Lost monuments and memorials of the Shanghai Bund 2: Statue of Sir Robert Hart, 1914

I first started writing up this research in 2010 when invited to give a lecture in Shanghai at a meeting of the International Council of Museums. This had been timed to coincide with the Shanghai World Expo, which carved out chunks of the city, south of its former core, and peppered them with dozens of pavilions showcasing international design. Over six months some 73 million visits were made to these sites. Part of the city’s overall pitch was to show how internationalised a place it had become after two decades of ‘reform and opening up. It was now a true world city, cosmopolitan and modern. I have never trusted the word ‘cosmopolitan’, for reasons that I will come to, but I have found the word used more than once to describe these monuments that formerly stood on the city’s Bund — its riverside embankment. In fact they are used to represent Shanghai’s longer history of being a world city: we have always been cosmopolitan, runs the argument, look at the array of artistic styles represented by the monuments which graced our public spaces. One display in which you can find this wording used is in the Bund History Museum underneath one of the current memorials: the Monument to the People’s Heroes (上海市人民英雄纪念碑).

Unveiling of statue of Sir Robert Hart, 25 May 1914

Unveiling of statue of Sir Robert Hart, 25 May 1914

Was this the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of the memorials? The second youngest of the Shanghai monuments at the time of their removal in September 1943 was the statue of Sir Robert Hart, Inspector-General (I. G.) of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service from 1863-1911. Designed by Henry Pegram, R.A., and unveiled on 25 May 1914, the Hart statue (赫德铜像) originally stood on the river-front lawns at the junction of Jiujiang (Kiukiang) Road and the Bund. Ostensibly, yes, it was in many ways the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of the six memorials placed by the Huangpu river. Hart’s organisation was an agency of the Chinese state, but it employed some 11,000 foreign nationals over nearly a century, from 1854 until 1950, and they worked smoothly together, mostly, in what was for its time an institution unusually international in its composition. Half of those men were Britons, like Hart, but the others were American, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and from many more nations besides (including quite a number of Norwegians). Although the initiative to build a memorial came from the service, it was unable to see it through. Hart was the subject of something akin to a cult within the Customs, but its leaders could not use public money to honour their former chief, and not enough money was donated by its staff. It was also felt that it would be politically sensible to have a monument erected not in Peking, where Hart had spent most of the five decades after 1861, but in foreign-controlled Shanghai. So there it was that the statue was unveiled by the Danish Consul-General. Its epitaphs were composed by the President of Harvard University, and its designer was British. A German conducted the Town Band as proceedings got underway. Chinese texts were carved on to the plinth as well, and it was largely paid for by licence fees paid by the Chinese residents of the International Settlement.

Robert Hart statueThe statue shows Hart back bowed with the weight of his responsibilities, so it was hardly a subtle object, but unusually for the Bund memorials it also had a didactic text (see below). Hart, the words on panels attached to the plinth stated, was a ‘True Friend of the Chinese People’. He was ‘Modest, patient, sagacious and resolute’, it continued, ‘He overcame formidable obstacles, and / Accomplished a work of great beneficence for China and the world’. These are the words composed by Harvard’s Charles Eliot. Your ‘true friend of the Chinese people’, might well be my ‘black hand’ of British imperialism of course (to use a Chinese term), but the most controversial aspect of the memorial for some, at least until the Japanese takeover of the city in December 1941, was that the plinth was too small, and that the statue faced the wrong way. As those who Shanghai can see, it was positioned so that Sir Robert looked north, but this put it out of line with most of the other memorials on the Bund which were designed to be viewed with the river behind them, facing the buildings that lined the west side of the road.

In 1927 the statue was moved  a little way north, and placed on a new, much higher plinth (more in proportion with the statue itself, which was designed to be viewed from below), and at the same time the plaques were renewed. The text had been too closely placed together, because of the size of the plinth, and some of it was by then quite indistinct. There were also mistakes in the Chinese inscription. But the main reason for the refurbishment was the deliberate use of Hart’s reputation by his nephew, Sir Frederick Maze, who was to take over Hart’s position as Inspector-General in 1929. The actual occasion was the rebuilding of the Customs House at Shanghai in 1925-27, where Maze was Commissioner. After he took the post, Maze had a glossy brochure published as a Circular (a Customs Service high-level order or announcement) , which was sent to retired former senior officers and many others. Look, Maze aimed to say, Hart and his legacy are safe with me.

statue1928In its new location the statue now faced west, and stood on a traffic island in front of the main entrance to the Shanghai Customs House, with its back to the Customs Examination shed. Presumably it then functioned to shame those sloping off early from work. Perhaps they snuck out the back of the building instead, in order to avoid his gaze. (But as the service also had photographs of Hart officially on display in offices, there was a limit to how far they could avoid the old ‘I. G.’). This was not the only one of the Bund side statues to move, in fact all did so, over the years. We might well be accustomed to thinking about the meanings of memorials shifting (or simply fading), but think less about the fact that the objects themselves, seemingly so rooted, are often shifted. Roads are widened or re-routed; anxieties lead to monuments being re-sited on private, instead of public land; political change demands a cleansing of a cityscape. Hart’s statue, along with all the others on the Bund, was taken down in September 1943, at the insistence of the Japanese authorities in the city.

Removal of statue of Sir Robert Hart, September 1943

Removal of statue of Sir Robert Hart,September 194

Aside from the Shanghai War Memorial, this was the monument that foreign observers seemed most invested in emotionally. In a couple of accounts published in wartime Britain, the statue is pointed to as representing all that was positive about the British presence in China, and what was presented as the selfless contribution of men like Hart to its development. I have discussed the nuances and realities of such thinking in The Scramble for China, and Hart’s role in particular, but it is telling how much this statue came to symbolise what were argued to be the positive aspects of the British presence in modern China, which it became important to articulate after December 1941, when Britain and China were formally allies in the war against Japan. The ‘savagery’ of the Japanese — this was the type of language used — was highlighted in these accounts by the pulling down of the statue of Sir Robert Hart. The sense of a lack of proportion is more telling yet.

In early December 1945, the Customs Service leadership, which had been based in Chongqing since February 1942, started to take back over the organs of the service based in Shanghai which had continued to function under Japanese control during the occupation. One would have thought that with a harbour to rehabilitate, a population to feed, and an economy to help reconstruct, there would be little time or resource to spare to think about a statue. But no: a team was despatched to relocate Sir Robert and get him back on show. The statue and all the side the panels had been transferred to the Shanghai Customs when the memorial was dismantled — I have held in my hands the signed receipt that was issued (such are the things which survive in archives) — but they were now missing. At some point late in the war, as shortages pushed up the price of metal, someone in the Customs House quietly sold them off to a scrap-metal merchant. The investigation team followed the trail to a couple of scrapyards, but there it went cold. Or not so cold: evasive replies from those interviewed at the yards suggested to the team that the deposed Inspector-General and the plaques proclaiming all of his virtues and titles in English and in Chinese had been melted down.

Hart died in England in 1911, and was buried in the pretty Thames-side churchyard at Bisham, near Marlow. In early 2013 with funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council,  I worked with fellow-historians to restore the grave of Hart and his wife Hester, which was rededicated in a ceremony in February 2013 (you can find a write up here). Several of Hart’s descendants came to the event, as well as the children and grand-children of Customs staff. I also collaborated with a Bristol-based company on a short film about this process and about Hart’s career and contributions to Britain-China relations (for more on that look here). Hart is also remembered in the name of a primary school in his homeland. The last time I visited the Shanghai History Museum he was just about the first person I saw, in the shape of an actor playing the Inspector-General in the introductory film, but the statue remains conspicuous by its absence, as all the Bund memorials do.

And my beef with that word ‘cosmopolitan’? Well, this was never an innocent word, and it was in general a statement of power for the foreign residents of Shanghai who lauded their little league of nations on the banks of the Huangpu river. It was cosmopolitan on their terms, and those terms were shaped by the power relationships which shaped the city. After all, Chinese residents were forbidden from walking on the Bund lawns on which Sir Robert Hart was placed, and so would not have been able to read those inscriptions, which went through the cosmopolitan motions of speaking in Chinese, but which spoke to a deliberately emptied air.