The Captivating History Of Sikhs In Old Shanghai

The Captivating History Of Sikhs In Old Shanghai

Tucked into the faded, lost pages of history is a little known cross-cultural gem of the Indian diaspora - one that’s allowed Sikh Gurudwaras to dot the street of Shanghai as old relics - the 20th century Sikh community in Shanghai.

We’ve all mused over the common knowledge that history is tainted with the subjectivity of its writer. But, what happens when it’s virtually unwritten? While the lifetime of this unusual Sikh community has been more or less ignored and unrecorded, they were left on the periphery of China’s brush with British colonialism, only formally documented by mainstream media or history textbooks, and that too negligibly.  We were, however, still able to amass bits of oral and visual history enough to piece together the jigsaw that was their unique experience, and the picture formed is one for the books.

A Gurudwara lost in Old Shanghai
If you happened to be strolling down Dong Bao Xing Lu in the latter half of the 20th century, you probably would have stopped in your tracks to stare at the serene facade of a Gurudwara. This was the structure that served as a haven for religion for the Sikh community erected in Old Shanghai, 1908. Unfortunately, 21st century eyes will never be witness to this testament of cross-culture, since today it exists as a residence inhabited by Chinese families, denounced like so many other houses of prayer due to the 1966 Cultural Revolution (which condemned religion as a feudalistic symbol). This Gurudwara, however, is much more than a fading memory. Even today, its mere inexistence echoes a communist ideology, while standing as a lost symbol of Old Shanghai’s Sikh community, representing another piece of its complex history.

Sikh Gurudwara lost in Shanghai, Image Source: Scroll (left) Static Panoramio (right)

Red-Turbaned Sikhs and their initial arrival into the port city
The mid-1800s were a tumultuous time, to put it lightly. The vast, expanding British Empire continued to play Battleship across the globe, with their colonies popping up across the world map. As 1839 came around, the Qing dynasty ruling China sought to control opium trade from the British East India Company, which led to the painfully gruelling First Opium War in China.
It was this very war that paved the way for Sikh soldiers in their red turbans to make their first entrance into China’s leading trade port - Shanghai. As the British empire had assumed control over most of India, they exercised their colonial authority to command the Sikh regiment of the Indian Army to the war in the city. Navy vessels and large batteries tangled in a fiery battle for three years, until in 1842 the British troops emerged victorious, but this Indian Diaspora didn’t pack their bags to leave just yet.
[Watch this one-minute-long silent video of Nanking street in China, 1901, which shows a group of Sikh soldiers marching below]

Hong Tou A-San - easy scapegoats for Chinese aggression
The Sikh soldiers’ perceived burly and tough exterior instilled British faith in their military prowess. And this, combined with their strategic martial competency in the Anglo-Sikh war, resulted in the British regime in Shanghai recruiting the Ludhiana regiment to become riot police.
And so, the first group of Sikhs came to enforce lawful obedience for the British, through the bloody civil war of the Taiping rebellion (at the end of the 19th century) and later in the Boxer uprising (1900). Armed with their heavy sticks, they quickly became harbingers of fear and resentment for the people of China. Dressed in khakis in summer, and heavy dark coats in the winter, they stood out sorely amidst Shanghai’s crowd with their bushy beards, large frames and bright red turbans.
Being as familiar as we are with the British empire’s divide and rule strategies, it’s easy to envision how they tactfully directed Chinese aggression towards the turban-wearing scapegoats. They were known to the Chinese as Hong Tou A-San, where Hong is Mandarin for red, Tou is head. The origin of A-San has different theories, and while some argue it was ‘Aye, Sir’ in a local dialect, the Shanghai Public Security Museum claims it is ‘Number Three’ in a Shanghai dialect - supposedly a reference to their social status after Westerners and the Chinese.

Image Source: Property of special collection and university archives, University of Oregan libraries

Keep (the Chinese) off the grass?
Racial discrimination against Shanghai’s Chinese population was apparent in many fields, but the most glaring in general social functioning. Deep within Old Shanghai was a beautiful Public Garden, and, allegedly, outside that garden hung a sign that read ‘No dogs or Chinese allowed’. Following suit, this humiliation imposed by the British was enforced by tall, burly Sikhs in bright red turbans guarding the gates of this garden. Since poetry isn’t our strong suit, we borrow a verse from Robert William Little’s Amalgamation,

‘I said I’ll go into the Public Garden:-

A tall policeman warned me from the gate;

“Reserved for Chinese,” when I asked his pardon

Was all that he would state.’

The perception of Sikhs in Shanghai because of such discrimination is perfectly depicted by Austrian cartoonist Friedrich Schiff  - militant British-controlled enforces of lawfulness.

Cartoon by Friedrich Schiffe

Shanghai Sikhs outside their uniforms
By 1907, Shanghai had nearly 850 Sikhs, and this number only grew. Outside the force, job prospects for Sikhs didn’t stray very far from the purpose they were recruited for. Doubling up as men and guards at banks, nightclubs, hotels and so forth earned them their bread and butter, but that was hardly where it ended. As British journalist Ralph Shaw writes in his book Sin City, ‘Every other Sikh had a sideline - money-lending.’ Supposedly, the Sikhs were ruthless as lenders, and charged exorbitant rates to their debtors. And, when Chinese borrowers inevitably defaulted on their promissory notes, they remained indebted to the Sikhs for the rest of their natural lives.
Differing traditions, cultures, languages, religious customs and beliefs make it hard enough for two communities to integrate with each other on any given day. And, in this case, since the Sikhs represented the British Empire’s imposed rule on Shanghai, it was especially hard. As such, the two communities’ cultures hardly intersected, with the Sikhs refusing to even eat any food prepared by Chinese hands because of caste rituals.

Sikhs in Shanghai, Image Source: Facebook

Sikh Notoriety: The murderer and the princess
A tall, burly Sikh policeman by the name of Atma Singh, maddened by the alleged affair of his wife with another policeman, committed a brutal act of passion with a meat cleaver. And, as he ended the life of his fellow colleague, he was sentenced to hang till death. This might sound like a reasonably common story, so what separates it? On the day of his hanging, Atma Singh fell through the trapdoor under the noose as his rope broke. And, this miraculous act was considered as divine intervention by the Sikh community, while the notorious policeman was then re-sentenced to life imprisonment.
Atma Singh’s tale might be circumstantially unconnected to that of Princess Sumair, but they are linked as two of the very few personal accounts of Shanghai Sikhs ever recorded. The beautiful and equally scandalous Princess of Patiala brought great excitement to 1940s Shanghai with her escapades. A cousin of the famous Sikh painter Amrita Sher-gill, Princess Sumair had a swirling love for money, fashion and men. As Professor Wasserstein describes her in his book ‘Secret War in Shanghai’, he labels her as a ‘nymphomaniac’ and ‘worshipper of lesbian cult’. Her reputation precedes her, and is furthered by her bigamy - she married a Japenese-American in Shanghai without divorcing her Indian husband. Then, legend has it, she took off with a U. S. sailor, never to be heard of in Shanghai again.
While the tale of Patiala’s notorious princess is one often accounted, and Atma Singh’s miracle still lives in whispers, the remainder of Shanghai’s Sikh community is left ignored in history’s shadows.

The unrecorded history of Shanghai’s Sikh women
While the narration of this forgotten community in Shanghai is almost minimally recorded, unsurprisingly the section of the community which kept the lines going is even more neglected on the pages of history. Although predominantly bachelors, a few married Sikh soldiers were recruited too, and they took their wives there at a later date. Adjustment to the Chinese society was supposedly very difficult, with language and cultural barriers in the driver’s seat, and socialization within the community surrounded the Gurudwara for these women.
Moving to a new country with a foreign language is a herculean task even today, so it’s easy to imagine the challenges they might have faced attempting assimilation into an entirely alien culture in the early 20th century. Piquing Chinese curiousity was their colourful attire, a salwar-kameez complete with a vibrant duppata. But, seeing how food and linguistic barriers were already cultural complexities, being married to the symbols of oppression in Shanghai furthered their social isolation.

Sikhs in Shanghai, Image source: Facebook

Sikhs in 2015 Shanghai
The journey of dozens of Guru Granth Sahib saroops (embodiments) across borders from China to India marks the end of the 20th century for Shanghai’s Sikh community. Post the Sino-Indian war in 1962, several families of the Sikh community fled China for their homeland, leaving behind subtle traces of their culture. While there are no official records, some have speculated that 260 odd Sikhs remained in Shanghai, most of them for their Chinese wives. While this Sikh community of the past was linked to security guard positions, the conversation is changing in the 21st century as young Sikhs are associated with technology-related fields. Indian restaurants may line Shanghai today, and Bollywood may feature as imported entertainment, but the lost culture of Shanghai Sikhs has dissipated into non-existence, almost invisible to the uninitiated eye.