Shanghai money, and Frank King (1926-2012)

A correspondent alerted me to the passing away in December, in Roswell, New Mexico, of Frank H.H. King, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong. Frank is most famously the author of the authorised History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, whose four volumes take up a good chunk of my book shelves.

I last met Frank in 2003 when he gave a keynote address to a workshop on the life and legacy of Sir Robert Hart, long-time Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, at Queen’s University Belfast. Frank had composed Hart’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, and his address was later published in Modern Asian Studies, in a set of papers edited by Hans van de Ven. As well as exploring the Boxer Indemnity, Frank also delivered an article explaining the origin of Hart’s obscure title for his book of essays pleading China’s case in the aftermath of the Boxer war: These from the Land of Sinim. I think we always need reminding of the religious universe in which these historical actors moved and thought.

Cover, C. E. Darwent, Shanghai (1920)

Cover, C. E. Darwent, Shanghai (1920)

Frank also wrote me a characteristically affable note in 2005 telling me he had enjoyed Empire Made Me, even though I was ‘totally mistaken’ in my note about Chinese money. Explaining the cosmopolitan world of currencies in treaty-port China is never easy. People operated on paper and in the street with a complicated bag of paper notes, Mexican and other silver dollars, Chinese taels, and more. In preparing the book the safest way to approach this, I thought, was simply to relay the guidance from a contemporary guide-book, and that is what I did, choosing the Reverend Charles Darwent’s 1920 edition of his Shanghai: A handbook for travellers and residents, first published in 1904. Well, Frank went on, not only was I wrong, ‘so is the dear Rev Darwent’.

Darwent, minister of the Union Church Shanghai from 1899-1919, was still fairly new to Shanghai, but Frank argued that ‘foreigners loved to see confusion in the [Chinese monetary] system as it tied in with their views of China in general’, and that anyway they, and ‘our own contemporaries do not have a clear view of money and banking today’. This seems persuasive, still, perhaps now much more so.

Looking for his obituary online I found that Frank’s life was visually quite well-documented, most notably by a Flickr stream from Clay County Historic Sites, Missouri, where the life of his family is associated with ‘Historic Pharis Farm’. That’s him below, on the left at two weeks old: six years after the second edition of Darwent’s guide was published, when foreigners in China were still confusing themselves about Chinese money, and the treaty port system was still operating across the country, even though big shocks were on the way.

Anyway, Frank wrote as he concluded the exchange, we should talk about it some time, as I clearly had much to learn. In the meanwhile he was sorry that I had missed his start turn as the Porter ‘in a local (New Mexico Military Institute) production of Macbeth.  I played it as scripted but also for laughs.  The cadets were mainly concerned that I not collapse on stage … I am the age of their grandfathers …’ He was then just 79.

Frank H. H. King, London, January 1926.

Frank H. H. King, London, January 1926.

Frank H.H. King, 1945

Frank H.H. King, 1945

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