Sikhs in Shanghai

The Sikh policeman was ubiquitous in old Shanghai – we see him in photographs of old Shanghai street scenes, depicted in cartoons, and we hear about him from old Shanghainese and Shanghailanders, who remember their parents threatening them with “hong tou Ah-San” if they misbehaved. But who was he? Where did he live? What he did he think? Where did he go when he wasn’t patrolling the streets?  Indian-born sociologist Meena Vathyam began asking those questions, and her research led her to British and Chinese sources. Wanting to find the one perspective that was missing — the Shanghai Sikh himself — she started the Sikhs in Shanghai Facebook page and blog, and has since uncovered a trove of information. Here, Meena shares her continuing journey to document and discover one of the least documented groups in old Shanghai.

Sikh Park hotel

In October, 2010, my family headed to Shanghai, a very modern and cosmopolitan city with a layered history and a tumultuous past. One which I had little acquaintance with in my comfortable and cushy life back home in the USA. We were in Shanghai for my husband’s two-year secondment, and foremost in our minds was to ease our kids’ transition, be it cultural, social or educational. When our lives fell into an acceptable and familiar pattern, I had more time to learn about Shanghai itself through the several expat clubs, bustling markets, exciting nightlife, the famous landmarks, and fast-speed trains.

Still, it was the city’s history that was the most captivating. Desirous to learn more, I bought a cheap city guidebook that listed various historical spots including a former Sikh gurdwara on Dong Bao Xing Road. The guide did not include any further details on the gurdwara and frankly, I was quite surprised to hear of its existence. Shanghai, I had learned,  was controlled by foreigners prior to 1949.  The foreigners had split the treaty-port into prominent sections — quite like a pie — as a result of international treaties following the Opium wars. There was the French Concession, the International Settlement (an amalgamation of the British and American Concessions) and the Old Chinese city where the native Chinese had been pushed in their own country.


Shanghai’s Sikh Gurdwara, or temple.

The International Settlement included the Indian connection, one that seemed vague and less explored. Pre-1949 Shanghai, commonly referred to as Old Shanghai, had a thriving albeit small Indian community, largely Sikhs from India who policed the International Settlement.  Their statuesque  yet imposing appearance topped by fine turbans never ceased to amaze the foreigners & natives alike.

In line with the British policy of Divide and Rule which had met with resounding success in British India, the International Settlement’s administrative body, the Shanghai Municipal Council, recruited Sikhs (mainly from the then-British Indian state of Punjab) to patrol its traffic from 1884-1885. With increasing demands for security, the number of Sikh policemen employed by Shanghai Municipal Police grew. A uniformed Sikh policeman carrying a stippled baton fast became a regular sight in International Settlement. The Shanghai Municipal Police Sikh contingent totaled to 524 in 1940. Apart from policemen, there were Sikh watchmen, dairy farm owners and others who were eking out a living in Shanghai. Yet despite their high profile, the Indian community  was small (2,341 Indians in Shanghai in 1935) relative to other major foreign communities in Old Shanghai. Nevertheless, they played a vital role, especially in raising Indian nationalism through sedition and revolts.


The Shanghai Sikh was high profile, making his way into popular culture like this cartoon by famous Shanghai cartoonist Schiff.

What interested me (and still does)  was their social and cultural interactions within their own community, as well as with the native Chinese (who resented the interlopers and derogatorily labeled them Hong-Tou-A-san, a slur that included a reference to their red turbans)  and other foreigners that lived in Old Shanghai. This aspect has not been very well documented, and I was keen to find information to piece together their sojourn to Shanghai and other British-dominated cities in China, establishment of gurdwaras and their day-today social patterns. I was interested more in the human aspect, the stories that would identify the players in the Shanghai Sikh network, the addresses where the Sikh policemen and their wives would have resided, their living conditions, the schools the Sikh children would have attended, the fields where the Sikhs must have played hockey (a preferred sport).

Unfortunately, I did not have well-defined clues on how to start the research process, even though I had by now begun exploring digitized newspapers and university libraries for visual images. It was therefore pretty opportune when I met Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol, an authority on China and Old Shanghai who happened to be at a book relaunch organized by another Old Shanghai history doyenne, Tess Johnston. On his advice, I made a trip to the Shanghai Archives and commenced the task of reading the several spools of tapes that stored the history of Old Shanghai’s Indians.

Sikh group

It was not pretty. Almost 99 percent of the reports on Sikhs were through the eyes of the British and later, after 1949, the Chinese.  Both viewed the Sikhs with a jaundiced lens and hence the image that was deliberately constructed was of an Indian community, especially the Sikhs, that was either undisciplined or the hated enemy. Neither of these images fit my childhood perception of the hard-working , boisterous, and fun-loving Sikh. As someone born and raised in India, the image and information I was garnering was in full contradiction with my own knowledge of a kindhearted community that has given India its soldiers, freedom fighters, sportsmen, singers, farmers, and so much more.

Apart from Sikhs, there were the Parsees, like the Tatas, who established successful businesses in China. Their journey, specifically that of businessman and philanthropist Sir Jamshed Jeejeebhoy, is better known and well researched. Like the Sikhs, Parsees had their own place of worship in Old Shanghai, a fire temple that was later destroyed. Less, however, is known of the Talati family from Tientsin (Tianjin) or the Lalcacas/Lalkakas who were prominent citizens of Old Shanghai and members of the Freemasons.


The Tata family in Shanghai, 1941.

The Sikhs had more gurdwaras, not just in Shanghai but in Tienstin, too. Sparse information is available on the topic.  In Shanghai, the Sikhs had several gurdwaras. Makeshift spaces were also converted for worship. The most well-known gurdwara in the records was constructed with Sikh funds in 1907, on land allotted by Shanghai Municipal Council still stands on Dong Baoxing Road.

During one of my visits to the DongBaoxing Road gurdwara, I was lucky to be invited in by the old ayi , one of the residents. I had full view of the tattered and dilapidated state of this building where the Shanghai Sikhs would have once held prayers, celebrated festivals and special days. This gurdwara was also a witness of the rising anti-British sentiment among the very divided Malwa & Majha Sikh community and harbor for Ghadr freedom fighters  to publish and preach pro-Indian independence literature.

Shanghai Gurdwara 2014-small

The Shanghai Dong Baoxing Road Gurdwara still stands.

The former DongBaoXing Road Sikh gurdwara’s tiles were muddied and the roof bore marks of damages. The place smelled of filth and decay. It is no short of a miracle that the former gurdwara has survived the strands of time  (including bombing in WWII and government-backed heavy pilferage in 1960s) and demolition in the name of development.

The history of Shanghai Municipal Police ends in the Shanghai Municipal Council records when the Indian police unit was disbanded in 1945, after Japanese surrender. The majority of the Shanghai Sikhs and their families repatriated to India in the late 1930s and during World War II. Only a handful remained after the 1949 Communist takeover, those who had started considering China as home, some with Chinese wives and children. The 1962 India-China war put an end to any such sentimentality. Yet it was only in 1973 that the last Shanghai Sikhs finally read the writing on the wall and  headed to India via Hong Kong, a fact that again has eluded historical documentation.

1945 Sikh photo w American soldiers

A Shanghai Sikh policeman photographed with American soldiers in 1945. By this time, the majority of Sikhs had repatriated.

Much of the historical overview of Shanghai Sikhs is through a western gaze which tends to patronize the narrative but conclusively remains a dominant perspective. Till the Sikhs themselves provide an in-depth understanding to complete the missing links and pieces, the journey of Shanghai Sikhs will remain lopsided.

Hoping  to augment the Sikh slant, I started a Facebook page where Sikh families connected to Old Shanghai themselves could come forward and offer a perspective that was different from what has been coined and considered as their history in China. It has been a slow process. Those who have come forward have provided rich information and images that are available for anyone to view. Still, some have been reticent and not fully ready to share their family history for public consumption.

It’s been five-plus years since my curiosity was piqued by a city guide book. Since then, I have interviewed people, rummaged through newspapers, books, Shanghai and British national archives, genealogy websites and fortunately, despite the unsystematic approach much of the Shanghai Sikhs’ journey has unraveled though the minute details will perhaps always remain ambiguous and intangible. Like the history of Old Shanghai itself.

Meena Vathyam is a sociology graduate, former software programmer, writer and a homemaker. She was a resident of Shanghai for two years, where she extensively researched the Shanghai Sikhs, which she plans to chronicle shortly.

Follow the journey of Sikhs in Shanghai on their Facebook page and blog. 

3 responses to “Sikhs in Shanghai”

  1. George Kulstad says:

    As someone born in old Shanghai I certainly enjoyed your post. May I point out that the Life magazine cover showing the Sikh policeman with “American soldiers” should be corrected to “American sailors”, they being on Shore Patrol duty (witness the letter “S” showing on their SP armbands). A minor point, but akin to those who refer to the Sikh watchman on the cover of my memoir as a Sikh policeman. I look forward to your next posts.

    • Tina Kanagaratnam says:

      Thank you, George! Details like these are absolutely critical, so thank you for taking the time to comment. We’re looking forward to reading your memoir!

      • George Kulstad says:

        I note that my memoir “A Foreign Kid in World War II Shanghai” lists “Sikh” on pages 20, 21, and 59, the latter page reminding me that as a young kid I even had a Sikh classmate, showing that not all Sikhs were policemen. Also, the Sikh on the memoir front cover is a watchman, as I properly describe on the “copyright” page, and not a policeman as someone on a website wrote. The practice was that one would retire from the Shai Municipal Police, then seek employment as a watchman rather than return to the Punjab. Also, if it weren’t for an alert Sikh policeman, as I describe on pp. 20 & 21 of the memoir, I wouldn’t be emailing you now. Best wishes, George

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