Sunday, January 4, 2009

Suddenly Lascars Are Everywhere



More strange coincidences after reading about the Indian philosopher Tagore in China and then stumbling across one of his sayings carved into the pavement in Taipei (see here).

I meant to note that the best piece of literature I read last year was Amitav Ghosh’s excellent Sea of Poppies. It seems this is the first in a trilogy of books about the opium trade that will eventually feature China more heavily.


As someone who has long been a habitual peruser (if such a word exists) of Henry Yule’s (left) Hobson Jobson Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases I enjoy pidgin English in all its variants – Portuguese pidgin, China coast and Anglo-Indian. Ghosh peppers his novel with pidgin and nautical terms and, for me at least, writes some scenes that compare with Joseph Conrad’s great sea-borne stories of Asia (Victory, Lord Jim etc).



Ghosh’s book also has Lascars in it, who are always fascinating – Indian seaman usually employed on European ships. I first heard of them as a kid walking around the Port of London with my dad in the 70s just before all the old streets got cleared for Canary Wharf and Thastcher's Docklands toytown. He'd waffle on about the old communities in that area (seemed like waffling at the time anyway when I had Action Man to be dealing with) – Chinese as well as Lascars that were there when my grandfather worked in the docks area. At the time of the First World War there were apparently about 50,000 Indian Lascars living in Britain’s port cities alone, mostly in Stepney and Canning Town around the East and West India Docks. The picture of the Lascar sailor (left) was taken in London's King George V Dock around the time of the Second World War I think.



Having finished the book and with Lascars still in my mind they popped up twice quite by accident. First, I picked up a DVD in Shanghai of the old Arthur Conan Doyle mystery The Man With the Twisted Lip, where Sherlock Holmes ventures in an East End opium den run by a Lascar and then wandering through Hong Kong happened to catch myself passing Upper Lascar Row. Lascars live on it seems.


By the way I just found out that Hobson Jobson has gone all interweb so I can spare my battered old copy any more damage as there’s an online version courtesy of the University of Chicago – click here


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