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.

Shanghai guide book Thursday, Dec 12 2013 

Two well-known Shanghai guide books, one by C.E.Darwent & the other by Arnold Cartwright  have shed some light on the Indians of Old Shanghai.  The tourist attractions and information on the churches, clubs, cabarets and cafes included in these books serve as a peephole into aspects of Shanghai life. The guide books also provide notes on the dreary stuff like fishing and weather.  Yet, morbid as it sounds, I inspect the inset maps  in the guide books for cemetery information. The Parsees had their fire temple and cemetery on Foochow/Fuzhou Lu but scant clues are available about the exact location.

Gow’s guide book, published in 1924 changes that somewhat. The map is divided into number zones and the Parsee cemetery is #89 in the ‘S’ area(Click the Gow’s guide book link to examine the map. ‘S’, I assume refers to the road name, most likely Shantung Road). The book digitized by the Hong Kong University library has few missing pages and at the end is a faded map of Old Shanghai.

The cemetery seems to be located on the Public recreation ground. In Hong Kong, the Parsee cemetery in Happy Valley was designed like a garden, so perhaps structurally that was how it was designed in Shanghai as well.Till date, I have not found any photographs or illustrations of the Parsee worship place or cemetery that existed in Old Shanghai.

The Sikh gurdwara also is identified on the map included in Gow’s guide book published by North China Herald.

The Tientsin gurdwara Monday, Aug 12 2013 

The Tientsin gurdwara

“I passed it every day on my way to and from school (TGS) during 1938 and 1939. A uniformed guard at its entrance stopped any passers-by from entering the place. I could look down on to its grounds from my bedroom window. I’m attaching a picture of what I could see of the place. It’s the walled in treed lot with a central path crossing from the temple on the right (obscured by a back neighbour’s house) to the entrance gate on the left (obscured by another neighbour’s house). The temple flag on a tall flagpole standing beside the path is clearly visible.” Source: Desmond Power, author of “Little Foreign Devil.”

Tianjin gurdwara Monday, Jul 22 2013 


Source: University of Texas.

The above c.1912 Tientsin map identifies the location of a Sikh temple. J J Singh of Kapurthala royal family, mentioned in his writings, of Sikh policemen stationed in Tientsin, approaching him for funds for a gurdwara. Then there is a picture of 2 Sikh soldiers/policemen, where one of them is holding a chaur used ritually for the holy book Guru Granth Sahib.  

Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any photographs of the Tientsin/Tianjin gurdwara. Yet. Again, the topic requires research and fact-finding to ascertain and explore the life of Tientsin Indian Sikhs.

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.



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