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Indians in Shanghai-the China Connection Is Over 180 Years Old

Updated on October 3, 2019
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A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters

Sikh Gurudawara in Shanghai, now demolished
Sikh Gurudawara in Shanghai, now demolished
Sikh feeding Pigeons in Shangjai
Sikh feeding Pigeons in Shangjai

The beginning

India and China have been neighbors.for close to four Thousand Years. For long periods Tibet was a buffer state between India and China. Despite being physically so close the interaction between the Indian people and Chinese people was minimal. One reason for this was the presence of the Himalayan mountain chain, the highest in the world which effectively stopped people to people contact between the Chinese and Indians.

The spread of Buddhism and contacts with China

Despite this Buddhism spread to Tibet and China by intrepid and strong-willed Monks who carried the message of the Buddha to China, Japan, and Tibet. History does record the travels of 2 Chinese travelers who came to India during the time of the Magadh Empire but hardly any Indian went for settlement to China. Between 400-700 AD travelers named Fa Hsien, Sung Yun, Hsuan Tsang, and I Tsang visited India. They were interested in obtaining the original Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit and Pali. Much later during World War II an Indian doctor Dr. Kotnis went to China and married a Chinese girl and did a lot of selfless work among the poor Chinese peasantry. His exploits were put on celluloid by the great filmmaker V Shantaram in the film "Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani" ( Immortal story of Dr. Kotnis). These can be termed sporadic instances as people to people contact was non-existent.

In 1839, the first opium war was fought between the British and Chinese. A fact that is not highlighted is that the British brought many Sikhs and Punjabis who were part of the British Indian Army to China. Many Indians at that time never went back to India and made China their home. Most of the Indians settled in and around Shanghai. These were the first Indians ever to settle in China. They were mostly Sikhs and many never went back to Punjab and despite being married back at home married young Chinese girls.

The British also encouraged traders from India to come to China. There are reports that many Sindhi and Parsi businessmen migrated to China during this period of the 19th century and set up businesses in China. The Sikhs were of course in very large numbers and there are reports of a number of Gurdwara having been built in and around Shanghai. A distant relative of the Tata's went to Shanghai and set up a thriving business. In due course, just before World War II, there was a thriving Parsi community from India which along with the Sikhs formed part of the Indian diaspora in Shanghai.

Boxer Rebellion

Indian troops of the British army were also used to put down the Boxer Rebellion in China. History records that a battalion of the Sikh soldiers under the command of English officers stormed Peking and brought the Chinese government to its feet. This performance of the Indian army in China has not been adequately presented to the world with the result that very few know about it.

These were the first contact between the Chinese and Indian people. Later the Western powers were able to get special privileges in the city of Shanghai and it almost became like a western enclave.

To police the enclave the British recruited nearly 2000 Sikhs from Punjab and this formed the nucleus of the Shanghai police. At one time almost 2500 were part of the Shanghai Police Force. Some of them mounted on horses were a terror to the local Chinese. These Sikh policemen also regulated traffic and photos are available in the Shanghai museum which shows imposing Sikh policemen on horses.

Many Sikhs who retired from the police force settled in Shanghai and married Chinese girls and became money lenders. The thriving Indian community grew in Shanghai and paved the way for other Indian communities like the Parsees and Sindhis to come to Shanghai and set up business there. In the thirties, there were close to 4000 Indians in Shanghai.

Sikh policeman in Shanghai
Sikh policeman in Shanghai

The Parsi connection

It is a matter of surprise that after the Sikhs the most important community that thrived in Shanghai were the Parsis. There are no Parsi's there now but at one time till 1941, there had been a thriving Parsi community in Shanghai.

The Parsi's arrived in the latter half of the 19th century. They were traders and found their way from India to Hong Kong and then to Shanghai, where they formed a small but vibrant community, with their own associations, clubs, and activities.

One of the relations albeit a distant one of the present generation of Tatas in India, JB Tata, and his father thrived in China. Incidentally, JB Tata died in 2013 in Hongkong. Despite his best efforts, he could not claim the hereditary properties in Shanghai as the communists denied him.

Fire Temple and Rituals

There are records of an old fire temple on Shanghai’s Fuzhou Road. The fire temple had been torn down and a hotel built over it, but the site of the fire temple — as well of the neighboring Parsi cemetery — is still clearly delineated and labeled in maps of old Shanghai.

The Shanghai Parsi community would invite priests from Mumbai (then Bombay) to move to Shanghai and conduct religious ceremonies such as the Navjote, or coming-of-age ceremony for children. There was also a Parsi cemetery like the one in Mumbai( Tower of Silence). Alas, all these relics have gone with the wind as the communists destroyed them.

Parsi effect

To govern and run the Parsi cemetery, the community set up a Parsi Cemetery Trust Fund. The Parsi community was influential and tightly knit. They could also rub shoulders with the Whites and thus thrived. They regularly had gatherings at their home on Ulumuqi Road N. This is now torn down. Parsi men sometimes married Chinese women and their numbers grew. The Parsi club had a thriving membership and there were enough Parsis to form their own cricket team. Because of the English influence cricket was a popular game in Shanghai. It's a tragedy that after the communists took over they banned the game.

Fleeing China

After 1949 when the Communists under Mao Tse Tung took over, there was a sea change. The communists not only confiscated all property of Sikhs and Parsis but made life hard for them. Almost the entire community then migrated to Hongkong.

Parsi congregation in Shanghai
Parsi congregation in Shanghai

A Forgotten Time

The Indian connection with China ended in 1949. The new Marxist philosophy with its bias against religion led to the Parsi temple and gurudwaras being razed to the ground. Life was made even more difficult when the communists levied heavy property taxes on the Parsi business and they were so exorbitant that the Parsees had no choice but to escape to Hongkong with their lives

A few Sikhs remained behind who had married Chinese girls but they are not traceable now. Many probably died during the cultural revolution. China is an insular country and that probably led to almost all foreigners to leave China. The Indian connection with Shanghai is now just a footnote in history, but never the less is a fascinating era and worth a study.


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      2 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Manatita. Its great to interact with you.

    • manatita44 profile image


      2 years ago from london

      Another interesting piece. You are a mind of information Bro.

    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh emge 

      2 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Readmikenow. I loved your comment.

    • Readmikenow profile image


      2 years ago

      This is an absolutely fascinating article! It is a piece of history I knew nothing about. I enjoyed reading it. Very well done.


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