When one thinks of Jagatjit Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of Kapurthala and his charmed life, the thing that often comes to mind is his love for all things French. His residence was modelled after the Versailles Palace, while the Moorish Mosque in his city was styled after the Koutoubia Mosque in French-ruled Marrakesh. So many buildings in Kapurthala were influence by France that it earned the moniker “the mini-Paris of Punjab”. No wonder, then, little is said about the other country Singh had a deep appreciation for – Japan.

In the preface to his 1905 book My Travel in China, Japan and Java, 1903, Singh wrote, “From the standpoint of the traveller, Japan is perhaps one of the most interesting countries in the world; the country itself is full of delightful and varied scenery, while its people possess a charm of appearance and manner unlike anything of the kind to be met with elsewhere.”

The riveting travelogue provides a rare Indian view of East Asia of the early 1900s and was written immediately after Singh’s visit to the region. From his writings it is abundantly clear that visiting Japan was the highlight of his travels.

Looking East

In the autumn of 1903, Singh, who by then had visited some of Europe’s most glamorous cities, set off for East Asia to get a better understanding of the countries in the region. From Bombay, he boarded a steamship for Colombo, a journey that took four days at that time. Singh does not talk much about his time in Ceylon, which was a transit point on the trip. What he does mention is that he stayed at Colombo’s prestigious Galle Face Hotel, went on drives in what he described as the “so-called ‘Emerald Isle of the East’”, and appreciated the island’s pleasant weather.

From Colombo, he set sail on a bigger and more comfortable steamship for Singapore, passing Dutch-colonised Sumatra on the way. During the five-day voyage, Singh interacted with French military officers who were on their way to Indo-China. A French theatrical troupe heading to the same destination made him wonder how the British could do something similar for India.

Singapore struck Singh as an “interesting” place. “On landing we were much astonished to notice the extraordinary mixture of races there appeared to be; besides Europeans and Americans, there were Malays, Tamils, Javanese and a good many Sikhs,” Singh wrote. “Of course, the Chinese predominated; there is a population of 100,000 of that race in Singapore.” After his “day trip” to Singapore, the Kapurthala ruler set sail for Vietnam, where his first port of call was Saigon.

A quay in Singapore. Credit: G.R. Lambert & Co., Publisher/New York Public Library [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain].

The Francophile ruler was keen to see how the French administered their colonies. He wrote, “This was the first French colony I had ever visited: my curiosity was consequently at the highest pitch, as I was keen on making comparisons between English and French methods of administration.”

Saigon’s beauty left Singh impressed. “The one big street in Saigon is called the Rue de Catinat,” he wrote. “It is quite equal in appearance to one in a provincial town in France, and it is well-arranged with trees on either side; it also has some very fair shops stocked chiefly with French goods.”

He appreciated the French colonial architecture in the city centre. “The public buildings, such as Government House, the Post Office and the Cathedral, are all fine specimens of architecture in the French style,” Singh wrote. “They were profusely adorned with statuary, and these, as well as the residential villas of the better class of inhabitants, are very artistic in appearance.” There is a mention in his book of the many good cafes and restaurants in the city, including the most popular of them all, the legendary Café de la Musique.

Besides meeting high-level colonial officials, Singh visited the homes of wealthy Chinese and Vietnamese merchants and was impressed with how well they were kept, despite being in crowded commercial areas. What did not thrill the Kapurthala ruler was the “pidgin” French of the Chinese and the Vietnamese in Saigon. A mocking tone can be detected in his voice when he writes that he could only understand them with difficulty. Still, all in all, he called his brief stay in Saigon “pleasant”.

Hong Kong sojourn

The next stop on the journey was Hong Kong, then under British rule. “The view on arriving in the harbour is a very striking one and it is justly said to be one of the finest in the world,” he wrote. “The whole harbour is surrounded by high hills, which form a perfect amphitheatre, which not only protect the shipping but constitute the most beautiful background imaginable.”

Among other Hong Kong landmarks described in the book is the Happy Valley racecourse and the Peak. He took the Peak Tram up to the top and enjoyed the views, writing, “As the darkness increased, the view at our feet became more and more entrancing. Hundreds of lights which looked like fairy lamps dotted about, twinkled in the twilight: the lights were those of the ships in the harbour.” Singh called the sight “particularly charming and one not to be forgotten”.

Bird’s-eye view of Victoria’s Peak, Hong Kong. Credit: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection/Library of Congress/Picryl [Public Domain]

In Hong Kong, Singh stayed at the King Edward Hotel, which was run by Parsis. The hotel owners were by no means the only Indians the raja saw. “I was much astonished to see so many Indians so far from their homes: all the policemen are Sikhs, and I was told the local badmashes looked on them with terror: One Sikh policeman was estimated to be the equal of 10 loafers of Chinese nationality,” he wrote.

Singh observed that the Chinese in Hong Kong lived better than their compatriots in China but then, almost in the next breath, had unpleasant things to say about them. He said, “The [Hong Kong] Chinese, although very industrious, I must say are as stupid as can be imagined: it seemed to be impossible to make them understand what one wanted.”

A quintessential Hong Kong experience for the raja was a typhoon that delayed his voyage to China.

Chinese leg

Singh arrived in China at one of the weakest points in the country’s history. It had only been a few years since the Boxer Rebellion had been crushed by the Allied nations that included Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Japan and the United States. The country’s government was effectively controlled by Empress Dowager Cixi, but cities like Shanghai were in the grip of foreign powers.

Shanghai had a population of around 700,000 but, despite the domination of foreign powers, the population of Europeans and Americans was about 8,000. A complex legal system existed in the city and the question of jurisdiction was complicated. “While Shanghai is actually on Chinese soil, its municipality is international, and the people who reside there are tried and judged by their own courts,” Singh wrote. He visited some “mixed tribunals” where Chinese and foreign judges jointly tried offenders. “The proceedings of mixed tribunals affect that part of Shanghai known as the Foreign Settlement only. The city of Shanghai proper is under the jurisdiction of Chinese officials only,” he wrote. Shanghai too had a large number of Sikh police personnel.

A scene from Shanghai in early 20th century. Credit: GetArchives.Net [Public Domain]

Singh spoke highly of the Foreign Settlement and the French Concession but was shocked at the conditions in the Chinese-administered areas. The areas were worth visiting for curiosity’s sake, he said, but were so filthy that they took away from the pleasure of the visit. “Words cannot describe the variety and strength of the smells we encountered, and we were, perforce, obliged to keep our handkerchiefs applied to our noses continuously,” Singh wrote. “The streets were so narrow as to not admit the passage of a ‘rickshaw,’ so we were obliged to go a-foot.” He also managed to visit one of the city’s notorious opium dens, writing, “To see people under the influence of the drug is sufficient to convince the most sceptical of the degradation engendered by the habitual use of it.”

He seemed to enjoy the Chinese theatre and said the antics of the actors reminded him of the Ram Leela in northern India.

Singh travelled further in China to cities such as Tientsin and Peking, observing the countryside and the general living conditions of the Chinese peasantry. His impression of the imperial capital did not differ greatly than of the Chinese parts of Shanghai. He said Peking should be called “the city of chaos and evil odours”.

At marriage and funeral possessions, he noticed the smallest details. After visiting the Temple of Heaven and other landmarks in the city, including a temple which had Sanskrit prayers written on its walls, Singh seemed to have mixed feelings of Peking. He wrote, “Notwithstanding all its glaring shortcomings, the Chinese capital has something attractive about it, and the majesty of age was everywhere apparent.”

During his travels in China, Singh visited the Great Wall and his wish to see a Chinese mosque was fulfilled. Overall, he seemed dejected about the state of the country. In his book’s preface, he wrote, “The Chinese appear to be indifferent to the course of present events; they seem to possess no national ideals, and I was much struck by the obvious individual selfishness of the people, among whom patriotism and public spirit had no existence.”

Love letter to Japan

Singh’s final leg in China was spent in areas then controlled by Russia, such as Port Arthur and Dalny (now Dalian). He seemed to enjoy Russian food and vodka and got along well with Russian officers who were as fluent in French as he was. From Dalny, he set sail on the Yellow Sea for Japan, crossing Korean territorial waters, before heading to Nagasaki.

“My first impressions of Japan were indeed favourable,” Singh wrote. “The harbour was one of the prettiest I had ever seen; hills surrounded it on three sides, all of which were well wooded and green.”

When Singh visited, Japan was in the midst of the Meiji Era, a time when it emerged from its self-imposed isolation to become an industrialised and modern country. In contrast to his writings on China, the travelogue turns into a love letter as Singh explores Japan by rail. “I found considerable resemblance in the country we passed through to some parts of Italy and France, and every now and again our train skirted the seashore,” Singh wrote. “The villages were most picturesque, and there seemed to be little interval between them, thus showing the country to be thickly populated.”

Singh marvelled at the Seto Inland Sea, a body of water that separates three of the four main islands of Japan. “It struck me as being peculiar that Nature should have made the islands of Japan, and then have made an inland sea, and have dotted it here and there with thousands of islands; but Nature has done things in Japan, which she has not done elsewhere,” he wrote, adding that the scenery was of the “most exquisite kind”.

The Kapurthala ruler took a great liking for the Japanese people, stating, “The Japanese even excel the French in politeness.” He praised the lack of noise and confusion at railway stations, which was in direct contrast to what happened in India. He noticed that Japanese women were very shy and kept to themselves. “Even among themselves, there was no familiarity; on the contrary, they were distant and ceremonious in their attitude,” Singh wrote. “When greeted by one of their own country-men, bows were exchanged, always with the hands touching the knees, and those were repeated whenever a remark was made or the usual compliments passed.”

From the royalty and senior government officials to young people, Singh seemed to appreciate all kinds of people. He was also impressed with the education reforms in Meiji Japan: “The progress these Japanese have made during the past 30 years in the arts and sciences is simply amazing. Here I saw halls filled with eager students, working hard on such subjects as naval architecture, civil engineering, the manufacture of ordnance and ammunition, telegraphy, electrical engineering in all its branches, shipbuilding and many other subjects of the highest importance to the prosperity of a rising nation.” He went to the extent of even praising the prisons in Japan.

Singh’s voyage also took him to Java, then administered by the Dutch. As in China, he was clearly disappointed with the people of the island as well.

Just a few months after Singh returned to India, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-’05 broke out. Many of the places he had visited in northeast China witnessed bloody battles between the Russians and the Japanese. While in Japan, he was told by a Russian that the Japanese had a strong surveillance system in place for any foreigner.

Singh’s travelogue not only gave Indians a rare glimpse of East Asia at the turn of the 20th century but also helped outsiders get a peek at the conditions of life in the areas where the Russian and Japanese empires came head-to-head and fought a war (in which the former suffered a crushing defeat). Jagatjit Singh, who received the title of Maharaja in 1912, lived until 1949 – long enough to witness the Second World War, Japanese imperialism and the American nuclear bombing of his beloved Nagasaki.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.