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.