Fifty years in China

Actually, it came to almost 54 years: Thomas Carr Ramsey was unusual as a Briton in spending over half a century in China without leaving the country once. Of course, many Roman Catholic missionaries never left, but most foreign residents in China spent leave periods outside the country. Some worked for firms or oganisations such as missionary societies which had paid-leave policies, allowing them a furlough every five to seven years. This was deemed to be good for their health, but also for their general well-being, allowing them to reconnect with families. It did not suit everybody, and some found themselves at a loose end, distance and time having eroded their ties to their former homes. And of course, others were in China precisely to escape them.

Directory and Chronicle, 1917

Directory and Chronicle 1917, Swatow

Many memoirs share the title (or variations on the theme): My Twenty-Five Years in China, or Forty Years in China, and so on — the latter, by consul Sir Meyrick Hewlett, is quite one of the battiest of the genre — but it was unusual for a man actually to be able to boast five decades unbroken residence in the country. The occasion it was marked, at Shantou (Swatow) with a reception at the foreigners’ Kialat Club, presentation of a bowl and ‘numerous scrolls and plaques, testifying in classical Chinese characters to his many virtues’, a Chinese banquet, a cinema show, and a performance by a Chinese military band. Ramsey responded with a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, though he was no Scotsman, having been born in South Shields, the son of Captain Henry Ramsey, who worked as a pilot in Swatow from 1876 until his death in 1883. So the family connection with this, one of the quieter and lesser-known treaty ports, was longer still.

Directory & Chronicle 1905, Weihaiwei

Directory & Chronicle 1905, Weihaiwei

The younger Ramsey arrived in China aged 15 on 24 September 1874, sailing out via Cape Horn and San Francisco on a vessel captained by an uncle. His career thereafter in China was peripatetic, but after 1909 he was based in Shantou. He first worked in a shipping office in Hong Kong, moved to Swatow, then on Shanghai, where he married in 1885, then moved on to Chefoo (Yantai) — where his father had previously lived — to a gold-mining venture. That failed, and he followed the flow of the expansion of the British presence in China by arriving in Weihaiwei shortly before it was formally handed over to the British, being present at the ceremony itself. After an altercation in the British court there over the probity of the firm he had established, and its practices in supplying the government (he was acquitted), Ramsey removed back to Swatow, where he secured the local agency for the British-owned Kailan Mining Administration, and became a stalwart in the Kialat Club, and in yachting locally (he designed his own boats). He also secured for a decade the position of Norwegian Acting Vice Consul, which must have been useful for something. On the way he surfaces frequently in the treaty port press as a sportsman: a champion jockey and a useful boxer.

Desk Hong List, 1884, Shanghai and Northern Ports, Shanghai section

Desk Hong List, 1884, Shanghai and Northern Ports, Shanghai section

It is the pattern of movement that interests me most, as well as, conversely, his fixity at Shantou and that of his family. When he died in Shantou in December 1931, Thomas Carr Ramsey was buried in a grave next to his mother in the now-lost Kakchieh Foreign Cemetery, while his son, Noel Ronald Ramsey carried on the firm’s business in the port after his death. Thomas Ramsey roamed along the China coast seeking opportunity but settled on exploiting a niche. You can find many like him in the archive, often moving swiftly, pouncing on new opportunities that opened as the political geography of China changed. The opening of a new treaty port, or leased territory, or a change in the rules that allowed foreigners to enter a new sphere of activity – mining, for example, or manufacturing – saw men leap in to try to secure a windfall profit (scooping up land at the first auction of lots was generally a sure-fire way to secure a good return), or otherwise exploit the advantage of early arrival. In the wider history of the treaty ports we know more about the successful than the not so lucky, but the latter always outnumbered the former. (The spectacular bankruptcy of Dent & Co. in 1865, sometime biggest rivals to Jardine, Matheson and Co, means that they are largely absent from histories of the China coast). Legal records are full of details of debts, bankruptcies, and the sorting out of estates. Sometimes, however, a man stands out in the record, and in this case one chanced into my line of sight, when I was looking for something else, through a little sub-heading in the North China Herald: ‘Mr. Carr Ramsey’s Jubilee’.

The man seems finally to have cracked: for on 13 June 1928 the ‘Norwegian Consul and Merchant’ (as he styled himself to the immigration authorities) landed with his wife in San Francisco on the SS President Grant, where he featured in the local press due to his ‘record’ stay in China, before making his way onwards to Britain. Sixteen months later he arrived in New York heading westwards; Ramsey’s wife, Ella Mary McLeod, followed him, dying in Swatow in 1935. This family was more widely embedded in the China coast world: his wonderfully named brother, Alfred Formosa Ramsey, was a ship’s engineer, who married the eldest daughter of the Inspector of Hong Kong’s naval dockyard police in 1893. One sister married a mariner in Chefoo in 1873, a man who was later Parks overseer at Shanghai for six years before his death in 1902, and whose family were a local fixture. Another sister married the founder of Shanghai’s Inshallah Dairy, A.M.A. Evans, who kept a fine herd of Jersey cattle in the east of the settlement. Thomas Carr Ramsey’s son Noel married the sister of a Chinese Maritime Customs officer, but his daughter Violet broke the China mould, and relocated to the Straits Settlements.

Swatow, a short hop by steamer from Hong Kong, was never a very successful treaty port, at least as judged in foreign minds, but it was an important point of movement of China to and from Southeast Asia, and prospered as a result of remittances from its diaspora. The city was comprehensively wrecked by a devastating typhoon in 1922, and was badly affected by the communist insurgency in eastern Guangdong province in the mid-late 1920s: in 1927 it was even briefly seized and held by Communist forces. Like many other ports it had its small foreign community, and contrary to assumptions that foreigners came, ‘plundered’ — a term I found in use only last week in a talk given by a Fudan University graduate — and then quickly went, the Ramsey family’s multi-generational story was not uncommon, nor was the way in which they had secured a comfortable niche. Old Swatow is now mostly invisible in today’s Shantou, and the port and its ilk are generally overshadowed by the bright lights (and richer records) of Shanghai, but it was an important part of the infrastructure of the China coast, and the Ramsey family itself in all its branches is emblematic of this now obscured world.

Sources: North China Herald, various, especially 25 October 1924, 8 December 1931; US immigration records via Ancestry.

Banjo, cricket, and ‘Social Shanghai’: Mina Shorrock, editor

Mina Shorrock, from Arnold Wright, ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, China etc (9108)

Mina Shorrock, from Arnold Wright, ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, China etc (9108)

On the evening of 14 March 1921, forty members of the Wells Branch of the Women’s Institute gathered to hear a talk on ‘Life in China’ delivered by ‘Mrs Shorrock’. The talk was followed by a ‘an enjoyable sing-song’; and Mrs Shorrock probably led the singing with a tune or two from her banjo. We know more about her role in the musical life of WI meetings in Somerset – ‘minstrel’ songs’ were her specialty, alongside Scottish ones – than we do about her thoughts on ‘Life in China’, but it would be good to know more about her and what she thought, for Mina Shorrock was one of the earliest woman editors of any newspaper or periodical published in China.

That periodical was Social Shanghai, which commenced monthly publication in February 1906, initially aimed squarely at a female, foreign, ‘society’ readership. It rapidly broadened out its appeal, and it remains distinctive as the first foreign-language magazine published in China that took advantage of the technological developments that allowed substantial use of reproduced photographs in its pages. In fact this was a very strong part of its appeal and rationale. You bought it because you expected to be in it, or to know those who were, or you had left for ‘home’ and wanted to keep up. In turn it tried to guarantee sales by stuffing its pages with photographs of those who might purchase it. Mina was an imaginative promoter of her journal: it would be nice to see a photograph of the costume she wore to ‘Mr Porter’s Fancy Dress Ball’ at the Country Club in March 1906, for she went dressed as ‘Social Shanghai’, while between 1908-1910 she parlayed the goodwill of the magazine’s name into a ‘Social Shanghai Tea Rooms’ on the city’s Kiangse Road. Surviving copies of the journal are now very rare. There is a good run in the Shanghai Library Rare Books collection at Xujiahui (the Zikawei Library), and an almost complete set in the G.E. Morrison Collection at the Toyo Bunko Library in Tokyo. Individual copies are held in some other libraries. The journal was discontinued after its November 1914 issue, by which time Mina Shorrock had landed back in the UK, where she lived until her death in 1938.

She died as Mina Shorrock, but was born Jemima Thomson Gow, the youngest daughter of a Glaswegian hotelier and wine merchant. Educated at Bellahouston Academy and at the Ladies’ College, she married Samuel Hope Sharrock, a Blackburn-born businessman, in Edinbugh in 1888. In 1897 the couple moved to Shanghai, where her husband established ‘Sam. H. Shorrock & Co.’, described as ‘Manufacturers’ Representatives and Machinery Importers’, with an office in Salford. Mina quickly established herself as a ‘a very gifted and clever amateur vocalist’. On her first outing she gave the audience a fine rendition of Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Willow Song’, and then, by way of encore — the first of many such – ‘The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’.

The musical contributions Mina Shorrock made are all we hear about her for some years. Sam Shorrock, an enthusiastic freemason, rapidly became a fixture in the elite world of foreign Shanghai, most notably after securing the agency for construction of the tram system in the international settlement, and was being tipped for a turn on the Municipal Council when he died suddenly of dysentery in September 1907. Settlement flags flew at half mast for this enthusiastic sportsman, who trained the local English team for the walking races that were all the rage, and who donated the ‘Shorrock Cup’ to the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. This shooting trophy was being competed for long after Mina Shorrock departed for home.

Social Shanghai cover 1914It was an unusual foreign woman who made a living before 1914 through an independent business venture in settlement Shanghai, or at least one that was not a boarding house, or – it has to be said — a brothel. (We know a fair bit about this latter world from the work of Eileen Scully). The only other resident woman journalist I am aware of in the latter part of the nineteenth century was Alicia Little (“Mrs Archibald J. Little”), nee Berwicke (1845-1926), novelist, photographer and frequent contributor to the North China Daily News. ‘Journalist’ is how Mina Shorrock described herself on various immigration forms as she travelled to North America and the UK in 1914. She also wrote, under the moniker ‘Belle Heather’, for the North China Daily News (a column on ‘The Feminine Note’ from 1904-1905), and for Sport and Gossip (which as far as I can see, survives nowhere).

Gordon, WG photographIt might be tempting to ignore the journal, for as I have described it so far it sounds insular and, frankly, superfluous as a record of Shanghai’s history. But as a repository of photographs it provides a good additional visual record of the city, albeit with a strong focus on the activities of its foreign residents. We are unlikely to be enthused by the portraits of the ‘Young Generation’ — babies and youngsters — that were strategically inserted into its pages (and, one assumes, bought in multiples by happy parents), but one of its strands of interest was historical, and sometimes much older photographs were published, which were contributed by long-term residents and which I have not seen elsewhere. An example is this 1859 portrait, one of four of Chinese merchants apparently taken by silk trader W. G. Gordon (William Alexander Grant Gordon). Social Shanghai is worth taking seriously on this, and a number of other counts.

Mina Shorrock died in Horrington, just east of the Somerset cathedral town of Wells, where she had lived for at least 20 years, and where she was known for being ‘a great friend to children’. She was cremated in Bristol a few days later. Shorrock’s last recorded Chinese gesture was the making of a splash at the February 1925 ‘Hard Times’ fancy dress dance in Horrington, which she had organised, and at which she arrived in the ‘highly picturesque costume of a Buddhist priest from China’. A minor irony worth noting, is the prominence of fancy dress events in the social life of Shanghai’s foreign community, some of the best visual records of which we can find in the pages of Social Shanghai. Little else survives to tell us much about her: there was a profile in an encyclopaedic 1908 survey of the treaty ports, which also provides the only photograph of Mina that I have encountered (not, thankfully, in ‘Buddhist’ garb).

There may be a little more to glean about her in the pages of Social Shanghai, but otherwise, aside from the occasional appearance on Somerset’s Women’s Institute stage, all we know is that Mina Shorrock, ‘working hard alone and almost unaided’, chronicled ‘all the brighter phases of life’ in Edwardian Shanghai through the heavy art paper pages of her magazine. (In fact, she did step back from editing it for 18 months in 1909-11, when the role was filled by an Australian, L. H. Drakeford, but then resumed charge). This is a shame, for it would be interesting to learn more about this banjo-playing journalist, who also, incidentally, organised Shanghai’s first ever women’s cricket match (in 1910): ‘out-and-out duffers are not desirable’, she wrote, calling on the ladies of Shanghai to pitch in, ‘but one can never know what one can do till one tries’. This last thought seems to have been something of a guiding principle behind the activities of an engaging China coast entrepreneur.

Sources: North China Herald, 26 November 1897, 21 February 1898, 6 September 1907, 9 September 1910; Wells Journal, 18 March 1921, 20 Feb 1925, 24 June 1938; Arnold Wright, chief ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other treaty ports of China (1908). I am grateful to Charlotte Ward for prompting me to dig further into Mina Shorrock’s background, and for her thoughts on fancy dress balls.

Living on her wits

It was a huge sensation in the late spring of 1912, 35 year-old Miss Miriam Monteith, ‘well known in society in China’, was arrested at the Peak Hotel in Hong Kong on the basis of a warrant issued by the British Supreme Court in Shanghai, and brought to the colony by Detective Sergeant William Brewster of the Shanghai Municipal Police. The charge was having earlier that year in Peking given a cheque for £50 — in purchasing power equal to over £4,000 in 2014 — to an Austrian, Fritz Materna, serving in the Chinese Maritime Customs. The cheque was a dud. After a police court hearing in Hong Kong, Brewster accompanied Miss Monteith north to Shanghai where on 17 May things started to get complicated.

On 21 June she was sentenced to 8 months, with hard labour, for fraud, and two days later was escorted back to Hong Kong and entered the Victoria jail. Others had been waiting for Miriam Monteith in Shanghai, principally the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, which had taken a cheque from her for almost $250 in September 1910, drawn on the Equitable Trust Company of New York. This too had been refused when presented, and the bank at Shanghai had alerted its branches about her. What started to complicate things was that the woman who presented the cheque to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank was known there, and to her fellow residents at Bickerton’s Hotel on the Nanking road, as Miss Macnaughton.

She told me she was a correspondent for Scribner’s magazine, deposed one man, that her father was a British consul in Tehran, and her mother from Virginia. Another met her at the Bickerton’s and gathered that she was writing books. Yes, this is her, he said in court, though I knew her as Macnaughton. That was how she was known in Kobe, where she spent part of the spring of 1912. Chequebooks for banks in Beirut, Rome and Simla were found amongst her papers in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Fritz Materna thought better of joining in the show, and failed to arrive in Shanghai to give evidence. That case was withdrawn, but the Bank’s proceeded, and the evidence against Miriam Monteith seemed to be piling up despite a line of defence that partly revolved around the fact that she, a woman who provided proof of how she had only the previous year crossed the Atlantic First Class on the Mauretania, would hardly knowingly defraud the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. She did indeed make that journey and on that ship in March/April 1911, and she may well have had a trust fund established under father’s will worth £1,000 p.a. as she claimed, but the jury took ten minutes to find her guilty.

It is a beguiling tale because Miriam Monteith, if that was her name, remains a mystery, but she had made some interesting connections in her time. In 1911, three weeks before she sailed to New York, the 1911 census enumerators recorded her as a visitor at Warwick House, next to St James’s Palace in London, home of a fantastically rich American heiress, Mary Hoadley Dodge, theosophist, suffragist, and great friend of Muriel, Countess De La Warr. The Countess De La Warr’s residence was given as Monteith’s last address in Britain before she sailed to New York. The immigration form records the arrival in New York of an Edinburgh-born woman, five foot four, with brown hair and eyes, who had visited New York before in 1904 and 1906. She was on her way to stay with a friend, she said, a Mrs Getsinger, at the Willard Hotel, Washington DC. Given Monteith’s apparent contacts in London, it would be no surprise to find that this was Lua Getsinger, who was certainly in DC in June that year, and who was a prominent early convert to the Baha’i faith.

When Miriam Monteith appeared back in Hong Kong in June 1912, she was the subject of an excited eyewitness account in the Hong Kong Telegraph, delighting in the fall from her station of a ‘society’ woman heading into jail wearing ‘a Panama hat with a black band, a soft collar and black tie, black skirt and silk shoes of the same sombre colour relieved by silk bows’, and accompanied by her cabin trunks and travelling rugs. Clearly Fritz Materna was discomforted by her also, and so I think were other male witnesses who mentioned dining with Miss Macnaughton, and who were summoned to court to identify her.

In court in Shanghai back in 1912 there had been were two further odd episodes. Mina Shorrock, editor of a local society monthly, Social Shanghai, was caught during a break trying to speak in Monteith’s favour to members of the jury. She was fined £10. And Miriam Monteith at one point interrupted the proceedings to accuse one of the witnesses, Amasa Standish Fobes, a 74 year-old American merchant who had ‘met her several times’ in 1910, and who provided the crucial letter of introduction to the bank, of covertly taking a photograph of her in court. Fobes denied the charge, saying ‘he had no camera with him and had never owned one’. It is perhaps a moment telling of Miriam Monteith’s aim to hide and mask herself.

After the jail door shut in Hong Kong I have managed to trace only one more appearance of Miriam Monteith in the public record. In London in May 1916 she was fined £9 for travelling on the underground railway without a ticket. ‘She represents herself as the daughter of Lord Monteith’, said the police detective prosecuting her, ‘but she is a dangerous woman and a society adventuress’ who had been jailed in Shanghai for fraud. Living in Twickenham, she was allegedly ‘living by getting money from missionary societies and other charities by representing that she was highly connected’. Clearly she was connected, at least in 1911, but who she was really remains a mystery to me. I cannot trace any likely British consul as her father; I cannot find her birth listed; I cannot trace her after 1916. Simla, Beirut, Kobe, Washington DC, London, Peking, Hong Kong and Shanghai: Miriam Monteith moved through them all, at times it seems living quite hand to mouth and on her wits, leaving a few traces, but as silent about herself in the end in the records, as she mostly was in court in June 1912.

Sources: North China Herald, mainly 22 and 29 June 1912; Hong Kong Telegraph, 28 June 1912; 1911 Census of England and shipping records, via Ancestry; Times, 13 May 1916.

Iltis monument miniature

Iltis memorial miniature

Iltis memorial miniature

This is a nice puzzle. It is a barometer in the form of a monument to the SMS Iltis, the German naval ship that was shipwrecked off the coast of Shandong in 1896. But the real puzzle is its relationship to the memorial unveiled on the Bund at Shanghai in 1898. They share the broken mast, and the tangled ropes, but it is not a close copy, and the broken mast was a common funerary symbol. I have not seen its like before, and would be interested to know if anybody else has.

From the Mystic Flowery Land … to Herne Bay

Charles Halcombe and Liang Ahghan, c.1896

An 1853 editorial in The Times had great fun with the idea that one day soon travel to China would be so easy and ordinary, so vulgar indeed, that ladies’ maids with carpet bags would be traipsing along the Great Wall. Vulgarity was signalled by the leader writer by a reference to the otherwise inoffensive north Kent coastal town of Herne Bay, which had been transformed rapidly by the arrival of the railway and some shrewd developments, not least a pier, into a very popular seaside resort. It seems somehow appropriate then to find Charles J. H. Halcombe, late Chinese Maritime Customs, living there in March 1901 with his wife Liang Ah Ghan.

Halcombe’s books might strike a faint chord: Called out; or, The Chung Wang’s daughter, an Anglo-Chinese romance (1894); The Mystic Flowery Land: A Personal Memoir (1896) — from which this photograph comes — and Children of far Cathay : a social and political novel (1906). The first and last are romances of anti-Manchu revolution — in the latter Sun Yat-sen makes an early fictional appearance — and ‘Anglo-Chinese romance’. Halcombe had joined the Customs Service as a Watcher in November 1887 and resigned when stationed at Kiungchow (Qiongzhou) in March 1893. He was by then a Second Class Tidewaiter, and he had a novel in his pocket. The grandson of a barrister and Member of Parliament, and son of a civil servant, Halcombe would evidently prove more comfortable with the occupation of author, with which he described himself in the 1901 census, and traveller, that local newspaper profiles accorded him in Kent. Twice ship-wrecked as a teenage sailor — in December 1881 off the French coast, and in January 1883 off Cape Horn — he also spent some time in South Africa  before sailing into Shanghai in May 1887 aged 22. He tells us that he initially secured a post on the North China Daily News, but swapped that for the lowly position of Customs Service Tidewaiter, which is an unusual trajectory. Most men would aim to move the other way.

The Mystic Flowery Land is not a forgotten classic: its prose is clunky, its tone sentimental, and its claims to authority underwhelming. Several of its chapters began as articles in the monthlies, and it was perhaps to further his journalistic career that Holcombe arrived back in England with his wife in October 1894. He span a tale in one of its chapters about Liang Ahghan, the Cantonese woman he had met in Yantai (Chefoo) in north China when stationed there in 1888-89, and claimed that she had saved his life from rebels. This seems rather unlikely, but she moved with him from posting to posting, and they married sometime in late 1892 or early 1893 when he was based at Kiungchow, before he resigned and moved to Hong Kong.

Halcombe made an attempt at his literary career, but it proved hard-going. He had not received much schooling, and for the reviewers this showed. The author was ‘a clever man’, remarked The Westminster Review in 1899 in a notice of his novel about reincarnation and ancient Rome, The Romance of a Former Life, ‘but we doubt whether he has yet mastered the art of fiction’.  “One reads on from page to page wondering what extraordinary mistake the good man will make next’, wrote Country Life‘s reviewer, patronisingly, of ‘the flood of childish and pretentious errors’ to be found in its pages. In 1905 Halcombe placed a letter in the Daily Mail offering a reward for the return of his journals which recorded the shipping disasters that he had survived, and which had been lost when his parents moved home. He was planning a work on his early travels, but his seems to have been a forlorn request, and neither the diaries nor the book seem ever to have appeared. His writing trailed off after 1906.. Halcombe died in May 1931 in Dover, noted still as an author and traveller, but also as a former local councillor, and civil servant, altogether a more secure occupation than novelist, or, particularly in his case, sailor.

It is Nina — Liang Ahghan — I think of, however. There are few traces of her outside her husband’s various references in his writings: in June 1900 she was baptised in a Herne Bay church; she appears in the 1901 and 1911 census; and she is nearly always mentioned in local press accounts of Halcombe’s work. There were 1,825 people born in China recorded in the 1911 census of England & Wales, although many of those were, unlike Liang Ahghan, not Chinese, but the offspring of missionary, commercial or Customs service families — as were Herne Bay’s two other China born residents. (The couple themselves had no children). What were the dynamics of the household caught in the 1911 census: the author manqué – pompously careful to have his status as District Councillor recorded on the form — his widowed 78 year old mother, the 18 year-old Kent woman who was the household domestic, and Liang Ahghan. A more agile novelist then Halcombe — a man whose books mostly fictionalised and mythologised his own life, and which repeatedly picked over his culturally brittle relationship — could make something of that, perhaps a comedy of manners and nations set against the backdrop of Herne Bay’s pier. Liang survived her husband by the best part of two decades and seems to have died in late 1949, in Folkestone. I wonder about her later life, and of what she made of these towns of coastal Kent after Yantai, Canton, and Hong Kong. We are left only with her husband’s mythologisation of her life, and of her father — who forms the subject of one essay in The Mystic Flowery Land (available in a 2009 Chinese translation, for some reason) — and this rather touching photograph of an Anglo-Chinese marriage.

‘Picturing China’ filmed

The Arts & Humanities Research Council have made a nice little film about one of my projects, ‘Historical Photographs of China’. This is one of a number of films they have commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the council, and which showcase projects that it has funded. We have placed 9,155 photographs on the site, with another c.22,000 in process, and just in the last few days have received wonderful collections showcasing Chongqing and the Upper Yangzi river in the mid/late 1930s, and north China at about the same time. Our collection ranges back as far as 1857, and as recently as December 1950. And we know there’s a lot more out there … so what’s safely tucked away in your attics and on your bookcases?