Lascars appear in almost every Asia-themed travel account and shipping memoir, from the mid-19th century advent of steamships until scheduled passenger sailings from Europe finally succumbed to competition from air travel in the late 1960s. But who were the lascars, where did they come from and where have they gone? Broadly speaking, the term was a generic one for Muslim merchant seamen. Usually Bengali, these men were mostly recruited from Calcutta, Dacca, Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. Others were engaged from much further west. Aden, the British-ruled Red Sea coaling station, also supplied “lascars”, most of whom were Yemeni sailors. Some intercontinental shipping lines, notably P&O, exclusively employed lascars as deck and engine room crews. Other shipping lines that passed through South or Southeast Asian ports, such as the Glen Line, employed lascars as well as Chinese crewmen for certain roles such as cooks, laundrymen and stewards. Dutch shipping company Java-China-Japan Line, which became Royal Inter Ocean Lines after the war, employed its own brand of “lascars” recruited from Indonesian ports such as Surabaya and Makassar. Mostly Javanese, these Indonesian “lascars” also included a significant contingent of Bugis and other ethnic groups with strong maritime traditions. Hong Kong’s mango trees mark an all but forgotten multi-ethnic past A perennial management challenge, despite the Islamic prohibition on alcohol, was the lascars’ tendency to enjoy drunken binges on shore. For this reason, some shipping companies engaged only Chinese seamen. These included the Blue Funnel Line, which plied ports between Liverpool and Japan, with a subsidiary route to Australia. Its founder, Alfred Holt, a deeply religious teetotaller, preferred Chinese employees for their tendency not to hit the bottle. Discreet opium smoking was expected and tolerated, partly because it made smokers relaxed and docile, and happy to spend several hours on a bunk in a pleasant internal reverie. The stereotypical drunken sailor, on the other hand, might smash up anything within reach and pick fights with anyone foolish enough to get in his way. Enough lascars transited through Hong Kong in the colony’s earliest years for boarding houses to be opened specifically for them when they stayed in port between contracts. Upper and Lower Lascar rows , the parallel streets below Hollywood Road and Man Mo Temple, in Central, now known for tourist “antique” shops, housed several establishments from the late 1840s, hence the road names. Owing to their religion and the head-coverings that went with it, including white haji caps and turbans of varying forms, the lascars tended to merge with other resident South Asian Muslim groups. In the eyes of most Chinese they were indistinguishable. A further historical link between Hong Kong and Calcutta is the towering memorial to 896 lascars who died during the first world war, unveiled at Hastings, in Calcutta, in 1924. Its architect was William Ingram Keir, an Anglo-Indian responsible for numerous other prominent landmarks in Bengal, including the bell tower at St Paul’s Cathedral in Calcutta, which replaced one toppled during aftershocks from the 1934 Bihar earthquake, which killed uncounted thousands across northern India. His son lived in Hong Kong for many years. As for where the lascars are today, many shipping lines continue to employ them – now rebranded as Bangladeshi seamen. Indonesian lascars continue to serve in some Dutch shipping companies in large numbers, partly for historical reasons. But for the most part, the lascars have been superseded by Filipino seamen, who are found in great numbers anywhere a merchant vessel sails.