In the former crown colonies of Singapore, Penang and Hong Kong, street names such as Sepoy Lines and Lascar Row recall the tents of Indian infantrymen and barracks of Indian ship crews who served with the British in the region – among the first Indians to arrive, and settle, in these territories.
Its usage documented from the early 1600s, lascar, adopted from the Portuguese lascarim, refers to a seaman from any area east of South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The word derives from the Hindi lashkari (“soldier, native sailor”), Persian lashkar, Arabic al-’askar (“the army”).
While the Portuguese term encompassed crewmen from South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Arab world, the British East India Company used “lascar” more narrowly to refer to Indian sailors and servants engaged by British military officers. In Mauritius, Réunion and the Seychelles, because Muslim lascars manned the ships that brought Indian and Chinese indentured labour to the plantations of the Mascarene Islands, lascar refers to Muslims.
Upper Lascar Row in Cantonese is 摩羅上街: the 摩羅 (mō lō ) deriving from the Portuguese mouro – “Moor” (though some sources claim its etymology in 婆羅 [pòh lòh], “Brahman”). It is used in Hong Kong to refer to peoples of South Asian descent – reflecting pre-colonial Muslim South Asian trading connections with the region; Malaccan Portuguese and Macanese also refer to Indians as moro.
The epithet 摩羅差 (mō lō cha) and its abbreviation 阿差 (a cha), are widely used. Cha purportedly comes from 差人 (cha yàhn) “policemen”, as the profession was then largely dominated by South Asians; an alternative account involves the association with the commonly used Hindi word accha for agreement, acknowledgement, approval. These are considered derogatory to South Asian Hongkongers.
Historical circumstances aside, mindful consideration of nomenclature is important in terms of respect and inclusivity. Consider the Lands Department’s 2010 ruling against the request by South Asians for a street name change on the grounds of mō lō ’s derogatory meaning, as well as TVB’s use of mo lo cha to refer to an Indian character in a 2015 series.
The cost of, say, renaming streets – places such as South Africa, Namibia and Berlin have changed colonial place names deemed politically incorrect or offensive – is incomparable with the price of a community’s dignity.