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.