Shanghai North Railway Station Thursday, Jun 5 2014 

Shanghai North Railway Station

Not sure but there could be a Sikh/Indian in this image…

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. 

 

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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:

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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.

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

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.

Shanghai police before 1949 Tuesday, May 28 2013 

Shanghai police before 1949

British, Sikhs, French, German, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Americans and other nationalities served in the Shanghai Police.

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.

Boxer Rebellion, China Tuesday, Apr 2 2013 

Boxer Rebellion, China

                                                                                  A Bengal Lancer and a captive Boxer

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

Boxer Rebellion - can you spot the Indians?

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