Sikhs in Shanghai: Relic from a Forgotton Time
In the 19th and early 20th century, China was a weak nation. Much of the weakness of China was its creation as the central rule of the emperor had weakened and warlords had divided the country. These warlords carried on an internecine war against each other. Many were not averse to taking help from the western imperialist powers like the French, Dutch and English. To this, one must add the name of Japan, which is a nation devoid of natural mineral resources and has always eyed Manchuria as a source for raw materials to fuel its war industry.
In such a scenario the British wishing for a toe hold in China subjected the Chinese to the famous "Opium wars" which led to the defeat of the Chinese and the hoisting of unequal treaties on them. In 1900 the Chinese made a last-ditch attempt to overthrow the western powers in what is known as the Boxer Rebellion but they were defeated and the most famous siege of Peking was lifted after 55 days. This was the period when the British inducted regiments of the Indian army consisting of Sikhs to fight the Chinese. The Sikhs played a stellar role in defeating the Chinese. This fact is now glossed over for political reasons by the present Indian government.
This was also the time when the western powers got special privileges in China and the city of Shanghai became the focal point of these interests. The British began to man all the civic services and the police in Shanghai. To help them, the British brought in Sikhs from Punjab in India. These Sikhs joined the Shanghai police force and for the next 40 years, they continued there till the advent of the Japanese and the ousting of the British.
Sikhs Settle in Shanghai
Shanghai was the focal point of British interests as it had a large natural port and was a modern city. It was taken over by the western powers. England was the dominant force in Shanghai and generally, the Chinese were happy to live in Shanghai as at least they could get work and food. The countryside of China bristled with armed warlords and their armies laid waste the villages and looted the peasants. In Shanghai the Chinese felt safer.
The British brought in the Jat Sikhs from Punjab. These men mostly over 6 ft. tall over awed the small-statured Chinese, who began to fear them. The British inducted these Sikhs in the Shanghai police force. The Sikhs also brought in European sports like Hockey and cricket. The Sikhs were in the lower ranks and many were part of the horse battalion. Many pictures of these Sikhs are available in the museum in Shanghai, now managed by the communist regime.
The Sikhs later brought their families also and settled in Shanghai. Many Sikhs who had a wife back at home and had come single picked up young Chinese virgin girls as wives. The Sikhs manned the traffic and controlled the rickshaw pullers, who tended at times to get unruly. The Sikhs also patrolled the city and cracked down on dens of vice, but in many cases, they turned a blind eye to prostitution and drugs on payment of an underhand amount.
The Sikhs were well off and many of them turned to money lending to the Chinese after duty hours and charged an exorbitant rate of interest. The British officers were well aware of it but turned a blind eye.
The Sikhs also erected at least 6 Gurudwara in Shanghai. All have now been destroyed. Many were restored after the exit of the Japanese but the communists who frowned on religion destroyed them. Presently perhaps one Gurudwara is still in Shanghai.
The end of the British and Sikhs
Till the advent of the Second World War, the British had a field day in China. So did the Sikhs many of who settled in Shanghai even after retirement with Chinese wives. They drew their pension in Shanghai and were much sought as husbands by the Chinese girls who felt secure when marrying Sikhs.
Sikhs, after they retired, were money lenders. While in service the Chinese always respected the Sikhs policemen and ran away when the Sikh policemen appeared on the scene.
This idyllic world of the western powers and the Sikhs ended when the Japanese declared war on the British Empire. Shanghai was occupied and the police disbanded. Many Sikhs were shot by the Japanese as collaborators of the British. Many were executed or imprisoned.
The Japanese occupation was a nightmare and even after the defeat of Japan, things never came back to normal. Many Sikhs fled to Honking and India, but the old world was destroyed. In addition, a civil war raged. After the war, Mao finally came to power. The communists, who were irreligious, destroyed all the Gurudwara and forbade the practice of Sikhism. Thus the religion died in China.
Now only memories remain and though some religious freedom is restored the Chinese are averse to any mention of Sikhs in Shanghai