INDIAN Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Shanghai follows in the footsteps of a large ethnic Indian population which lived in the thriving port city before China’s Communists took power in 1949.
Thousands of Indians worked in Shanghai in jobs ranging from business to law enforcement during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Britain dominated the International Settlement and India was part of the British Empire.
Around 2,800 Indians, mostly Sikhs, were recruited into the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) which kept order in the concession, according to one estimate, and a Sikh policeman wearing a red turban remains a symbol of the times, immortalised in a wax figure at a city museum.
“Sikhs added colour to the Shanghai landscape with their flame-red turbans and soldierly appearance,” Meena Vathyam wrote on her blog “Sikhs in Shanghai”.
“The Parsees ran successful businesses,” she said, referring to Indian followers of the minority Zoroastrian faith. “Sikhs, Parsees indeed were a very important part of tumultuous Shanghai city.”
Many of the SMP officers who opened fire on Chinese protesters on the penultimate day of May in 1925, triggering anti-foreigner demonstrations and riots across China known as the May 30th Movement, were Sikhs.
The Indian population in the International Settlement alone peaked at around 2,400, according to the research of Robert Bickers, a professor at the University of Bristol.
Many more will have lived in the wider city.
Indians had their own chamber of commerce, the Indian Merchant Association, as well as sports clubs for football and field hockey. The Parsees had their own cricket club.
Besides police, common jobs included being watchmen and traders, but they faced racism from other foreigners and the Chinese. Shanghai natives gave the police the derogatory nickname “Red Head Number Three”, which entered local dialect as a reference to Sikhs in general.
“I heard my parents use it,” said Lynn Pan, a Shanghai resident and author of several books about the city including “Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.”
“This was the British Empire. They brought Sikhs,” she told reporters.
Now, the Indian Consulate in Shanghai estimates around 4,000 of its nationals live in the city, with another 4,000 in two neighbouring provinces.
Modi is scheduled to meet some of them at a reception on Saturday afternoon.
“The Indian community is a mix of entrepreneurs, professionals employed by Indian and global multi-national corporations, service personnel, senior business executives and traders,” the consulate said.