Progress at snail’s pace Wednesday, Apr 9 2014 

In an earlier post I wrote about my interest in putting together a book on the Shanghai Sikhs. I have started writing and must say it has been a slow process. There were couple of sections (yes, my book has a skeletal structure divided into sections, etc) that required further reading and research. So, that’s the reason for the ambling.  There’s a rainbow somewhere and I am looking for it and will find it, perhaps, not on a rainy morning but in sunny skies.

But, before I start rambling a little too much, here’s a photograph (circa, 1937) from a college library that piqued my curiosity. What do you think is going on? 


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 Sikh soldier in the British Indian Army regiment Thursday, Jan 16 2014 

The Sikh soldier In the British Indian Army regiment

The Sikh

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 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:


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.

In Public Gardens, Shanghai Tuesday, Apr 30 2013 

In Public Gardens, Shanghai

Source: Old China postcard sets on flickr

Ricksha coolie’s ferocious oppressor. Tuesday, Apr 23 2013 

The oppressed rickha ‘coolie’ plying his humble vehicle in the Far East colonies of Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai was tasked with monthly inspection British law. The inspection would be for renewing his ricksha license which invariably was conducted by a Sikh policeman imported from India. The Sikh policeman was considered to be unbearably harsh and aggressive, liberally using his truncheon, damaging the ricksha and hurting even the ‘coolie’. The ricksha laborer’s livelihood was dependent on operating the ricksha and hence loss of earnings was naturally attributed to the much detested British Sikh bobby. Many western onlookers and passengers have narrated in their travelogues and accounts of the plight of the puny ricksha coolies at the hands of the towering Sikhs who used excessive violence and brute force.


1910 Singapore

Even in present times the caricatures of the Sikh policeman in popular Chinese culture continue, symbolizing the humiliating past and the cruel face of imperialism.

Japanese air raid in Shanghai Thursday, Apr 18 2013 

Japanese air raid in Shanghai

One casualty of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai was the Sikh policeman directing traffic in his tower. His lifeless and bloodied form hung there for some time. This photo appears in LIFE magazine as well. 1930s pic.

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