Parsis: A small but vibrant community in 19th century

020161111231745I remember the shock that ran through me the first time I discovered that there had once been a thriving Parsi community in Shanghai. I stumbled on this information by accident, while researching a novel.

With their roots in Persia (present-day Iran), many Parsis fled to India in the 8th century to escape religious persecution, although some scholars debate that impetus.

Later, in the 19th century, alongside British traders, Parsis found their way from India to Hong Kong and then to Shanghai, where they formed a small but vibrant community, with their own associations, clubs and activities.

Parsis follow the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra, and consider fire a sacred element, which is why the religion is sometimes referred to as that of the “fire-worshippers” (拜火教), and their place of worship is called a fire temple.

I was able to conduct a series of lengthy conversations with a Shanghai-born Parsi, Jehangir Bejan (J.B.) Tata (1919-2013) and those interviews revealed much about the life of the Parsi community in old Shanghai.

Tata explained how his father, Bejan Dadabhoy (B.D.) Tata, arrived from India to explore possible textile and cotton yarn markets in Japan and China, and how he eventually settled in Shanghai, working for an arm of India’s still-massive Tata empire.

Eventually, B.D. Tata ran the factories independently of the Indian concern, though he had to cede control of the factories to Japanese authorities when Shanghai was occupied between 1937 and 1945.

During my talks with J.B. Tata, he alerted me to the existence of an old fire temple on Shanghai’s Fuzhou Road. A visit there revealed that the fire temple had been torn down and a hotel built over it, but the site of the fire temple — as well of the neighboring Parsi cemetery — is still clearly delineated and labeled in maps of old Shanghai.

I learned that the Shanghai Parsi community would invite priests from Mumbai (then Bombay) to move to Shanghai and conduct religious ceremonies such as the Navjote, or coming-of-age ceremony for children.

To govern and run the Parsi cemetery, the community set up a Parsi Cemetery Trust Fund. The Parsi community was small and tightly knit. J.B. Tata said that his father hosted many social gatherings at their home on Ulumuqi Road N.

Although Parsi men sometimes married Chinese women, it was common for young Parsis of marriageable age to return to India to find spouses. Occasionally, the men brought their wives back to Shanghai, and so the Parsi presence grew and swelled the ranks of the Parsi Club. There were even enough Parsis to form their own cricket club.

But the history of Parsis extends far beyond Shanghai, and well before the modern era. Reverend Chan Kim Kwong, former executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, is knowledgeable about world religions and journeyed to China’s western regions in 2007.

He noted the existence of an 11th-century fire temple near Tashgorkhan of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Reverend Chan explained that the floor plan of the Chinese fire temple was identical to temples he had seen during his trips to Iran.

When I moved back to Hong Kong in 2014, after eight years in Shanghai, I met a number of Parsis who had vibrant Shanghai connections, and it’s clear that this Parsi story is taking on a life of its own. The research amasses, even as fresh discoveries come to light.

For example, the Zoroastrian cemetery in Huangpu, an island off Guangzhou where foreign ships used to dock, was only discovered around 1999. The Trustees of the Hong Kong Anjuman (association) of Parsis had only a vague lead and no concrete information. Eventually, with the help of the Hong Kong Royal Asiatic Society, the Parsi Trustees managed to establish contact with the Guangzhou Bureau of Culture and the Guangzhou Committee of Antiquities. The Chinese government undertook a thorough and careful restoration of the cemetery.

Finally a group of Hong Kong Parsis, led by Jal Shroff, then president of the Hong Kong Zoroastrian Community, traveled to Guangzhou in April 2008 to visit and pay their respects at the Huangpu cemetery.

I hope to follow in their footsteps, visit the cemeteries in Macau and Guangzhou; there are more archives to explore. Mainly, I’m thrilled to know that I wasn’t the first Indian to be so involved with Shanghai, and with China.


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