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Sikhs of Shanghai

Everyone is well aware about the presence of the Sikhs in western countries such as UK, US and Canada. But very little has been documented about the Sikh community in other parts of the world. Khushwant Singh explores the history of the Sikhs of Shanghai.

chandigarh Updated: Jul 18, 2012 18:01 IST
Khushwant Singh

Everyone is well aware about the presence of the Sikhs in western countries such as UK, US and Canada. But very little has been documented about the Sikh community in other parts of the world. Khushwant Singh explores the history of the Sikhs of Shanghai.


Recently, someone tweeted me a link to an article on the Sikhs of Shanghai. Written by Meena Vathyam, a US-based sociologist of Indian origin, the article, Heritage Trails, offered valuable insight and information about the earlier Sikh community in China's financial capital, Shanghai.
According to the author, her quest for researching on the Sikhs started while browsing through a local travel guide, where a gurdwara was mentioned as one of the relics of the old Shanghai town.
Unfortunately, the gurdwara that the author mentions in her article is also no longer a gurdwara but a multi-family dwelling.

Further research by the author brought out the fact that the first Sikhs to enter Shanghai were the Sikhs who were part of the Imperial army since Britannia had mostly used Indian forces to fight their wars in foreign lands, including China.
The Sikhs primarily policed French and other international communities which had settled after the opium wars and subsequent forced treaties that had opened ports for free international trade. They were mostly hired to patrol traffic or were enrolled in the riot squad and mounted police or as army troopers.

The highest-ranking officer in Shanghai municipal police was a Jemadar. As per the available record, Jemadar Buddha Singh is the only known officer who was conferred the title of Sirdar Sahib for his distinguished service. On retirement, the Sikhs were in demand as bank guards, security men on the wharves, warehouses, restaurants and nightclubs. They also ran a thriving financial business on the side and every other Sikh it is said was a moneylender and levied heavy interest rates.

Other than this, sadly there is not much documentation of the Sikhs except some references by a few foreign journalists. The author laments that even though Sikhs were in China for at least a century, married Chinese women and fought wars for the British, they did not leave much DNA for reference. No surprises here since in absence of education, earlier Sikhs were not well equipped or inclined to document their own journeys.

About the observations made by foreign journalists, pertains to the horniness of the Sikhs. While many would say it is a foreign perspective, I have no reason to disbelieve journalist, especially given the Sikhs' craze for the gori chamri (white skin).
I am even more convinced about their fetish for the gori chamri after a recent incident in Fun Cinemas while watching Punjabi blockbuster Jatt and Juliet. Where else in the world would you find a group of people running to the screen to touch the blonde in the movie?

A passage from the book, Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British Journalist in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949, recounts an incident whereby a British woman had given evidence that while watching the races she had felt a hard object pressing into her bottom. The man in question was a Sikh and he is supposed to have hotly denied the lady's charges by saying what she had probably felt was a bottle of beer which he had kept in his trousers pocket.

His alibi was that what had touched the lady's bottom accidentally may have been the bottle when he was about to withdraw it from his pocket to take a swig. The judge being fully aware of the blonde fetish of the Sikhs didn't fall for the defendant's tale and had fined him heavily.
I personally think that there is an exciting Punjabi tadka story waiting to be explored in Shanghai. Someone should take the initiative to forward what Meena has highlighted. I am sure the Sikhs are a community in modern Shanghai.