Monday, May 23, 2005

The Lascars of Old Hong Kong

In our upcoming SoHo guided walk, we'll be taking people to the section of Hollywood Road near the Man Mo Temple. Just near there is the legendary Cat Street, famous for knick-knacks and old historic curios. The two streets of curios on which these curios are displayed are officially called Upper and Lower Lascar Row. Who were the Lascars, anyway?

It was perhaps a slightly derogatory term that referred initially to Indian sailors. It actually was a northern Indian term of the Urdu dialect, lashkar, which referred either to sailors or to soldiers. It derived from Persian and in turn, Arabic origins, in al-ashkar, which means the Army in Arabic. However, over the years, it was bastardized in European and English usage as referring to any sailor of Indian, Southeast Asian or even African origin.

Early Hong Kong had many such "Lascar" sailors; this is evidenced in a report local heritage author Barbara Sue-White dug up in her research on a typical population breakdown on board an opium clipper ship. In this case, it was the Jamesina, named after one of the founders of what was then the world's largest opium trading firm:

"In 1832, the Jamesina, a small opium-smuggling ship owned by Jardine and Matheson, had ten Europeans, a crew of fifty-four Indian lascars, and four Chinese staff members."

So it is important to realize that while many European and American merchants did business in China, typically only a small portion of their crew were Chinese; the Lascars often made up the majority of the sailors on board. This made sense given that the major trade of the day was opium, which usually originated from Bengal in Eastern India.

Given both the economic, religious (many were Muslim) and racial bars of the time, were confined to this neighborhood of the Lascar Rows in or around the Chinese area of Taipingshan while in port. They often had some tiny carriage space in the hold of the boats on which they traveled, and would set out their wares in their very own bazaars right in Hong Kong while their ships were in port.

Lascars declined in proportionate numbers in Hong Kong as the city's merchants did business with a greater variety of ports, and as Chinese seamen were gradually recruited into merchant vessel service in increasing numbers. But the Lascar Rows of Hong Kong remain a testament to the once-flourishing community of (usually) Muslim sailors that manned Hong Kong's vital trade conduits to the rest of the world.

No comments: