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. 





Shanghai Document , c.1928, Russian film Wednesday, Dec 18 2013 

Hour long and at 45:13 and around 50:00 in the film, shots of Indian troops and a Sikh on stage delivering a speech. Great Shanghai footage as well.

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.

Music in Old Shanghai. But, what about bhangra? Friday, Sep 13 2013 

The Sikhs are known for bhangra, a dance style that originated and developed in the Indian state of Punjab. Bhangra is a joyous community dance to celebrate Vaisakhi, the harvest festival.  The bhangra style has evolved from its original art form of Bagga, a Sikh style of martial art.

Old Shanghai also known Paris of the East for its very cosmopolitan atmosphere housed several cafes where live bands played all kinds of music, especially western jazz heavily influenced by Chinese instruments and melodies.  Traveling African-American bands played in cafes including Earl Whaley and his band from Seattle.


Earl Whaley & his band. Click the image to read more on his band,

But, what about the Sikhs? Where are the pictures of Sikhs in Shanghai celebrating Vaisakhi or breaking into a jig? Conditions, living, financial were grim but even then the Shanghai Sikhs prospered with their thrifty habits. Would they have visited a dhaba (small roadside cafe ) outside the International Settlement to enjoy some singing of Punjabi folk music? Or did they attune themselves to Chinese or western music of the times? Did any Indian(visitor or Old Shanghai resident) perform in a band any time?

These absent elements in dominant colony narratives of Old Shanghai reflect the invisible status of the Sikhs. It’s become a refrain in most of my posts and more questions come up than answers. Maybe that will change soon!

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.

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.

World War II Pacific War Propaganda.. Thursday, Jun 20 2013 

The propaganda posters/literature created for World War I & II provide substantial historical fodder for analyzing the significant role of Indian soldiers in the British empire. Enticing, motivating, exhorting Indian soldiers to actively participate was a strategy deployed by Japanese army in WWII Pacific war and well countered by British and American war office  propagandists.  Assisting the Japanese, at the time, were the members of the Indian Independence League (later Azad Hind) headed by Subhas Chandra Bose.


Source:Kings Collection.org

The Japanese emphasized the use of Indians as mere tools in British scheme of things. The 1919 Jallianwallah Bagh massacre incident featured in their campaign to highlight Indians  as exploited by the their British masters.  American, British and other allied forces depicted Japanese as animals, i.e. Octopus, Rat caught or trapped by allied forces.

The pro-Japanese campaign posters detailed the discrimination, racism and freedom fight against the Empire, stressing on ‘Asia for Asians’ theme. The Far East was no exception where Indian policemen and soldiers were placed by the British to man their colonies.The 1941 invasion of Malaya by the Japanese provided a plumb opportunity – captured Sikh soldiers, police POWs were “asked” to fight by joining the Indian Independence League. There was little option. It was either become a collaborationist or be a tortured enemy prisoner and face execution. Shanghai, too, had a small unit of Indian Independence League (not POWs) inspired by Bose and aspiring for Indian freedom. Bose visited Shanghai & broadcast his 1940s radio speech through German controlled air waves in the area.

chiang kai shek

The propaganda posters/leaflets/magazines were air-dropped or distributed. But, the Japanese propaganda does appeal to the national socio-economic Indian politics of the time: it definitely was well researched and was perhaps successful for this reason? . Though the text in few of the posters indicate that it was devised/written by someone not that well-conversant with Indian colloquialism.

So, what about the Allied forces’ propaganda? More in the next post..

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

Spot the Shanghai Sikhs Tuesday, Jun 4 2013 

The abject poverty and harsh life is well depicted.

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.

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