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 Some of the materials used have subsequently been withdrawn from public access, especially material from archives in China.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.



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.


What Daisy Knew

In May 1949 Life‘s Shanghai Bureau photographer, Jack Birns, accompanied by its reporter Roy Rowan did the rounds of those bars and cabarets in the city that catered in the main for foreign sailors. You can find most of the photographs, which were not used at the time, in the Google Images Life Archive (search for ‘China, Last Days Of Shanghai‘, then browse). With a little patience you’ll find sets of photographs of bars and their owners, and the Chinese and Russian hostesses who entertained the patrons. You will not find many of the latter, for the Communist armies were moving on the city, so the bars are eerily empty. For that reason, I used one of these in Out of China as well as another taken in a Macao casino: two Chinas (of many). One staged set of the Shanghai photographs follows two seamen on shore leave from the gates of the wharf as they negotiate with cycle rickshaws, and traverse the Diamond and Lear Bars. They are the only customers.

Daisy Gao Kia Kin and Frank Yenalevicz, New Ritz Bar, Shanghai, May 1949 by Jack Birns © Time Inc.

Daisy Gao Kia Kin and Frank Yenalevicz, New Ritz Bar, Shanghai, May 1949 by Jack Birns © Time Inc.

The New Ritz Bar, whose owners, Daisy and Frank Yenalevicz, posed for the portrait above in May 1949, looked a higher class of establishment than some they visited, even though it was part of the ‘Blood Alley’ strip on Rue Chu Pao San in the former French Concession close by the river-front Bund and across Avenue Edward VII from the former International Settlement. It is the only one which had Chinese customers as well, here shown playing dice.

New Ritz Bar, May 1949, by Jack Birns, © Time Inc.

New Ritz Bar, May 1949, by Jack Birns, © Time Inc.

Robert 'Bo' Brown, Diamond Bar, Shanghai, by Jack Birns, 1949 © Time Inc.

Robert ‘Bo’ Brown, Diamond Bar, Shanghai, by Jack Birns, 1949 © Time Inc.

The details which accompany these photographs might give the name of the owner, Yenalevicz, or Jim Lear (Lear Bar) or Bobby ‘Bo’ Brown, owner of the Diamond Bar. The interest of Life‘s editors might have stretched to the Americans who ran or patronised these forlorn establishments, so Rowan and Birns provided some notes on them, and Birns took their portraits. Brown, we are told, for example, was a Chicago-born former Merchant Seaman, who had bought his business in 1946. You can find the odd reference to these men in the press: Lear being fined in 1948 for accepting US dollars as payment (which was illegal); Yanelevicz’s bar being declared ‘Out of Bounds’ by the US Navy that same year, and Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury editor Randall Gould ripping the sign down, declaring that extraterritoriality was over, and the US Navy had no right to fix a sign to anybody’s business in Shanghai.

It was Daisy who piqued my interest, however, or rather the woman I now know to be Daisy, or to be accurate, know to be 高桂金, Gao Guijin (or Gao Kwia Kin in the transliteration used in various documents). This was because she looks very much Yenalevicz’s equal. And well she might, for she owned, she said, half the business. She could, and did, prove it.

Frank Yenalevicz, native of Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, died in September 1949 in Shanghai’s Country Hospital of heart failure. He was fifty years old. Four months later Daisy requested assistance from the US Consulate General to help her wind up his affairs. This letter was clearly written by a native-speaker of English, but there is no clue as to who was helping her at this point. Daisy had met Frank, she wrote, in 1923, then followed him on his US Navy postings around the Pacific until he left the service in 1933 after which they settled in Shanghai. There they ran their business, Daisy attending to the restaurant, and Frank to the bar. The New Ritz was taken over sometime after summer 1939. She ran it on her own during the Pacific War (when, after internment at Haiphong Road Camp in November 1942, Frank secured passage to the US on an exchange ship in September 1943), and accumulated substantial savings that they held in US dollars. Blood Alley’s business did not lag during the Japanese occupation. To avoid currency controls introduced by the Chinese government in 1948, Frank deposited their capital in a New York bank account in his name. By January 1950 the business itself was essentially worthless. Even the properties they leased — including ‘a comfortable apartment in a modern building’ where they had ‘lived respectably as man and wife’ (though they had never married) — were now valueless. She still ran the business, she said, but ‘Conditions here are now so unfavorable’ — after eight months of Communist control of the city — that she was by then in great need of the money held overseas.

Daisy’s vulnerability was also made evident when she offered a payment from the estate, without prejudice, to each of Yenalevicz’s siblings. She had never had any contact with the family, she wrote, but US consular officials with experience of Shanghai would be able to vouch for her story, for Frank would have been known to them (which was probably true, not least because of the May 1948 contretemps). Nothing seems to have happened, however, as events — the closure of the US consulate general, the onset of the Korean War and the US-led trade embargo against China — conspired to obstruct Daisy’s attempts at restitution. Meanwhile the business stumbled on, although perhaps dice no longer rolled across the tablecloths. A September 1952 report in John W. Powell’s China Monthly Review recorded that the bar was still serving ‘American style lunches and dinners’, including his ‘next T-Bone steak’ (Powell’s pro-PRC magazine aimed to rebut US claims about food shortages). Still, beef or no beef, Daisy was anxious to regain her money. In May 1953 she tried again through a set of New York lawyers but there is no record in the file of any success.

For now, Daisy’s tale remains suspended here, and the woman herself is frozen in the record, snapped behind the bar at the New Ritz by Jack Birns, and lodged in this US State Department file, precariously, but comfortably, living in her eighth-floor rooms in the Yates Apartments on Bubbling Well Road. But the dossier on Frank’s estate provides a glimpse nonetheless of some of the more mundane realities behind the much-mythologised ‘Blood Alley’. From time to time the Birns photographs are rediscovered and re-circulated online as showing foreign decadence in the shadow in the Communist victory. Well, this was, all in all, the brief given to Birns and  Rowan when they were sent to Shanghai.

But in catching Daisy, Birns also caught another way of viewing the world that was about to be taken over, one that I explore in greater depth in Out of China: the messy lived experience of treaty port China. Here were middle-aged Frank and Gao Guijin, who had dodged the war and the inflationary crisis of the late 1940s through fair means and rather more pragmatic ones, keeping their businesses open and their customers satisfied. Under one regime their properties will best have been registered in Frank’s name, and will have been protected that way by his American extraterritorial rights, which lasted formally until 1943. But during the Japanese occupation and then in the post-war years, it was plainly easier to run them as Daisy’s. To mangle a famous saying of Deng Xiaoping’s: it did not matter to them if the New Ritz cat was American or Chinese, as long as it attracted the mice.

So Daisy and Frank were, it seems, a comfortable team, adroitly working their niche in the politically mis-shaped world of treaty port China. They lived well, and earned well, although the living was sometimes not without danger. The New Ritz’s previous owner, Albert Fletcher Wilson, had been killed in July 1939 just outside the bar, shot by pro-Japanese terrorists during a series of attacks on government newspapers. But the greatest challenge Daisy faced as its owner, however, proved to be her husband’s death and the entangled legal consequences of their never having married, as well as their strategies for survival through the Pacific war and China’s post-war crisis. The wrenching reconfiguration of the Cold War finally threw up challenges that even the most adept found difficult to manage. Daisy’s attempts to regain their savings may also have been prompted by the tightening policies of the new city authorities in the early 1950s, and the scrutiny of the business and its assets that this would have entailed. Things might have got much more difficult for her in Shanghai thereafter as a small business owner with long-term American connections.

This Sino-American partnership was trapped by history. And while the ‘Blood Alley’ approach to night-time Shanghai’s foreign-flavoured history has its truths, even these are better understood if we look more closely behind the lurid headlines to the real world of Gao Guijin, who opened up the restaurant every morning, and posed calmly next to Frank Yenalevicz for Jack Birns.

Sources: US National Archives Record Group 59; Box 1205, Case No. 293.111 Yenalevicz; China Monthly Review, 1 September 1952, pp. 296-300; South China Morning Post, 17 May 1948, p. 10.