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.
A 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?