A House for Mr Tata – An Old Shanghai Tale tells us something new about China and India

In 1904, Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, a distant cousin of the founders of the House of Tata, left India’s shores for Shanghai. He set himself up in the textile trade and displayed the legendary business acumen associated with his enterprising family name. His fortune allowed him to build a mansion named Avan Villa, portions of which still stand on No. 458 Wulumuqi North Road in China’s commercial capital.

by Andrew Smith | Scroll.IN

But decades of tumult resulted in the family losing their home. Their struggle to reclaim possession of Avan Villa is the subject of A House for Mr Tata – An Old Shanghai Tale, by Mishi Saran, which forms part of an anthology titled Travelling In, Travelling Out – A book of Unexpected Journeys, edited by Namita Gokhale.  As she recounts the battle for the Tata mansion, Saran not only uncovers the forgotten history of the Parsi community in Shanghai, she also tells of the long-standing relationship between India and China.

Here are excerpts from an interview with her.

Inchin Closer: Your story focuses on the life, family and home of  Bejan Tata in Shanghai, China. Who is Bejan Tata and what is his relation with the present-day Tata Family, in Bombay?

Mishi Saran: It is the tale of an adventurous young Parsi man, Bejan Dadabhoy Tata, who sailed off from Bombay, a man who landed in whirling, cosmopolitan Shanghai in 1904 and made a life on China’s east coast, partly because he had the great, good luck to be born a distant cousin of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata.


I have not yet found the exact relational lineage; all we know is that BD and Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata were distantly related.  RD Tata as he is better known, was the first cousin of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the founder of the great House of Tata, which in its day also had an eye on the China market.

JN Tata sent his son to China as early as 1861, but the firm’s efforts there yielded only patchy success. RD, in his day, also decided to try his hand in Japan and China and enlisted his distant cousin B.D.  to help with the business of trade ‒ mainly exports of textiles. The enterprising young BD snatched the opportunity in both hands and forged his whole life on the fulcrum of that single decision.


Inchin Closer: Life couldn’t all have been easy for BD Tata. What were some of the triumphs and challenges the Tata family faced in Shanghai? How did they make China work for them?

Mishi Saran: By 1926, BD Tata was doing well enough in Shanghai to think about acquiring land and building a lavish estate ‒ a gracious villa, with four smaller, semi-detached houses at the back. The five buildings were completed in 1935. He named the big house Avan Villa, after his mother, and moved his wife and children there. The youngest two were a pair of boy-girl twins ‒ the Chinese say “dragon-phoenix” twins ‒ named Jehangir Bejan, and Aloo, born in Shanghai in 1919.


Nothing went as planned, however.

After a reasonably satisfactory run of business, RD Tata had to liquidate the firm’s concerns in China. BD in Shanghai, with a family to support, must have done rapid calculations.

He threw his lot in with China. He formed his own company, BD Tata and Co., and negotiated a direct agreement with Chinese textile mills.

I think it would have been hard for him to leave Shanghai; he had had sunk too many years into China and would have had few contacts left in India. His children had even less of a connection to India. Besides, given the Tata establishment in Shanghai, each of the five children stood to inherit a house in China.

In addition, life was good in Shanghai. The family could visit the Parsee Prayer Hall, the community had a cricket team, a recreation club and frequent gatherings. Zoroastrian priests shipped in from Bombay for services in Shanghai performed the requisite rites.

The Tata children were raised and schooled at British-run schools in Shanghai, in an international milieu. The parents spoke Gujarati at home, but their children replied in English. The youngsters had only been to India twice. At best, for them, India was an abstract concept, and Jehangir, certainly, was left with a lifelong regret that he never learned Gujarati.

Inchin Closer: With World War II around the corner and China subsequently in the throes of a violent civil war, how did life pan out for the Tatas?

Mishi Saran: I suspect that staying on in Shanghai was a massive gamble on BD Tata’s part and soon enough, he found himself and his family caught up in the whirlwind of China’s turbulent modern history.


The rumbles of World War II started early in China, with Japan’s attacks in the north as early as 1931. Shanghai succumbed to Japanese military might in 1937, following a bloody summer battle, just as Jehangir was finishing school.

“I remember the Japanese barracks were right across [from] the school….my father was concerned that we maybe would be put into [Japanese internment] camps, because we all had British passports at the time,” Jehangir said. But the Japanese classed all Indians, including the Tatas, as “friendly enemies” and the family was spared the camps.

Even as World War II ended, China’s long-brewing civil war between the Communists led by Mao Zedong and the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek exploded.

As the Communists gained the upper hand in 1949, many wealthy industrialists ‒ both Chinese and foreign – fled the country. Huge numbers sought refuge in the nearest British territory ‒ the colony of Hong Kong, which had strong commercial and social links to Shanghai.

Hong Kong already housed a thriving, prosperous Parsi community. It was the most natural place for BD Tata and his wife to flee to, looking over their shoulder at all they had built, hoping they could return to China and their estates soon. India was too far away, there was little to be gained by returning to Bombay.

When Jehangir in turn left China with his new wife, the pair first sought their fortune in Brazil, but then they too, returned to Hong Kong, a natural base, and lived there for many years before they emigrated to the United States.

Jehangir spent the rest of his life wondering what happened to the Tata home in Shanghai. This is the quest outlined in my article in Travelling In, Travelling Out.

Inchin Closer: Why didn’t the Tatas return to India during the war years or even after when the Communist party took over?

Mishi Saran: The young Tatas had visited India only twice, growing up.


Jehangir remembered: ”I think the first trip we did was on a boat, because I remember a photograph with a lifebuoy and my sister and I standing in front and that time we must have been one or two years old.Then the next trip we went to India, the whole family went in 1930. I was 11 years old. And that trip I remember quite well, because we did join a Jeena tour ‒ Jeena was very well known in India for the touring industry…we visited Delhi, Agra, Jamshedpur, many places…In Bombay, I remember we stayed with my uncle, my father’s brother and I can remember the name of the road, it was called Babulnath Road…And I remember also…there was a Parsi artist living a floor below us…We did go to Darjeeling, we saw the sunrise at Mt. Kanchanjanga. I remember that. We got up early morning to see the sunrise.”

The Tatas held British passports, but when India gained independence across the Himalayas, the Tatas felt the new era lapping at their feet even in Shanghai. The British Consulate in Shanghai refused to renew their British passports, Jehangir remembered.

“They said, ‘You are now Indian.’ They said, ‘India is now independent’ and all that. So I took up the Indian passport ‒ the whole family took up the Indian passport,” he said.

Despite this documentary link to the subcontinent, there is another reason the family may have not returned to India. Like many others who fled China, it is quite likely that BD believed they might return soon to Shanghai to reclaim their possessions and wealth, and that it made sense to wait out the political upheaval close by in Hong Kong.



Inchin Closer: Like the Sikh Gurudwara in Shanghai, does the Zoroastrian cemetery still stand? Is it still operational?

Mishi Saran: According to an old Shanghai map, the Zoroastrian Prayer Hall and Cemetery were located at 539 Fuzhou Road. The map clearly states in English, Parsee Prayer Hall and in Chinese, ”White Head Prayer Hall.” The Chinese called Parsis “white heads” because of the traditional Parsi outfits. Beside the building, the Chinese characters say “cemetery”. The shape of the building that is currently at the location marked “Parsee Prayer Hall” fits the footprint on the map. It is eight floors high and has a neoclassical structure; a plain architrave above double columns, topped with a triangular pediment. The tympanum features a bold bas-relief: two griffins hold up a crown. This is an image that smacks strongly of the classical emblem of the Persian state, incorporating Zoroastrian symbols. The building’s front is currently a Chinese chain hotel, and the back has been converted into a string of small offices on each floor.


Inchin Closer: The Parsis, Sikhs and Rabindranath Tagore, were all in Shanghai at around the same time – 1930-40s. Did they interact at all in Shanghai or were their roles and influences all different?

Mishi Saran: Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in 1913, visited Shanghai three times. He first stepped off the ship Atsuta which berthed in Shanghai 90 years ago, on April 12, 1924. He declared he felt he had come home, that he must have been Chinese in a previous life. He spent his 64th birthday in China. Tagore came back to China twice more, in 1929. During these three trips, he gave lectures, held talks, mingled with intellectuals and poets, and forged a lifelong friendship with Chinese poet Xu Zhimo. Chinese writers had already translated the Gitanjali, as well as Tagore’s poetry collections and works like Correspondence by Sea, Leaf Garden, Cycling of Spring, and The Crescent Moon. Tagore felt a strong connection between the two countries, and a need to promote links between two ancient civilisations that had flowered independent of the West.


A section of the growing and fiercely independent, youthful Communist movement was miffed with Tagore for being far too dreamy, but the Indian poet to this day lives strong in China’s cultural memory. There is a bust of Tagore at the corner of Nanchang Road and Maoming Road in Shanghai.

While Tagore was an iconic, literary visitor, the other Indians in Old Shanghai were long-stayers and economic reasons dictated their presence in China. They were here primarily to make a living.

The Parsis came by choice, first as merchants working hand-in-glove with the British opium traders, even before the Opium Wars. They were initially based out of Bombay, then Canton. Alongside the British, they too sought to open China’s markets. The Parsi community eventually established itself in Hong Kong, and then a handful drifted northwards to settle in Shanghai.

Eventually, in addition to the Parsee Prayer Hall and the Parsi Cricket Association, Shanghai boasted a Parsi Club and a Parsi Cemetery Trust Fund.

It was a small, but lively community.Jehangir remembers a frisson of discontent among the elderly Parsi ladies when a young Zoroastrian priest arrived in Shanghai from Bombay and was roped into the cricket team ‒ he was a fine sportsman ‒ but the elders clucked in dismay.

Still, even at its height, the size of the Parsi community in Shanghai never exceeded a few hundred people, according to Jehangir’s recollections.

As regards other Indians, Madhavi Thampi in her book Indians in China – 1800-1949, also lists a smattering of Ismaili merchants, plus a steady and mobile stream of Hyderabadi Sindhi traders, who were keen middlemen.

The Sikhs were the most numerous and most visible Indians in Shanghai’s landscape. The British shipped in garrison after garrison of Sikhs from India to be police, watchmen and sepoys in Shanghai’s International Settlement. Their bright red turbans, imposing bulk and height and willingness to wield a baton struck fear into the heart of the Chinese, and Chinese parents frightened their children into good behavior by saying the  ”red-headed sirs” ‒ hong tou ah-seh – will come and snatch you away.

Jehangir Bejan Tata remembers some Sikh boys at his school, so some Sikhs were able to send their sons to school in Shanghai.

Last but not least, there were the Sephardic Jews whose patriarch, David Sassoon arrived in Bombay in 1832, then expanded into Shanghai. The Sassoon family was the best-known among India’s exports, and the wealthiest.

Collectively, this merchant class from India worked shoulder to shoulder with their British counterparts in an atmosphere of mutual financial benefit tinged with racism. As a result, they worked hard to adopt the culture and mannerisms of Shanghai’s hybrid, British-dominated city.

Inchin Closer: There are many parallels between India and China today and as they stood in the 1930-4’s.  Can you draw any comparisons to the economic boom of the 1930s in Shanghai, the Indians then and the current boom and the Indians in Shanghai now?

Mishi Saran: Indians definitely partook of the economic prosperity in Shanghai in the pre-war years. BD Tata was able to build Avan Villa. The Sassoons expanded their family fortune exponentially, indeed shifting much of their business to Shanghai.


There were enough Indians to support a branch of the Indian Independence League, started in India to overthrow British rule by armed insurrection. It held meetings in public to large audiences and even started a radio station. There was a Shanghai branch of the Indian Merchant Association. The Indian Sporting Associations had their own Football Club as well as their own Hockey Club.

The Sikh forces in Shanghai had access to a couple of Gurudwaras for worship. The buildings are still extant, but have been made into residential quarters for locals.

A number of the Indians married Chinese women ‒ even today it is not uncommon in Shanghai to encounter Chinese who can trace at least one Indian grandparent or great-grandparent.

Today, Shanghai has about 6,000 Indians registered at the Indian Consulate. There are likely thousands more who have not registered. The current community is a mix of students, of long-term expatriates who own their businesses and shorter-term expatriates who work for multinational firms headquartered either in India or other countries. They hail from all parts of India. A tiny handful have married local Chinese women ‒ many more have at least fraternised with Chinese women, one young Indian man poured out to me the story of how his heart was broken by a Chinese beauty.

Shanghai’s present-day living standards are enviable. The city functions efficiently and is increasingly hospitable to foreigners.

It is interesting to note that the Tata business presence has returned to Shanghai from India, with various businesses under the Tata umbrella mushrooming in cities all over China.

There are two crucial differences between today’s Shanghai and old Shanghai. Under Communist rule, foreign religious and political clubs and associations are banned from public activity. Secondly, the poverty so visible in the 1930s has largely been eradicated.

The modern Indian Association in Shanghai is a vibrant, diverse community that communicates to paid-up members via an extensive mailing list, but does not have any buildings to its name.

The community holds regular celebrations of festivals from all around India, Durga Puja, Ganesh-Utasv, Gurpurab, Diwali, Holi, Vishu, Dandiyaa and so on. Since these celebrations target Indians and their families, Chinese authorities turn a blind eye, particularly as no holy men are involved. The events are permitted in hired hotel convention rooms.

On the occasion of Guru Nanak’s birthday, the local community sponsors Raagis from Amritsar to travel to Shanghai and these religious figures must sing at somebody’s home ‒ since such an obvious public religious gathering is forbidden.

In 2013, when the Indian guru Shri Shri Ravi Shankar visited China to lecture, the local authorities initially permitted his appearance at a hotel conference venue. Perhaps alarmed at an unexpectedly large response from the Chinese populace who snapped up tickets to his talk, the event was cancelled at the last minute, without explanation.

This article first appeared on inchincloser.com.