the Indians?

Boxer Rebellion Sikh soldier and guide Monday, Mar 11 2013 

Boxer Rebellion Sikh soldier and guide

Captain James W. Snyder, Army intelligence officer, who was an historian in civilian life, with a veteran guide somewhere in India. The guide served in China during the Boxer rebellion. The ribbon he is wearing is for service with the late Lord Kitchener. He also served under Lord Roberts

Boxer Rebellion Friday, Feb 8 2013 

Source: ebook on google

Source: ebook on google

Much has been written about Yi He Quan  movement, dubbed by western forces as Boxer Rebellion. The uprising was an anti-foreign, nationalist movement spawned by by the Righteous Harmony Society in China between 1898 and 1901 to combat disturbing foreign imperialism and Christian evangelism. Severe drought and economic disruption and weakening Qing dynasty in response to rapidly advancing foreign spheres of territorial and trade influence propelled the rebellion.

Allied international forces transported troops to China, including British Indian forces such as Sikh, Rajput and Gurkha regiments. They were led by British officers  and succeeded in rescuing foreigners who were inside the besieged Peking’s Foreign Legation quarter. In fact, in many written accounts it is stated that the first sight these foreigners saw were the impressive Rajputs riding in their fine soldierly attire. The rebellion though witnessed bloody executions and plenty of offences like looting, rapes, murders were committed.

The Indian troops with their impeccable turbans and accoutrement are found in several photographs, adding the picturesque element. However there is no commemorative roll listing the names of these soldiers.  Online auction sites occasionally surprise coming up with items that belonged to an Indian. Take for example, 1247 Havaldar Kishan Singh of 14th Sikhs, awarded a silver issue of Victoria crossing for his services in China, specifically Boxer rebellion. Here’s a picture that caught my eye as I was scouring the auction sites.


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