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August 12, 2009

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Lording over the locals: When red turbans were a familiar sight

As imperial powers carved out the history of Shanghai after the Opium Wars in the 1850s, a sizeable part of that history was played out by the India's Sikh community here.

Brought in to lord over the local populace by British India, the Sikhs - with their tall, well-built stature, beard and turban - were a familiar sight on the streets of Shanghai in the 19th century and the early 20th century.

Then they were called Hongtou A San.

Hongtou was a reference to their red turbans but there are many versions about how A San got entangled with it. Some argue it sounded close to the local dialect for "Aye Sir."

Others say A San is a derivative of the English phrase "I see," while a guide at the Shanghai Public Security Museum thought it was a Shanghai dialect for No. 3 - possibly a reference to their status in the police force after the Westerners and Chinese.

A visit to the museum on Ruijin Road S. finds a life-size wax figure of a Sikh policeman standing at the entrance on the first floor. Elsewhere on the three floors of the museum are other sepia-stained pictures of Sikh policemen controlling the traffic.

Records show that the Shanghai Municipal Council first began to recruit Sikhs sometime in 1884 during the Sino-French War (1883-85). Sixteen Sikhs - one inspector and 15 constables - were enlisted and stationed at the Gorden Road (today's Jiangning Road) police station. That number had grown to as much as 634 in 1934.

There were 557 of them in 1940 and 465 in 1942.

It made business sense as they were paid considerably lower than their European counterparts but slightly better than the Chinese. Ma Changlin's "Shanghai in Foreign Concession" notes that the Sikhs were not only "easy to train and control" but were also "inclined to obey instructions and disciplined."

As more new recruits made their way to the city in the following years, they were taught English and Shanghai dialect by the Municipal Council. By 1886, some of them were also asked to man traffic in and around the international settlement and patrol the streets.

The settlement covered most of Huangpu and Hongkou districts and some areas of Zhabei and Baoshan districts.

Outside the force, the Sikhs found jobs as bank guards, security men on the wharves, at the city's warehouses and the big business hongs or as commissionaires at hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, according to British journalist Ralph Shaw, who lived in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949.

Shaw also says that "every other Sikh had a sideline - money-lending."

"The Sikhs loved money. They lent it but at such exorbitant rates of interest that their debtors, who were plentiful, were likely to remain insolvent for the remainder of their natural lives."

A former temple - now a residence and a community health clinic in Shanghai's northeast Hongkou District - is the only remnant of the Sikh legacy in the city.

The Sikh Gurdwara at 326 Dongbaoxing Road, a red-walled structure with elongated doors and large windows, is dwarfed by new high-rise complexes and the overhead Metro Line 3.

In the book "Annals and History of Hongkou District," it says the temple "served as a place for the Indian Sikhs to get together and practice their religion."

Built in the early part of the 19th century, it was known among the locals as Yindu Miao (Indian temple) and is protected as a cultural relic under the supervision of the Hongkou District government.

"It's a miracle that it survived the furious bombing during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) while all the neighboring structures were destroyed," says an official with the Hongkou District's Cultural Relics Museum.

The temple was officially registered as an immovable cultural relic on December 16, 2003, giving it much-needed protection in an era of change.

In its original formation, it covered a total floor space of 1,500 square meters.

The temple has survived the passage of time. However, preservation is still by no means easy.

"Funds are a big problem - to restore it needs a large amount of money, including a big part for the relocation of the current residents," says the museum official.

"Many other factors have also to be taken into account before we even apply for government aid for its restoration as a heritage structure, such as its historic value, economic value and international appeal.

"Our restoration of the old Ohel Moishe Synagogue on Changyang Road has been a huge success.

"It has not only recorded the history of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II, but it has drawn visitors from home and abroad.

"It is on the itinerary of every Jewish traveler," she says.

The temple is currently home to six or seven families who have lived there for over three decades, which makes further preservation and restoration "almost impossible," says the official.

An elderly resident living in the temple is aware of its historical significance. "I know it was called Yindu Miao. I have been living here for more than 30 years."

She says living conditions are "really bad."

"The rooms are only separated from each other by a thin cardboard. There is no privacy here. I would love to move out and relocate elsewhere."


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