The Forgotten History of Sikhs in Shanghai
SHANGHAI — Walking down Fuzhou Road near Shanghai’s waterfront, Cao Yin tries to pinpoint the exact spot where one of the city’s highest-ranking and most influential Sikh policemen was gunned down around 90 years ago. For the Tsinghua University history professor, the outing carries a sense of déjà vu after years of research on his new book, “From Police to Revolutionaries: A Sikh Diaspora in Global Shanghai,” which highlights an important chapter in the city’s colonial past.
“This is where Buddha Singh was shot,” Cao says, narrating the events leading up to the policeman’s death in 1927 as he approaches the Henan Road intersection. Singh joined the British-administered Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) in 1902 and quickly ascended in the official hierarchy due to his loyalty to pro-British policies — a quality that angered many Indian nationalists within his department and the city. Ultimately, one of the SMP’s former officers, a fellow Sikh who believed Singh was a “bad man,” shot and killed him.
Singh was one of the hundreds of Sikhs who migrated from India to work for the SMP, which policed Shanghai’s International Settlement from the early 1850s. While the first group of British expatriates settled in the port city in 1843, it wasn’t until two decades later that they formed an alliance with the Americans to set up the International Settlement. In 1885, the SMP started recruiting Sikhs. The members of the religious group from India landed in Shanghai either via Hong Kong, where they were already working for the British, or straight from their homeland in the north Indian state of Punjab. They were employed as a cheaper — and by reputation, mightier — alternative to the Europeans and Chinese in the SMP.
The story of the Sikh diaspora, of their life and times in Shanghai until they left in large numbers in 1945, is the subject of Cao’s doctoral thesis-turned-book. In tracing the existence of the Sikh community in Shanghai, he found that they are now either a neglected or a forgotten chapter of history — which is what prompted him to dig into the topic.
“I’m interested in highlighting the transmission and transnational circulation of population, ideas, materials, and commodities,” Cao says as he sits in a centuries-old building that now houses a café near Shanghai’s iconic Bund area. “So I decided to research about Sikhs in Shanghai, and try to find a connection between Sikhs in Shanghai and those in other parts of the world. It’s a global history story.”
The Sikh history in China is not a mainstream topic, usually being limited to academic papers and personal projects. The men, highly recognizable by their red turbans — a part of the uniform for Sikh policemen back then — later migrated west seeking better economic prospects. There are currently an estimated 25 million Sikhs worldwide, with most of them based in India, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. But port cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, Cao says, hold a significant place in their trajectory, as these were often the first stops in the group’s global migration.
“What made Sikh migration [in Shanghai] special was that many of them actually served in the colonial police force while their Indian and Chinese counterparts were indentured laborers, miners, craftsmen, and merchants, and so became the subjects being policed,” he writes in this book.
Cao spoke to Sixth Tone about the Sikh police in Shanghai, their historic representation, and why they remain a marginalized community today. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: How does the book challenge the history of Sikhs as it is commonly understood?
Cao Yin: One main objective of my study is to challenge national history. We learn history, and all the national histories emphasize national pride, that our nation existed from the very beginning to the present, and it’s a very coherent narrative — but it’s also wrong. That’s why we discriminate against others and have negative attitudes toward people who look different from us and speak different languages.
That’s why I wanted to challenge this and highlight that our histories are shared by others. Without knowing Indian history or the history of some other country, we cannot fully understand our own history. That’s why I studied the Sikhs. Without learning the Sikh story, we cannot fully know the Shanghai story. And without knowing about Sikhs in Shanghai, we cannot have an accurate account of modern Chinese history.
Sixth Tone: Oral history is one way to document the past, but it’s lacking in your research. Was obtaining oral histories a challenge?
Cao Yin: There is no oral history of the Sikhs in Shanghai, nor did they have their own written literature, because most of them were illiterate when they came here. That’s the weakest point in my book: I didn’t use oral history from their descendants, either, mostly because of financial limitations. But we need to be cautious in handling oral histories because they’re too subjective. And if we include them as serious historical records, this might mislead one’s perspective on the issue.
For most of my book, I used archives and official records. But they have their own biases [too] because they are all from the perspective of the colonial authorities rather than the Sikhs. So I have to admit that it’s problematic — but so far, I can’t find a better solution.
Sixth Tone: Is the Sikh community’s association with imperialism one of the reasons they are not discussed much today?
Cao Yin: The Chinese scholars didn’t study them because we didn’t have the knowledge. And the Indian scholars didn’t pay attention because of the imperial existence. Most Sikhs came to Shanghai as collaborators with the British to police the local population. They are part of the British imperialism in China, and [to some] that gives them a negative impression. They didn’t want to be reminded of this, and so they deliberately tried to forget the Sikhs’ past. This is the opposite of the Indian national history framework, which claims Sikhs were oppressed by the British and were not collaborators.
Sixth Tone: The British classified Sikhs as a “martial race.” Is this a generalization? How has such a characterization impacted the Sikh community?
Cao Yin: It’s an invention, and somehow this cultural invention really shaped their identities and the way they viewed themselves. The British said, “You are a martial race,” and they followed along — and gradually began to believe it. So that’s why most Sikhs join the police force or the Indian army: because they [fit that description], and they also received economic benefits by identifying themselves as a martial race. You can say that it was internal colonization or self-colonization, though some may see that as problematic.
Sixth Tone: Many Chinese referred to the Sikhs as “black devils” and considered them an inferior race. Why was there such a negative perception, and has that changed over time?
Cao Yin: Many Chinese identified themselves as inferior to the white race but higher than the black race. They supposed they had the potential to be equal to the white race, and they applied this ideology in their attitudes toward Sikhs. On the one hand, they thought the dark-skinned Sikh people were inferior, but on the other hand, the Sikhs were employed by the British to police the local population. So people the Chinese perceived as inferior coming to police them added some fuel to their negative attitudes.
In China and other parts of the world, people have this attitude and stereotype about Sikhs. People don’t know much about them, apart from the fact they wear turbans, and they’re often confused for Arabs.
Sixth Tone: Sikhs in Shanghai have been portrayed in movies and comic books like the “Adventures of Tintin” series, often in stereotypical ways. How does this distort history and reality?
Cao Yin: All these movies and novels have included the Sikhs, but only as part of the landscape. They are not the main characters; they are just objects to highlight the exotic characteristics of Shanghai’s International Settlement. In some of the movies I’ve watched, the Sikhs just stand in their red turbans and say nothing — they’re like trees on the side of the road.
This is the problem. Both in China and in the West, Indians in Shanghai have been portrayed as props in an exotic landscape, and the audience supposes that they have contributed nothing to the modernization of this Chinese city.
Sixth Tone: What are some of the contributions the Sikhs have made in Shanghai?
Cao Yin: They changed the colonial police force in Shanghai, as well as those in Hong Kong and Singapore. Along with Europeans and Chinese, they comprised one-third of the SMP. Sikhs were used as the main force because Europeans were too expensive, and Westerners didn’t trust the Chinese. So [Sikhs] tried to modernize the policing practice in one of the most modern cities in China.
Apart from that, Sikhs also contributed to the nationalist revolution — both the Indian revolution overseas and the Chinese nationalism movements in the 1920s and ’30s. In Shanghai, they tried to overthrow the British hegemony and did a lot to end British interests here. But this part has been deliberately ignored in the national history, as Chinese history has always highlighted that we Chinese heralded our own nationalist revolution. Meanwhile, the Indian side always tried to highlight the importance of the Indian National Congress in [overthrowing British rule], while neglecting the contributions made by overseas Indians, including the overseas Sikh population. So they have been forgotten by both sides — that’s why nobody tells their story.
Editor: Doris Wang.
(Header image: A group photo of staff members from the Sinza Police Station in Shanghai, December 1933. Courtesy of Historical Photographs of China)