Vanishing Policeman

I get contacted fairly regularly by relatives and descendants of members of the Shanghai Municipal Police (as well as the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and China coast residents more widely). Sometimes they have found my book, Empire Made Me (and sometimes I have mentioned the men), or they have found the website or other references to the work. I learn a great deal from these contacts, and have often been able to share information accumulated from personnel and other police files in the archives in Shanghai, published staff lists, and newspapers. Some of the information shared with me has gone into my books.

Shanghai lives often have a trajectory of their own in family memories: every Shanghai Sergeant becomes chief of police; every Customs tidewaiter is harbour master; every man who died in service has been killed by armed robbers, instead of typhoid, for example. So often I am the scholarly spoilsport, digging out the death notice and UK National Archives probate file reference. Of course, sometimes they are right, but in general a combination of the very idea of Shanghai — exotic and violent in the Western (and other) imagination — and perhaps the tall tales told by grandfathers and great uncles when home on leave, means that most careers have very greatly improved with a retelling.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 09.41.52A recent exchange highlighted both what can now be found out with relative ease, and the limits to tracing people in the past. What could I tell my correspondent in Australia about her grandfather, Philip James Doylend, killed in service shortly before her grandmother moved with the children from Shanghai to Canada? I found I could tell her quite a lot, for over a decade I had been contacted by other descendants in north America (who were unknown to her), and looked into his career a little. Born in Suffolk in 1880, Doylend had joined the police in 1903, after eight years service in the Royal Navy, and was promoted to Sergeant in 1907. He married a Finnish woman, Johanna Maatanan, in Shanghai in 1908 — when this photograph, left, was taken — and resigned to join the armed forces in 1917. In a common pattern he went on long leave on 23 June 1917, ahead of his contract actually terminating on 2 March 1918. Rather than leave his family in Shanghai, Doylend attempted to return to the UK via Finland, where they would stay until the war was over, heading overland on the Trans-Siberian railway. They ran slap into the Russian revolution: Finland was in turmoil, and they had to return to Shanghai — a much harder journey back across Russia. They arrived in February 1918, exhausted and penniless.

The Shanghai press next takes up part of the story. Far from finding stories of violent death at the hands of Chinese criminals, we find appearances in court in 1922 and 1923 of a couple whose marriage is breaking down. Doylend worked now in a Shanghai department store, and then in a hotel bar. His wife ran a boarding house. She sued him for maintenance and even at one point for the family furniture: when they were still living in the same house. The British judge made unenforcible orders that Doylend make a monthly payment, and attempted to cajole him to do the right thing: ‘I should have thought a great lazy man like you could do something’ to support them, he told Doylend, ‘you ought to feel ashamed of yourself’. The furniture issue gave the proceedings a novelty value, and papers in Hong Kong took up the story as well. In 1925 his wife and the children moved to Canada.

So far, so unexceptional. Except that after the last court appearance in December 1923 Doylend himself disappears entirely from view. He does not resurface in the newspaper, or in any of the databases I can access. New digital family history tools have generally changed the game, especially in the case of a group of men like this, serving overseas. The family history sites have ship passenger lists, for example, and you can trace men and women backwards and forwards, and it helps immensely also if they ever travelled across the United States or Canada. But Doylend’s name — and it is not a common surname surname — does not appear. The story in the north American side of the family was that a former colleague still serving in the Shanghai police delivered news to his family in England, early during the Second World War, that Doylend had recently died in Shanghai. But in fact this man, Alexander Aitkenhead, had also left the police, back in 1912.

The newly available digitalised newspapers and passenger lists mean that a researcher can often now track those who deliberately disappeared. You can trace people and their movements, life events, court appearances etc, through newspapers on sites such as Australia’s Trove, New Zealand’s Papers Past, the Singapore National Library Board’s NewspapersSG, and Hong Kong’s Old HK Newspapers (but not easily in the last, for it is a very poor platform). These are all free to access (you can also find some other resources I have created here). The English-language press in Shanghai can also be searched, but mostly only by those with access to scholarly resources (although an incomplete version of the North China Herald can be found in the international newspapers resources on findmypast). You can find an obituary — as I have — in a small town Canadian newspaper of a Glaswegian which bears no relation to the known facts of his life, but which is eloquent testimony to the power of his own reinvention far from home.

That sort of thing hardly surprises: as they career through life people often lie, dissemble, hide, or flee. Birth dates are often tweaked — for men are too old or too young otherwise for military or other service: Doylend added at least a year to his age on joining the navy, which has his birth in 1879. Men and women change names, invent backgrounds and careers. The Shanghai Municipal Police’s Special Branch files, helpfully scooped up the CIA in 1949, document various tricksters moving their way around East Asia, securing credit or an entree to society with this tall tale or that one. Of course, a patient sleuth could do this before, and such wonderful books as Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, about Sir Edmund Backhouse, a liar, fraud, forger and fantasist, living on remittance in Peking for decades a very long way from his family, have emerged from such searches. It does seem, however, to be much easier now than ever before to track people down, even those who hid their tracks. In Doylend’s case perhaps it was as simple as assuming another name, for I can find no trace at all of him, having ransacked all the newspapers, family history websites, city directories, etc. that I know of. Perhaps we should respect his choices, and leave him in whatever obscurity he found. Perhaps I simply have not looked in the right place, and of course the paper archive still dwarfs the digitised one. He might simply be just out of sight and reach.

So while the family tales were incomplete, and had grown fanciful in the telling, a mystery remains: Philip James Doylend, where are you?

Getting Stuck in for Shanghai

My new book has now been published as a very modestly priced ebook, via Amazon UK (the US, and Australia), Google Play, ITunes, and the Penguin Books Australia website.

The cover:Getting Stuck in for Shanghai ebook cover

The blurb: After 1914, between tiffin and a day at the race track, the British in Shanghai enjoyed a life far removed from the horrors of the Great War. Shanghai’s status as a treaty port – with its foreign concessions home to expatriates from every corner of the globe – made it the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. The city’s inhabitants on either side of the conflict continued to mix socially after the outbreak of war, the bond amongst foreign nationals being almost as strong as that between countrymen. But as news of the slaughter spread of the Far East, and in particular the sinking of the Lusitania, their ambivalence turned to antipathy. In this First World War Special, historian Robert Bickers explores the contradictions, patriotic fervour and battlefield experiences of the largest contingent of Shanghai British to fight the Kaiser’s forces in Europe.

More about the book, and the stories it tells can be found on a new section of this website, which I will be adding to over the next few weeks.

 

Shanghai talks, May 12, 15

getting-stuck-in-for-china-coverI’ll be giving two talks in Shanghai this coming week, both about the stories and issues that I have explored in the new book, Getting Stuck in for Shanghai.

Monday, May 12, 2014 from 7:15 PM – 8:30 PM, Wooden Box, 9 Qinghai Lu, nr Nanjing Xi Lu

Talk hosted by The Young China Watchers in Shanghai, sponsored by The Hopkins China Forum. Point your browser here for more details and booking.

Thursday, May 15, 2014 from 7.00 PM, Li Room at the Raddisson Blu Xingguo Hotel, 78 Xingguo Lu

Royal Asiatic Society China in Shanghai lecture. For more details see the RAS China in Shanghai site.

 

Ngram query: Hong Kong or Shanghai

Google’s Ngram viewer offers scope for some interesting experiments. Which city, for example, has had more references in the corpus of English-language books used by the Ngram tool: Shanghai or Hong Kong? The answer is: after a good opening sprint from Hong Kong, which was conceived of as a base for British commercial, diplomatic and military operations in China, Shanghai from 1855 onwards took the lead, and did not relinquish it until 1973. This lead came as its economic role started to overtake the Crown Colony, and then as north China and the Yangzi river were opened to foreign trade and residence after 1858. The key caveat — among others — would be the late 1890s, when a combination of the variants ‘Hong Kong’ and Hongkong would have propelled the British crown colony back into the lead. On the other hand, it is likely that many of those ‘Hongkongs’ will have been in the name ‘Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’. Subtracting those and their linked Shanghais, would probably change things a bit, but the overall trajectory would be the same. Shanghai took over from Hong Kong as the site of key importance to the British (or Anglophone world), and only relinquished it some time after the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

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Getting Stuck in for Shanghai: new book out in May

getting-stuck-in-for-china-coverThis is a handsome cover, I think, for my just about to be published account of the impact of the Great War on the British at Shanghai. As well as exploring how Britons in the city reacted, and negotiated the awkwardness of living in a neutral country with their new enemies, many of whom they were closely connected with in the business, public and even private lives, it follows 110 men who sailed off together in October 1914 to join the army.

 

Shanghai: World City Redux

Empire made me cover This is the title of a Radio 3 programme by Rana Mitter, produced by Phil Tinline, to which I contributed, and in which Maurice Tinkler’s open-mouthed arrival in Shanghai in 1919 gets an airing. As well as still being available on BBC iPlayer until — it says here — 2099, you can catch that particular sequence from it on Radio 4’s Pick of the Week.

There are some great moments in the programme, especially when a pre-revolution film star chats with some contemporary Shanghai women in a coffee shop, ‘Wow, Mo-deng’, one of them says: ‘Wow, modern!’. The jazz is fun too. There’s more on Tinkler and his journey through this world in my book Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (Penguin).

Fisher Island mystery

Nelly O’Driscoll’s grave, from Findagrave.com

Who was Nelly O’Driscoll? I have been asked this more than once, and you can find numerous Chinese tourist blog posts and others asking the question. Her grave sits next to the Hsiyu 西嶼) Lighthouse — formerly known as Fisher Island Light — in the Penghu group (or Pescadores) west of Taiwan. The map of the site shows a ‘洋人古墓’ — a ‘foreigner’s old grave’ just outside the compound. A colleague just sent me a postcard of the lighthouse, one of those designed by scottish engineer David Marr Henderson, who served as Engineer in Chief of the Chinese Maritime Customs from 1869-1898.

I do not have an answer, but I have got closer. Thomas O’Driscoll joined the Customs as a Third Assistant Lightkeeper in January 1887. After serving on Ockseu (Wuqiu) Island, he was posted to Fisher Island where he was serving by July 1890. Nelly might have been a child, for there is only a single year engraved on the stone, but may also have been his wife: ‘Nelly’ is as likely to be an English name given to a Chinese woman, as the name of a foreign spouse: and an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper only three years into his post was more likely to have a Chinese or indeed a Japanese wife or housekeeper than a fellow national. It is possible that he did not know her precise age.

O’Driscoll himself has left few further traces in the records. He left the lights service in 1902, after a period of leave, and moved to the ‘Outdoor’ staff of the Customs as a Tidewaiter at Shanghai, but stuck that for barely a year. Therafter he surfaces as a supervisor of some sort for a firm of Civil Engineers, Davies and Thomas, overseeing some bunding at Wuhu in 1907, testifying in a court case related to building at the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai in 1909, and taking part in the Customs Club Fancy Dress Ball in 1911 (he wore a Chinese costume — such are the odd traces we leave behind us). In 1912 his 33-year old wife Helen died at their home in Shanghai, but by the time he died in the city on 15 May 1915 he had remarried. O’Driscoll is listed as a ‘Clerk of Works’ in the consulate records, and his last appearance in the North China Herald was a member of the Committee of the St. Patrick’s Society at Shanghai.

O’Driscoll most likely fetched up in China as a seamen, joining the Customs Lights Service in Amoy (Xiamen), as a softer perch than one afloat. Lives like his on the China coast generally throw up few traces. The lIves of their partners, wives or daughters are even less accessible. I can only approach Nelly through the man O’Driscoll, although it is her gravestone and name that has eingmatically remained, while Thomas O’Driscoll himself has been buried in the archive.