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.
This 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.
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).
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.
Some writers do not take well to bad reviews. Carlos Augusto Montalto de Jesus, author of Historic Macau, published in 1902, and of Historic Shanghai, published in 1909, was one such. Both books were pioneering ventures, the first comprehensive histories of foreign settlement in each city. Montalto de Jesus was born in Hong Kong in c.1863, and was to die in Shanghai, on 19 May 1932.
The first edition of Historic Macau was well received and well reviewed, though it did not sell well. In 1929, however, all copies of the second, which had appeared in 1926, were burned by the colonial authorities. Stuart Braga has written informatively on this episode in the Newsletter of the Casa de Macau in Australia. They had been seized in response to an additional chapter which lambasted the Portuguese for their alleged maladministration of the colony, and which proposed that the League of Nations take over its running and development. This was not in fact an usual idea — foreign activists in Shanghai were to raise it several times over the next few years as a solution to the ‘Shanghai problem’, and one preferable in their eyes to the assumption of Chinese control over the International Settlement. A ‘free port’ status had been proposed as early as 1862: it was a recurring fantasy in the settler mind. Montalto’s first edition had concluded with a similar proposal for Macau, that it be ‘enfranchised as a municipality and placed under the auspices of the Powers in China’ (p. 358). But when updated and accompanied by pungent criticism of the authorities, the suggestion did not go down well with the colonial government in Macau in 1926, as Paul Spooner’s 2009 thesis also explains. The author was charged and fined under its press laws: the book was banned, and on 15 June some 500 copies seized, including some of those already sold, which were seized from private houses; and when Montalto de Jesus attempted to recover the confiscated volumes in 1929 they were burned.
Montalto himself felt burned by the reception to the first edition of Historic Shanghai. In advance of its publication he had attempted to secure a subvention for it from the Shanghai Municipal Council, which administered the International Settlement. As the Council had already commissioned a history from George Lanning, it declined the request, and the introduction to the book takes a swipe at it for doing so. His strictures on the shortcomings of the Council and the public life of the settlement were harsh, but probably already embedded in his manuscript. ‘Fairly readable’, noted the 29 May 1909 review in the North China Daily News, though fairly expensive. But it was too much a history of the Taiping rebellion, complained the reviewer (quite reasonably in fact), the sentences were too long, and there were many small mistakes, not least in Montalto’s English, which were successively catalogued.
In his defence against the charges brought against his Historic Macau, Montalto would later state that ‘The criticism impartially made by me, though stern, is justifiable and well-meant’, but he had not taken the same stance in July 1910, when he launched an action in Shanghai against the North China Daily News, which had published two items plagiarising passages in his book. The proceedings in court opened by raising the issue of the paper’s critical review, and its apparently damaging effect on sales, and kept returning to it. The Court found for Montalto on the infringement of copyright, awarding him $500, but entirely rejected the issue of the criticism as relevant. In October he appealed, representing himself in court, and seeking larger damages, as they were ‘inadequate to the gravity of the offence, as well as to the injury sustained.’ The Council’s rejection of a subvention, the review, and the plagiarism were all in his mind intimately connected.
Montalto de Jesus was ‘evidently very much oppressed with a sense of his own wrongs’, noted the judge, Sir Havilland de Sausmarez, patiently, ‘and he feels very sore about them’, but there was nothing incorrect or inadequate about the judgement in his favour, which de Sausmarez affirmed. The judge will have known Montalto well, for both were actively involved in Shanghai’s International Chess Club.
While the newspaper had accepted the infringement from the start, it had part-parried by intimating that if two writers had drawn verbatim from the same original source, then it would not be surprising if they appeared identical. And the book is rather more safely viewed as a historical object, than in any sense as a history. The controversy did little to help sales, which had only reached 339 by the end of 1909. Thereafter the controversy ceases.
The truculent author considered that he had incurred not a fine, in 1926, but a ‘decree of civic death’, and that he had fled Macau for Hong Kong, penniless — a recurring self-description — and ‘found it necessary to intern myself at the Asylum of the Little Sisters in Kowloon and was sheltered by charity among Chinese old men… Some who knew me were shocked find the historian of Macao herded with poor decrepit coolies.’ His characteristic hyperbole aside, Montalto’s financial state then perhaps explains the fact that in 1927 he returned to his much earlier plan and invited the Shanghai Municipal Council to purchase the remaining stock of Historic Shanghai – half of the 2,000 copies printed — whose publication costs he had to meet himself, but it declined.
Over on the Visualising China blog I have written about the ones that get away – historical photographs glimpsed on Ebay, sold, and mainly thereafter lost.