Sikhs Trained In Kung Fu — British India’s Secret Weapon To Deal With Shanghai’s Gangsters

The SMP Sikh branch, consisting of Sikhs trained in Kung Fu, was hired by the British India’s Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) as a secret weapon to deal with Shanghai’s gangsters, such as the Big Eight Mob.

From his table inside the lavish, red-enamel interiors of 181 Avenue Foch—surrounded by games of mahjong, pai gow, and cards, and waiters scurrying about with complimentary opium and wine—detective-squad chief Huang “Bigshot” Jinrong looked out at one of the greatest criminal empires the world had ever known. The Big Eight Mob controlled the opium business, gambling, prostitution, the fish market, at least two major banks and the police itself. Three of every hundred Shanghai residents made their living from crime.

To keep the flotsam of drunks, small-time thieves and sex workers from spilling into the city’s upmarket casinos, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) had hired a small army of men from another world: Men with long beards and bright-red turbans, brought in from small villages in Punjab’s Majha region.

For the most part, the 558 men who served in what was known as the SMP Sikh branch disappeared from history when it was disbanded eighty years ago, in 1943. From the surviving records, though, we know constable Isser Singh was out on the violent streets of Hongkou night after night. The historian Isabella Jackson tells us Isser arrested a drunk American sailor on 19 December 1906 and locked up an unruly Russian who obstructed traffic on Boone Road the next summer.

The Sikh constabulary was also key to putting down riots and political disturbances—leaving behind a legacy of resentment that still colours popular culture in China.

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