The Chairman joked, and Chinese film history got confused

Not that Chairman, but Henry John Howard Tripp, Chairman of the Shanghai Recreation Club in 1897. A long-time resident of Shanghai, where he worked as agent for the Mitsui Bishi Company (having previously lived in Japan), Tripp was a keen (if apparently not brilliant) sportsman, a sometime jiujitsu practitioner, and an energetic chair who had the recreation ground — which sat within the Shanghai Race Club track — cleared of Chinese grave mounds. So Cape Town-born Tripp left his mark on Shanghai’s landscape, but he also left it, quite inadvertently, in the literature on the history of Chinese cinema.

How so? Well, some accounts of the history of the arrival of film in China state that the first scenes filmed in China were screened on 5 August 1897 at the Shanghai Recreation Ground. Tripp was most likely to be the Chairman of the evening’s events. A trio of entrepreneurs, scenting opportunity, were touring the larger foreign communities in China, giving exhibitions of films using the newly Cinematograph and Animatoscope equipment. Film historians have been assiduous in tracking down reports of their movements and shows, combing English-language and Chinese newspapers, noting audience reactions and diligently matching the descriptions given of the films with the known body of work being produced in Europe. The first screening in Shanghai seems to have been at the Astor House Hotel on Saturday 22 May 1897 and we have excited and detailed reports about this and other shows, with lists of film titles and descriptions of the machinery.

What is most striking is the suggestion that these machines were being used to film, as well as to project. And so in the literature you can find accounts of performances which note also that on 5 August 1897 some shorts filmed in Shanghai were shown to the audience at the Recreation Club. The titles were: ‘The Arrival of the First Train from Woosung’, ‘The Meet of the Shanghai Bicyclist Association’, ‘Workmen Leaving the Shanghai Engine Works’, and ‘Diving at the Shanghai Swimming Bath’. So, it seems, cinema history was made in what would in time become China’s movie-making capital, and a city much mythologised on the silver screen. The source is a report of the event in the North China Herald published on 13 August 1897. The evening, we are told, was a great success, and culminated with the assembled company singing songs. Having recounted all this (barring the singing) — a report that other scholars have relied on and repeated — one history asks: ‘But who made those films?’

Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat train station (1896)

‘The arrival of the first train from Woosung’ (1897) … ? Hmm

Well, the answer, in a sense, is probably Henry John Howard Tripp. For the report has more than once been been misread. No films shot in Shanghai were shown that hot August night in Shanghai. Instead, we are told that ‘much amusement’ was ’caused by the Chairman wittily giving his own titles to the pictures shown’. And so Shanghai was given ‘a peep into the future’, and ‘Workmen Leaving Portsmouth Dockyard’ became in his words ‘Workmen Leaving the Shanghai Engine Works’, while one of the Lumière Brothers films showing the arrival of a train became ‘The Arrival of the First Train from Woosung’. Very droll, especially the latter, for it was noticed that the conductors and passengers were all European.

Droll but confusing for some, and Tripp’s joke became a statement of fact, and the cheerful night a landmark event in the onward march of film-making in China. So the first film footage shot in China was instead that which we know to have been shown on Saturday 18 September at the Lyceum Theatre in the city. (First, that is, if we are to rely on this the first comment in this vein in China’s English-language press). The audience that night was small, for perhaps the novelty was wearing off: there had been complaints about the way the Animatoscope vibrated, and that while people seemed to be rendered faithfully, something very funny happened to turning wheels. But in amongst the other shorts of the procession in London to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (which had brought an earlier audience to its feet to sing the National Anthem)  ‘the most novel feature was a view of the Bubbling Well Road, in the neighbourhood of the Recreation Ground, which had to be shown twice in response to the demand of the audience’. We are told that ‘the proprietors hope to be able to show some more views of Shanghai in the course of a day or two’.

Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat train station (1896)

Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat train station (1896)

So I hope that this is now cleared up. Although of course, I do not know for sure that it was Tripp himself who presided on 5 August. It seems a reasonable supposition but might, however, be yet another red herring. Over to you.

And here, just for the record, is a photograph of the first train from Woosung.

Shanghai-Wusong railroad opening ceremony, 1876

Shanghai-Wusong railroad opening ceremony, 1876, Source Virtual Shanghai.

Sources: North China Herald, 13 August 1897, p. 296; 10 September 1897, p. 498; 6 April 1912, p. 16.

Bibliography

Cheng Jihua (ed.), Zhongguo dianying fazhanshi (Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1963).

Law Kar and Frank Bren, Hong Kong Cinema: A Cross-cultural View (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004), pp. 17-18, p. 307.

Matthew D. Johnson, ‘International and wartime origins of the propaganda state : the motion picture in China, 1897-1955’ (University of California San Diego, PhD thesis, 2008), p. 38.

Huang Xuelei, Shanghai Filmmaking: Crossing Borders, Connecting to the Globe, 1922-1938 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 143-44.

Hong Kong bound

I’m talking this Sunday evening in Hong Kong, 8 November, as part of the wonderful Hong Kong International Literary Festival. To find out more check out the Festival website, starting of course with Past Perspectives: China Bound 太古集團乘風破浪 I’ll be talking about China Bound, and the story of nineteenth and century globalization that I found in the story of John Swire & Sons, and its worlds.

Introducing China Families

Over the last couple of years I have been working with colleagues to transfer some of the scattered sets of biographical information that I have developed during research projects over the last two decades onto a new platform. The site, China Families, is now live, and still growing. Through various projects I had built up substantial sets of biographical information about men who served in the Shanghai Municipal Police (when developing Empire Made Me), the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (Chinese and foreign staff), and the shipping line China Navigation Co (whilst writing China Bound). An interest in the history of cemeteries and memorialisation amongst treaty port communities in China left me with sets of historic cemetery lists. These have now been combined with lists of civilian internees, neutral European nationals in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, and British government probate records, into a single searchable database. There are at least 60,000 records available. In addition I have developed a list of all the digitised copies of residents’ and business directories that I could find online, and provided guides for looking for men and women who lived in Hong Kong, and in Shanghai.

The sources are diverse. Much of the information comes from archival documents in Shanghai, Nanjing, and in London, from my own research in local newspapers and printed records. Some of the materials used have subsequently been withdrawn from public access, especially material from archives in China. I have also recently published an introduction to the history that underpins this, and set out some of the resources available for those researching their treaty port China family histories (and I identified some that you will not find).

The site is free to use, and requires no registration, and is designed to be useful for historians and genealogists alike, and also sits alongside the Historical Photographs of China platform. Do play around with it, and let me know what you think. I would be interested to know what you find there, and what you do with the information.

 

Wuhan

Let’s remember, please: Wuhan is not an unknown place, it is not beyond our knowledge. Wuhan has long been a part, even of British lives — and many others overseas — intimately so, if unobtrusively. Produce from Wuhan fed British days. Tea was shipped out from the port and found its way eventually into British homes and down British throats (and Australian ones, and many others). Powdered and later liquid egg was sent out from processing plants in the city and would fetch up in British bakeries. A British day in the 1920s might this way be sustained by Wuhan produce. So this long relationship could not be more physically intimate. Wuhan’s direct entanglement with the world beyond Hubei province’s borders is nothing new. Caravans took tea overland to Russia. In 1868, SS Agamemnon, a British-owned steamer of the Blue Funnel line, sailed to the port to collect the first crop of new teas, ready to carry them swiftly direct to London. Wuhan was an internationally-connected city, even then, though mostly tea went first downriver to Shanghai for transhipment.

The city of Wuhan is actually formed of what were historically three cities: Wuchang, on the right bank of the Yangzi, opposite the mouth of the Han river that enters it from the north; Hanyang, on the opposite shore, west of the Han river mouth, and Hankou – written in the past as Hankow – to the east of the Han river. These cities have now grown together into the municipality of Wuhan. It has been a centre of revolutions, of a government in flight, and of international trade.

Map of the port of Hankow (Wuhan), 1892

Foreign flags once flew there. After 1861 a slice of Hankou on the Yangzi riverbank was controlled by the British, and in time other neighbouring slices adjoining it by Russia, France, Germany, and Japan. In Hankow’s British Concession a British Municipal Council ran a police force, employed British nurses in its hospital and British teachers in its school, and oversaw a militia, the Hankow British Volunteer Corps. The Council laid down roads, collected property taxes, and documented its activities in a voluminous printed annual report. Hankow’s Britons sailed home to join up in the First World War, and those who died were commemorated on a now long-ago removed war memorial on the riverside bund, which was unveiled on Remembrance Day, 1922. To the northeast of the city a fine race-track was laid out, and foreign residents and Chinese alike flowed along the road on race days to join the festivities, watch the races, and of course to gamble. The track and surrounds ‘might well be in the heart of surrey’ remarked a visitor in 1938. Britons were born in Hankow, were married there or found partners there, and were interred there in the foreign cemetery. The city’s locally-printed English newspapers published notices of these life events. The descendants of Hankow unions live across the world. They might be your neighbours.

British Municipal Council building, Hankow Concession, flying the Union Jack

This was no innocent presence; it was one local manifestation of the wider British enterprise in China that had degraded the country’s sovereignty, and seen parts of other cities surrendered to British – and to Japanese, Russian, German, Italian, French, and other – concessions and settlements. The British had acquired a colony in Hong Kong in 1842, the Japanese took Taiwan in 1895, the Germans Qingdao in 1897. Tsarist Russia had seized great swathes of Siberia from China’s Manchu rules, the Qing. All of this in turn was of course part of the ravaging of the world by the great hegemons, the European empires, the United States, Japan. These gains were defended with violence. Those British Volunteers and British marines fired on and killed demonstrators in the city in 1925. Names familiar today had a presence there: the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank (now HSBC), ICI, British American Tobacco. The airline Cathay Pacific flies there twice daily today from Hong Kong. Into the 1930s its owners, John Swire & Sons, operated passenger and cargo services to the port from Shanghai through their China Navigation Company steamers.

Butterfield & Swire headquarters, Hankow, and Customs House under construction, 1923-24. Source: Historical Photographs of China, Sw-06-002 © John Swire & Sons, Ltd 2007.

Wuhan was a city at the centre of China’s great political resurgence in the twentieth century. It has been on the front pages of newspapers overseas more than once before 2020. In October 1911 revolutionary bomb makers accidentally blew themselves up there, prompting their comrades to launch the great military uprising that would lead to the toppling of the Qing dynasty. The republic that was then inaugurated floundered and in 1926 a new revolutionary alliance of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party (the Guomindang), and the Chinese Communist Party, launched an audacious campaign to re-establish and reinvent the republic. The movement’s left wing head-quartered itself in Wuhan, establishing a revolutionary capital there. Wuhan’s people reoccupied the British concession, reclaiming it for their city: it never returned to British control despite the fury and tub-thumping of British politicians and British China hands downriver, and despite the fact that the left-wing was turned on by Chiang Kai-shek from his capital in Nanjing, and destroyed. Wuhan returned to the front pages in 1938 as the temporary capital of Chiang’s republic, which had withdrawn from Nanjing in the face of the Japanese invasion. ‘Defend Wuhan’ urges the poster below, but Wuhan fell to the Japanese in October 1938.

Wuhan’s history then is a history that was intertwined with wider global developments, international trade, imperialism, the rise of anti-colonial nationalism, the fascist onslaught of the 1930s, and slowly evolving resistance to it, first in Spain and then in China. In March 1938 the British poet W.H. Auden accompanied by the novelist Christopher Isherwood visited the refugee capital. ‘We would rather be in Hankow at this moment than anywhere else on earth’, wrote Isherwood. ‘History, grown weary of Shanghai, bored with Barcelona, has fixed her capricious interest upon Hankow’. Caprice again brings Wuhan to the world’s attention.

Poster: ‘Defend Wuhan!’. made by the ‘Korean Youth Wartime Service Corps’ (朝鲜青年战时服务团), founded in Wuhan in December 1937 by leftist Korean nationalists. Source: Historical Photographs of China, bi-s168.

For more on the city’s history see:

Chris Courtney, The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
William Rowe, Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City, 1796-1889 (Stanford University Press, 1984)
William Rowe, Hankow: Conflict and Community in a Chinese City, 1796-1895 (Stanford University Press, 1989)

My books The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the QIng Empire, 1832-1918 (Penguin) and Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Foreign Domination (Penguin) chart the rise, fall and legacies of this historic degradation of China’s sovereignty, and the nature of the foreign-run establishment in Wuhan and other cities.

Trifles, also known as loot

Still they seep out, items ‘from the Emperor’s Summer Palace’, the Yuanmingyuan. This is the long, long-established euphemism for material looted during the sacking of the Summer Palace by British and French soldiery ‘wild for plunder’ in the days before the complex was burned down by British forces on 18 October 1860. The context was the hard-fought North China Campaign, British and French forces slogging across the plain from the mouth of the Beihai river, avenging bloody defeat at the hands of the Qing at the Dagu forts on 25 July 1859, and the seizure and ill-treatment of Allied envoys by the Chinese. Civilisation and its virtues were reasserted by the destruction of the complex of buildings and gardens northeast of Beijing, the beauty of which had left observers stunned for words.

Lot 516 at today’s sale at Chorley’s, ‘Gloucester’s Fine Auctioneers’ is outlined as ‘An Interesting collection of items relating to General Sir John Hart Dunne KCB’. Then a Captain, Dunne served with the 99th Regiment of Foot. He seized one of the five Pekinese dogs found abandoned in the royal quarters, the one in fact that was presented to Queen Victoria, charmingly renamed ‘Looty’. Sarah Cheang has written nicely about this. Material relating to Dunne’s career was on view at an exhibition in sunny Sidmouth in the summer of 2018.

There are photographs in the lot of Looty, a negative of Dunne and a woman dressed in, presumably, clothing seized from the same place, ‘a filigree work bodkin case of cylinder form, the inner sleeve inscribed ‘A Trifle from the Emperor’s Summer Palace Gen John Hart Dunne'” and more.

Loot, and in fact fake loot, began circulating almost immediately after the days of plunder. Taipans rushed north to pick up what they could from antiques markets around Beijing, any savvy vendor of Chinese objets, or clothing, quickly ran up watertight provenance for their wares, all material now tracing its origins back to the Yuanmingyuan. The ‘fate’ of loot has been tracked by James Hevia, and by others.

And so still they circulate, in this instance ‘a trifle’, or two, and a record of others: relics of the entangled and violent history of British-China relations, items that pepper the collections of British museums and galleries, spoils of war all in plain sight. The photographs here come from the auction catalogue, and I have also edited the negative to reveal more clearly the figure of John Hart Dunne, all dressed in loot.

For more on the campaign and its legacies see my The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Penguin). I am grateful to Dr Stephen Lloyd, Curator of the Derby Collection, at Knowsley Hall, for drawing the sale to my attention.

And for dog-lovers: here’s Looty in colour, painted by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust website.

China Bound

china bound CVRMy new book is out: China Bound: John Swire & Sons and its World, 1816-1980 is published by Bloomsbury. The book covers the period from the first recorded operation of the original John Swire in Liverpool, to the cusp of its re-entry into China in the early 1980s and the last visit to Asia of Swire’s great-grandson, J. K. ‘Jock’ Swire.

You’ll find reviews in the South China Morning Post, and the Asian Review of Books.

‘From colonial Hong Kong to pirate battles, tea-trade to Taipans, wartime container shipping to early airlines, there is barely a dull page’, The Wire China

 

You say US, I say Mao

The arrival of the UK Penguin Books paperback of Out of China reminds me of some of the material that had to be set aside. In particular, when discussing the impact of Maoism on counter culture movements overseas in the 1960s, I made reference to the mesmerising Jean Luc-Godard film ‘La Chinoise’, set largely in the claustrophobic Paris apartment of a group of student Maoists (try counting the Little Red Books: it’s awash with them). But there was no place for his 1969 documentary ‘British Sounds’.

That was a shame, but I was spoiled for choice. I think mainly of the sequence filmed at the then new University of Essex in which students are preparing for a demonstration. The screen shot above shows a collaborative piece of song-writing: fitting new words to the Beatles song ‘Hello, Goodbye’. You can find the film online if you look, and there’s a full transcript here. Here, without the music, is the sequence:

If you want to replace… Look, the whole point of the song is that I say «high,» and you say «low» — two opposites. So if you want to replace it, you’ve got to put it with something that is opposite. – What are you trying to change it round to anyway, exactly?– From what it is to… I mean, you can put some very nice things like «Ho Chi Minh» and «Castro» and things at the end of the lines. Somebody got a fag [cigarette]?– It’s got to be opposites all the way through. «You say US. I say Mao. You say… You say war…– No, you can even say, «Say US. I say Mao.» – Let’s think of the right bit with war, then. – You’ve got to say, «Look, I’m a fascist, and you’re a revolutionary. I’m a reactionary, and you’re a revolutionary.» So: «You say US, I say Mao. You say war…»– I think, actually, that if I say «Ho» instead of «no.» – «You say Vietnam, and I say…» something that compels.– But it doesn’t fit in, because «stop» is a very short syllable. You’ve got to have something that fits in with…– Hang on! «You say Nixon, I say Mao.» – «You say Nixon, I say Mao. You say…»– No, that doesn’t go.– «Say US, when I say Mao.» Good!

Good, indeed. Hmm. The rhyme works though, in context: Essex, 1969.

Otto, Mitzi, and Ho Chi Minh

‘A Military Messenger Heads for the Enemy’s Camp’: Japanese officers, Edna Lee, Otto, and Mitzi, leave the Kowloon Hotel on 13 December 1941.

When I first came across this Japanese military propaganda photograph of the ‘Peace Mission’ despatched across Hong Kong’s harbour from Kowloon on 13 December 1941, I knew it had to find a place in Out of China. It was not simply the bewildered look on the face of hapless hostage Edna Lee, whose husband was private secretary to the Governor, Sir Mark Young, nor was it the suave smartness of the glove-wearing Japanese officers preparing to cross the harbour with Mrs Lee, one of two British hostages they took with them. It was of course the fact that Edna Lee took her two dogs, and that they were dachshunds.

Smiles, gloves, and Otto (or Mitzi), on Hong Kong island, awaiting the British answer, 13 December 1941

Otto and Mitzi, for such were their names, got a starring role in this photograph that was widely distributed by the Japanese military press network. Mrs Lee was a ‘courageous woman’ ran the official caption. Indeed, as well as agreeing to the uncertain challenge of crossing the harbour under potentially hostile fire, Edna had the presence of mind to say that she would only consider going if a fellow captive on the verge of giving birth was also allowed to accompany them, and stay to receive British medical attention. But Edna also insisted on being accompanied by her dogs. American journalist Gwen Dew managed to talk to Mrs Lee as well as to the Japanese emissaries when they reached the island, and while they waited for answer to their message. The Dachshunds were an obvious conversation piece under the circumstances. ‘Yes, they’re Germans’, she told Dew, ‘but you can’t blame the poor dogs for that’. And as she chomped from a ‘tall pile of sandwiches’ brought from the Hong Kong Club — as you do in the middle of a battle — Edna reported that the Japanese had also filmed her, and had in fact repeatedly made her rehearse the exit from the hotel where she had taken shelter. This war was being staged as it was being fought, and what was being staged here aimed to portray the absurdity of anybody continuing to think of the British as imperial overlords: just look at the photograph again.

I thought of this episode the other day when I noticed that one of the stories published in the South China Morning Post on the very same day, under the heading ‘Merciful Release’, reported that Rosa Loseby, owner of the Kowloon City Dogs Home, had had all the 73 pets there put down before she had fled to Hong Kong Island. Loseby had brought over a few of her favourite puppies, and was not the only person to do so, but most of the dogs and cats in the city’s pioneering dogs’ home had been put down. This small massacre within the greater slaughter of the bloody battle for Hong Kong also echoed the mass euthanasia of some 400,000 dogs and cats in London in the autumn of 1939, which forms the subject of a recently-published book. So, lucky Otto, then; and lucky Mitzi. Lucky too, Gwen Dew, who managed to secure a passage on one of the exchange vessels in summer 1942. Her memoir of the Japanese assault and the first months of the occupation, Prisoner of the Japs (1943), mentions the plucky Dachshunds a few more times, for the Japanese fulfilled a promise to give Edna Lee and her pets special treatment for co-operating. But then they vanish from the record as Edna was eventually moved into Stanley Internment Camp. I am afraid that I do not think their canine luck held much longer.

And Ho Chi Minh? Oh, well: Rosa Loseby’s husband was a British lawyer, Francis Loseby, who had been instrumental in securing Ho Chih Minh’s release after he was arrested in Hong Kong in 1931. It took eighteen months, a great deal of skilful advocacy, and some cloak and dagger subterfuge. During the latter part of the period Ho was a regular dinner guest at the Loseby home, and in in 1960 the couple and their daughter visited Vietnam and were received by now President Ho. You can find plenty of photographs of this visit online on Vietnamese websites.