The Indian World of Old Shanghai




An excerpt from Sin City, by Ralph Shaw, a British journalist in Shanghai from 1937 to 1949:

"The Sikhs had a large community in Shanghai. Most of them were in the police. Others were watchmen. They were British subjects because India was part of the Empire. The ex-soldiers amongst them had been recruited for police service, on traffic duties, in the riot squad or the mounted section, and on retirement from the force they found their services in demand 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 night-clubs. 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. Every other Sikh had a sideline - money-lending. This produced many appearances in court as plaintiffs against Empire citizens who had defaulted on promissory notes.

Judge Grant-Jones administered the law in conformity with the strict principles of British justice. Nevertheless he never missed an opportunity to express astonishment - and stern condemnation - of some rates of interest levied by the Sikhs or to question their veracity under oath.

On one occasion a big, bearded Sikh moneylender was addressed by the judge: 'The extent of your extortion has only been equalled by the amount of the fabrications you have given in evidence. One day I will meet a member of your community who will tell me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, an occasion which I shall celebrate as the miraculous attainment of the impossible.'

Then the judge would look over to me - he knew me as a shorthand writer - just to make sure that I'd got down what he wanted to be printed. A slight nod from me and he would continue the hearing.

There was the Sikh on a charge of indecency. A British woman had given evidence that while watching the races she had felt a hard object pressing into her bottom. On turning round she had seen the Sikh. There was no doubt that what she had felt was his penis. The Sikh hotly denied the lady's story. What she had felt, he said on oath, was a bottle of beer he kept in his trousers pocket.

'Pint or half-pint?' asked the judge.

'Half-pint.'

'No hyperbole there - modest,' commented the judge, soberfaced.

A Chinese witness told the court that he had seen the Sikh with his hand in his pocket definitely prodding the lady's bottom. The Sikh said that he had been about to withdraw the bottle to take a swig from it. Accidentally the bottle may have touched the lady's person. It was no more than that. The judge was no fool. He knew his Sikhs and their sexual reputations. Had it not been a fellow judge once who, when asked to give a definition of a virgin in India, had replied, 'A goat that can run faster than a Sikh'? He said that he did not believe the defendant's tale. Indecency there had been and a large fine was imposed."