Kartar Singh Sangha – Old Shanghai history Saturday, May 10 2014 

2 days ago, I got an interesting email with photo attachments. The email  was sent by Jaskaran Singh Sangha and he had a very enthralling Shanghai Sikh history with family photographs to share. His grandfather, Kartar Singh Sangha served in the Chinese Maritime Customs Service and lived in Shanghai from 1919 to 1961 (way past the revolution) .  The photographs are a rich reminder of the Old Shanghai Sikhs. They too led valuable lives and such stories cement the fact that we need to preserve this aspect of Old Shanghai history, lest it be forgotten. Here’s a ca.1936 photograph from Sangha family archives that captures Old Shanghai Indian history in a two pronged fashion. One, there are the Sikhs, the former Shanghai Sikh gurdwara in the background, Jaskaran Singh Sangha’s grandfather , standing tall in the light overcoat and dark turban. Secondly, he is right behind a familiar and famous Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore. It’s a moment that showcases the rich heritage that has been fast fading. 





Pocket Guide to China(1943) Tuesday, Apr 29 2014 

Published in 1943 for US military personnel, this pocket guide to China presents some useful information and attempts to explode stereotypes of the times. It has a chapter titled “Forget your old notions”  and another one “The Chinese are like Americans.” It provides also the Sino-Japanese war history, how the Chinese army is organized, dos and don’t, measurements (weights, etc) and quick phrases to use.

Here are some pages from the book:





Read more here:

Voyage from India to China Wednesday, Mar 26 2014 

For Sikhs recruited for policing in early twentieth century in Shanghai’s International Settlement, sea voyage from Calcutta to Hong Kong via Singapore, thence to Shanghai took at least 14-16 days. Given the weather gods were kind over South China Seas. Why Calcutta and not Bombay? There’s no definitive answer to that as some may have boarded a steamer in Bombay but Calcutta was a natural choice as here passenger steamers to China were more frequent and also because the distance in nautical miles to China was less when compared to Bombay.

From Punjab to Calcutta: Train (and maybe a bullock cart ride from the village to Lahore/Ludhiana/Amritsar)

Calcutta to Hong Kong via Singapore. Steamer. Singapore for refueling. 14 days.

Hong Kong to Shanghai : Steamer 2 days.

Now, this is just one sea route. Other possible routes were from Calcutta/Bombay to Malay, Singapore, Japan, Philippines, Ceylon and not necessarily directly to Shanghai. It could be from Penang, Singapore, Kobe, Yokohama, Manila, Colombo to Canton, TsingTao, etc.


In the colonies: Sikh worship. Monday, Feb 3 2014 

Photographs, in absence of substantial narratives help retrieve forgotten histories. With Shanghai Sikhs, the images are plenty and offer vital clues but sometimes you just have to peek over Shanghai’s shoulder to judge the context of the visual content. In Malaysia, Singapore , Burma, Sikhs were engaged in the British army or police and a odd picture of them here, a skimpy fact there help straighten a very potholed Shanghai Sikh narrative.

The British replicated their police and army system in the colonies and a handy blueprint was utilized in various corners of the empire. Quite like the modern  fast food franchises. Try going to McDonalds. The layout is same everywhere. The menu too…only few local elements make it different , I would imagine. For instance, in India, McDonalds offers tandoori style chicken nuggets . At least it did couple of years ago…The same theory applied to the British raj…engineer the “Tommy” framework, bring in the “natives”, some Sikhs, then just throw in a reference here  to the local language and a custom there and voila… hail the McDonald look of the British raj!


Above is a picture of a Sikh regiment in Burma praying to the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. In pristine white, praying, perhaps imagining what it would be like back home in their local holy gurdwara.

In British wars in the colonies, the Sikhs , in absence of a Sikh temple would have worshipped out in the open, put some borrowed, potted flowers in bloom on either side of the temporary dais, two soldiers holding the talwar would stand guard and others would sit, legs folded on a sheet or rug.. The granthi who was attached to the regiments would drape  a raised dais in decorative silk folds, and depending on the time of the days, keertans followed by the ceremonial robust shout celebrating the Wahe Guru would have rung the air.  It must have been a splendid sight.

Some Opium war/Boxer uprising visual narratives hint a similar happening in China. Then, of course one has to rely on bare bones that help conjure the image of a Shanghai Sikh praying out in the open, much before a gurdwara was opened, perhaps it was in a little house or in the police barracks where the festivals, like Guru Nanak’s birth celebrations took place, among other fellow  Sikhs, reminiscing of good times back in Punjab with family and friends.

Sometimes a picture can say so much and other times one has to trek the McDonald path that the Shanghai Sikh sojourners like their fellowmen in the colonies would have undertaken to retrieve their lost stories. One that left a strong British whiff but little scent of their own.

The Shanghai Sikh Sunday, Nov 17 2013 

The Shanghai Sikh

In the streets of Shanghai.

Atma Singh and the hangman’s noose Friday, Sep 27 2013 

In providing an overview of a community’s history individual stories remain ignored. This is typified by the case of Shanghai Sikh  policeman, Atma Singh. In year 1937, burly Atma Singh killed a fellow policeman, another Sikh, after the latter allegedly insulted his wife. Taking a meat cleaver Atma Singh is supposed to have made a brutal attack. For this murder, he was sentenced to hang till dead.

On the day of his hanging, the rope broke and Atma Singh fell through the trapdoor and was concussed. There was no evidence of tampering and the hangman, who’d arrived from Hong Kong also found no defects in the way the rope parted. The Sikh community in Old Shanghai considered it as divine intervention. However, Atma Singh was not released and his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. He was sent to an Indian prison, most likely Andamans. Interestingly, his neck was stretched by 2 inches.

A newspaper clipping on the incident:


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

Many gurdwaras and little clues Tuesday, Aug 6 2013 

After the establishment of the Chinese Communist government (1949) , the China-Indian histories become all the more invisible. The Sikh gurdwaras that served the Indians in China as place of worship and community center became Chinese property.  Thus, the former gurdwaras no longer functioned as Indian religious entities.  With passage of time and clouded memories, the locations of  almost all gurdwras in Tientsin, Shanghai and Hankou persist as source of historical loss, considering that no one remembers the original purpose of these buildings. Some old timers in the area have just fuzzy  inkling due to the fact that urbanization and modernization of cities like Shanghai, Tianjin have obliterated glimpses into China-Indian past. The gurdwara on Dong BaoXing Road in Shanghai is the only officially known gurdwara that survived the strands of time and is recognized by the Chinese government as an immovable relic.

5 known gurdwaras(3 in Shanghai, 1 in Tianjin, 1 in Hankou) provided the much needed religious base to the Sikh policemen, recruited from India to man the British concessions and International settlement in China. Apart from religious services these gurdwaras served as  political discussion centers and hub for Ghadr  freedom movement in the early twentieth century.  Few photographs of the gurdwaras exist adding to the historical illiteracy of the Indian Sikh sojourn in China.


100+ year old known gurdwara in Shanghai is now a residence for few Chinese families.

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.

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

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