Katya Knyazeva (avezink) wrote,
Katya Knyazeva

Doctor Smolnikoff's memoir

One of the most informative and entertaining accounts of Shanghai in the 1940s was written by Victor Smolnikoff. He was born in Harbin in 1914, studied in Aurora University in Shanghai and worked as a doctor in the Marshall & Partners firm until 1954. His situation was unique compared to other Shanghai Russians: he was a full-on partner in the largest medical firm in Shanghai and a Soviet citizen at the same time – much to the chagrin of his British subordinates, who complained that a Communist exploits the subjects of the Empire. Smolnikoff had two secretaries, drove an English car and lived in a large mansion on Rue Borgeat together with his Russian wife and six children.

Smolnikoff House Rue Bourgeat

Among the firm’s permanent clients were employees of Shanghai Municipal Police and a number of high-profile westerners. Because he paid a lot of house calls he got to see the insides of a variety of residences in Shanghai – from top suites in Cathay House to H. H. Kung’s brothel in the western suburbs. One of his clients suggested Smolnikoff should write a book entitled “Twenty Years in Shanghai Bedrooms.”

As a doctor he was in a unique position to be in the middle of things, to observe and record. He treated the victims of the 1937 Idzumo incident, helped captives of Lunghwa internment camp go on clandestine dates in the STD department of General Hospital, poured vodka to Sikh policemen and witnessed the decline of foreign Shanghai for several years after Liberation.

Smolnikoff and Wife in 1953

The whole family repatriated to the Soviet Union in 1954 and spent two years in a hospital in a remote village (not far from my hometown, Novosibirsk). But within two years he was quickly recognized as an experienced anesthesiologist (no doubt, thanks to his exposure to western technology and methods during his career in Shanghai) and summoned to Moscow to become a head of the research department created especially for him. He is now remembered as "father of Russian anesthesiology."

Smolnikoff and Family with Ayi in 1954

There is a cornucopia of interesting facts and observations in his memoirs written in the 1970s and based on his Shanghai diaries. Below are just a few extracts I made for the project Sikhs in Shanghai, from the chapter "My Sikhs."

My Sikhs

I was a doctor for the Indian community in Shanghai for fourteen years. Most of my Indian patients were Sikhs, although I sometimes met Farsi and westernized Indian businessmen who spoke good English. Most Sikhs were in the employ of the Shanghai Municipal Police. Their impressive height and athletic physique made them perfect for the role of policemen, and the British hired them specially for this service. As their doctor for many years I came to love these simple and friendly people. Below are some excerpts from my diaries from 1940-1954 that contain my observations of their life in Shanghai.

One of my patients, Atma Singh, was a very colorful character. In his youth he served on the international police force in Shanghai. One day he found he had a hernia in the groin and came to an English surgeon to have it tucked in. The surgeon was young and completely inexperienced. During the operation he cut through Atma Singh’s femoral artery. Back in the twenties there was no way to repair the artery, so they simply amputated his leg. When Atma Singh woke up from his general anesthesia doctors explained that they found a very dangerous disease, and if they hadn’t cut off his leg he would have certainly died. That story convinced Atma Singh and for the rest of his life he remained thankful to the surgeon for saving him. He would thank his god and tell everyone how lucky he was to have met such a wonderful surgeon.

When I met Atma Singh he was already an old man. He had smart black eyes and noble features; his beard was completely white. He spoke good English with a typical Indian mild accent. After he retired from the police force he became an interpreter. He would stand up leaning on his crutches and deliver a measured and smooth speech punctuated with gracious gestures, which left an indelible impression.

Atma Singh brought Indians and their wives to my office and ensured our communication. Every time he brought a Sikh woman he would start with recounting her problems to me. Then I’d ask questions, examine her, make a diagnosis and write a prescription. No matter what manipulations I did Atma Singh never looked away and never left the room. No matter what I’d say or ask his translation took longer. If I used two phrases he’d use twenty two. If I spoke for three minutes he’d speak for thirty. Perhaps he was paid by the hour?

At first his verbose manner exasperated me. I refused to believe Sikh language took ten times longer to express the same thing. I decided he was making things up as he went along. I imagined he was saying something like: “Bibi, Doctor-sahib told you this and that, but I, too, have something to tell you. You know we all love and respect our Doctor-sahib. He is like a father to us. But he does not know Indian women at all. Atma Singh has been studying Indian women for sixty years, and continues to do so even now, though less frequently. I’m telling you: don’t listen to what Doctor-sahib tells you, listen to me. You have to perform all prescribed ablutions and prayers. Stay away from your husband on your unclean days, but obey his wishes on all other days. The medicine that Doctor-sahib prescribed you is very potent. Take it.  Go in peace.”

Then the Indian women would get up, salute me and leave. Those lovely girls saw their husbands, the policemen, salute their British commanders and thought this was how you said goodbye. Just imagine a young Indian woman in a beautiful sari doing a military-style salute! I had a persistent impression that after listening to Atma Singh’s ebullient speeches my female patients left my office thinking I was a complete idiot and Atma was a great wizard. If that was the case, he certainly was a wizard.


Once Atma brought a certain Pritam Singh and his young wife. She could not get pregnant, which is almost a tragedy for an Indian woman. Pritam Singh asked me to cure her. I consulted my boss, a gynecologist, and he recommended to try hormones (they were just coming into fashion, and doctors knew little about them). I treated Pritam Singh’s wife for three months, after which she stopped coming. Evidently, she lost hope. One day Atma Singh came over and passed me an invitation from Pritam Singh to visit him at home. I was happy to accept since I’ve never been to a Sikh’s apartment.

There were around ten police stations in the International Settlement – as many as there were districts. Each station was a complex of several five- or six-story buildings surrounded by a high wall. A station looked like a fortress with heavy metal gates. The first floors were used for offices, and upstairs there were the apartments for servicemen and their families. Bachelors lived in dormitories.

Europeans, Chinese and Indians lived in separate buildings. European dormitory was furnished pretty well. Each single policeman had a large, well-lit room. They shared bathrooms and living rooms that had large sofas, armchairs and coffee tables laden with newspapers and porn magazines in various languages. The apartments of family men varied in size, depending on the size of their family, but the British rarely had more than two children. I don’t know how the Chinese policemen lived because they had Chinese doctors attending to them.

One might say such separation was racist, but there was a good reason behind it, namely different culinary customs. The hallways in Indian apartments were steeped in the smells of curry and ghee that English administration imported in large vats. Chinese cooking made use of soy bean oil that takes some getting used to as well, especially when it gets burned. I am sure Chinese and Indians thought the smell from European kitchens just as hard to bear.

Pritam Singh and his wife had a small three-room apartment. The first room had a table and a chair. One door to the left led to a small kitchen with an electric stove and another opened into the bathroom with a wash basin, a shower and a toilet. One of the doors to the right was closed and another one led to the bedroom occupied largely by the bed.

An Indian bed deserves a detailed description. It consists of a large wooden frame with small holes drilled on all sides. Ropes are threaded through these holes and interwoven into a mesh with an elaborate pattern that has many gaps for cooling. Nothing could be better for the Indian climate. But the ropes were rather crude and I did not see any sheet, so I thought it was a bit harsh for a marital bed.

The hosts asked me to sit at the table and stood on both sides of me. The wife never said a word and her arms were crossed on her stomach. Without looking at me Pritam Singh started to say something and Atma Singh translated: “Doctor-sahib, Pritam Singh says you are like a father to us. He is very grateful for your treatment of his wife. If your treatment resulted in her pregnancy he’d give you a valuable gift. But for now he just wants to offer you a dish of chicken curry, even though it is not worthy of you.”

Indian manner of cooking a chicken is very original. Instead of cutting the chicken they seem to simply break all of its bones that stick from the curry. According to my calculations, two spoons of curry sauce are enough to give you two weeks of gastritis. But the chapati bread served with the chicken was delicious. The dessert consisted of rice with almonds and wedges of orange covered in syrup. After the lunch Pritam Singh took me to the kitchen and poured water on my hands from a small tin kettle. Then he instructed me to rinse my mouth.

Soon after that lunch I ran into an old acquaintance, a Briton who had lived in India for years. I asked him if it was customary for a guest to sit and eat while his hosts were standing around him. He replied this had mostly to do with religious considerations: “They just don’t want to sit at the same table with the likes of you, doc.”


Early one morning I was woken by a phone call from the Indian Consulate General. It was Secretary Chaudhry, my friend. Many years later we met again. He was a diplomat of the Indian Embassy in Moscow and his daughter Milu spoke Russian fluently without the slightest accent. But that morning in Shanghai he asked me to come at once because one of their employees threw his wife out of the window.

I knew that couple pretty well. He was a high-strung and verbose individual who always asked me questions regarding foods he was allowed to eat, various sorts of meat, et cetera. At first I thought he was observing a special diet but then decided it was probably part of his religious practice. His wife was young but gaunt and depressed. She could not speak English, and her husband was so eccentric that his translation was of little use during her examination. I could not help her. Should I have been able to anticipate the tragedy? You cannot foresee what a manic mind comes up with.

Employees of the Indian Consulate lived in the Wayfoong House – a ten-story apartment building owned by HSBC. The Consul General lived separately, in a villa with a large garden, quite far from the downtown. All apartments in the Wayfoong House had the same layout with four big rooms – living room, dinning room, two bedrooms, plus a walk-in closet, a kitchen, a bathroom, servants’ quarters and their toilet. Most employees of the Consulate were young people with one or two children, but each family occupied a separate apartment.

When I entered the room where the tragedy had happened all the consular employees were already there. According to Chaudhry, the murderer said he threw her out of the window because he was tired of her. The wretched murderer looked so weary I had to drug him to sleep.

A week after the murder I was summoned to the police. Indian Embassy appealed to the Chinese authorities in Beijing and asked to pronounce the murderer insane and send him back to India. The Chinese were more than willing to comply. They had just had a revolution and other things to attend to besides defenestrating foreigners. They decided to use my testimony to declare him clinically insane even though I was not a psychiatrist and my testimony would have little value. When I asked one of my secretaries, a Chinese woman, to accompany me in the court, she laughed in anticipation of a first rate comedy.

The judge was a typical modern Chinese intellectual: slick hair, an impeccably tailored suit, gold-rimmed glasses, jade cufflinks, large golden ring and watch. He had probably attended Oxford or Harvard and spoke English better than I did, but he had to speak Chinese to boost the national prestige. Everything anyone said was instantly recorded by the court clerk who held a brush and wrote Chinese characters top down, right to left. The situation resembled the trial from Alice in the Wonderland. We all understood that the mere fact of throwing one’s wife out of the window is not a testament to madness, if not to say the opposite. So the judge never mentioned the crime and instead asked me many questions that would illustrate the defendant’s strange behavior. I recalled so many strange traits that the judge was satisfied and dismissed us after an hour.


Aside from families there were two bachelors living in Wayfoong House. One of them was a close acquaintance of mine. His name was Meeta and he was a tall and slender young man. He did not practice any religion and did not wear a turban. His apartment looked different from all others: he had lined up all the furniture in the living room along the wall to free up floor space. There were multiple intersecting chalk lines on the floor, like sewing patterns overlapping on a sheet of paper. Meeta was learning ballroom dances. Every evening he glided along those lines together with his teacher. Different dances required different trajectories, and I am not sure how he managed to tell one from another. I imagined him starting to move along the tango line and suddenly finding himself on the foxtrot route.

One stair led to the roof of Wayfoong House. Senior engineer of HSBC named Clements built himself a house in the center of that roof, or rather a gallery of rooms. You entered a large living room with a bar that connected to the dining room, the bedroom, and lastly to the bathroom. If you walked in the other direction from the living room there was a pantry, a kitchen, servants’ quarters, their bathroom and a storeroom. But the main attraction was the roof garden. Everywhere the eye could see Clements had put glazed pots with palms and oleanders. Small pots contained various flowers that a specially hired gardener took care of. Every autumn Clements organized a chrysanthemum festival that put to shame the annual flower show in Jessfield Park. Wicker chairs under the palms were for the guests. There were glass holders in their handles where you could stow your drink.


In 1954 I was preparing to leave for the Soviet Union. Indian businessmen with good English were also leaving Shanghai because there was less and less commerce. Imagine my surprise when I found that several Sikhs pooled their funds and opened an Indian restaurant called New Delhi on the most prestigious street in Shanghai. I ate there once with my friends, and we were the only visitors that evening. I am sure the poor owners went broke, but what were they thinking when they opened that restaurant? I have not met many entrepreneurial people among Shanghai Sikhs. I found their mindset to be closer to military occupations. I regret not having learned more about their culture and religion. I am sure Atma Singh could have told me a lot.

One of the things I have learned is that religion prescribed that Sikhs carry a sword. But carrying a real sword around modern Shanghai would be inconvenient, so they started to wear small brooches depicting a sword. Law forbids Sikhs to drink alcohol, but at the end of each year I would receive a visit from a group of three or four Sikhs. They would bring me some chicken curry and I would pour each of them a large glass of Russian vodka. Sikhs would empty their glasses, salute me and leave. True policemen, they always knew when I was at home. I wondered why they never ate any “zakuska” (snacks Russians eat after each sip of alcohol - KK). Perhaps they did not want to break their dietary code. Butter could be of the wrong kind, and there could be beef. Pure vodka was so much easier.


There was a small community of Farsi, the fire-worshippers, in Shanghai. They had their own temple but I have never been there. Perhaps infidels were not allowed to enter it, so they never invited me. All I know there was no sacred fire in that temple because to bring it from India to Shanghai and maintain it along the way would cost too much.

One married Farsi was my client: I treated his gonorrhea that he caught in a brothel. Another old Farsi client had a grey beard and always wore a black fez cap. He always complained that his eighty-year-old trading house in Shanghai was doing poorly and he was on the verge of bankruptcy: “Before life was better and money simply flowed into your hands. Back then we traded in opium.” I visited his house several times. It was once a very decent mansion, but now it was neglected. The first floor used to be offices and warehouses (possibly, for opium), and the living quarters were upstairs. Inside one of the upstairs rooms with tightly curtained window there lived a large animal. Either it was a colossal house cat or a panther, I could never quite tell. I always tried to slip past that room quickly. The family never mentioned the animal and never showed it to me. Perhaps it seemed so natural to them that they did not realize I might be wondering. I still don’t know why they would keep a panther on chain, at home, in a separate room.


When my Sikh patients learned I was leaving for the Soviet Union they decided to perform a religious ceremony in my honor, followed by a dinner. That worried me because I suspected the dinner would include a chicken curry. The ceremony took place in the Sikh temple. Indians of many religions lived in Shanghai, but only Sikhs were so numerous that they could afford to build their own temple. The temple was a two-story grey brick building. The first floor had a ritual hall, offices and a large canteen where jobless Sikhs could eat their meals. Large staircase led to the second floor but we did not go up. The ceremony was attended by the Consul General of India, his wife, and some officials from the Consulate. They were of a different religion but that did not stop them from partaking in the ritual and the meal after the ceremony.

When we entered the temple we took off our shoes. The Consul led me to the left of the altar, and we sat on the floor crossing our legs. Everyone else sat on the carpet. To the right of the altar there were musicians, all young people. They started to play a strange-sounding melody on unfamiliar-looking instruments. An old Sikh went up to the pedestal and delivered a speech that Atma Singh translated for me. I heard many kind words from Sikhs and they still fill me with gratitude. I was asked to say a speech too. This was the only time in my life that delivered a speech while standing barefoot. When I finished I sat down next to the Consul again. A tall Sikh in a loose white shirt went toward me with a cauldron. Everyone cupped their hands, and I did the same. The Sikh took a piece of something green from the cauldron and put it into my folded hands; then he served everyone else. We ate the green goo in silence. Its texture and taste resembled caulking and it made me long for a chicken curry. Dinner followed shortly after, and the chicken curry was there, naturally.

Smolnikoff in the Sikh Temple 1954
Tags: 1940s, french concession, international settlement, memoir, rue bourgeat, russians, shanghai, sikhs, smolnikov, translation

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