From the Mystic Flowery Land … to Herne Bay

Charles Halcombe and Liang Ahghan, c.1896

An 1853 editorial in The Times had great fun with the idea that one day soon travel to China would be so easy and ordinary, so vulgar indeed, that ladies’ maids with carpet bags would be traipsing along the Great Wall. Vulgarity was signalled by the leader writer by a reference to the otherwise inoffensive north Kent coastal town of Herne Bay, which had been transformed rapidly by the arrival of the railway and some shrewd developments, not least a pier, into a very popular seaside resort. It seems somehow appropriate then to find Charles J. H. Halcombe, late Chinese Maritime Customs, living there in March 1901 with his wife Liang Ah Ghan.

Halcombe’s books might strike a faint chord: Called out; or, The Chung Wang’s daughter, an Anglo-Chinese romance (1894); The Mystic Flowery Land: A Personal Memoir (1896) — from which this photograph comes — and Children of far Cathay : a social and political novel (1906). The first and last are romances of anti-Manchu revolution — in the latter Sun Yat-sen makes an early fictional appearance — and ‘Anglo-Chinese romance’. Halcombe had joined the Customs Service as a Watcher in November 1887 and resigned when stationed at Kiungchow (Qiongzhou) in March 1893. He was by then a Second Class Tidewaiter, and he had a novel in his pocket. The grandson of a barrister and Member of Parliament, and son of a civil servant, Halcombe would evidently prove more comfortable with the occupation of author, with which he described himself in the 1901 census, and traveller, that local newspaper profiles accorded him in Kent. Twice ship-wrecked as a teenage sailor — in December 1881 off the French coast, and in January 1883 off Cape Horn — he also spent some time in South Africa  before sailing into Shanghai in May 1887 aged 22. He tells us that he initially secured a post on the North China Daily News, but swapped that for the lowly position of Customs Service Tidewaiter, which is an unusual trajectory. Most men would aim to move the other way.

The Mystic Flowery Land is not a forgotten classic: its prose is clunky, its tone sentimental, and its claims to authority underwhelming. Several of its chapters began as articles in the monthlies, and it was perhaps to further his journalistic career that Holcombe arrived back in England with his wife in October 1894. He span a tale in one of its chapters about Liang Ahghan, the Cantonese woman he had met in Yantai (Chefoo) in north China when stationed there in 1888-89, and claimed that she had saved his life from rebels. This seems rather unlikely, but she moved with him from posting to posting, and they married sometime in late 1892 or early 1893 when he was based at Kiungchow, before he resigned and moved to Hong Kong.

Halcombe made an attempt at his literary career, but it proved hard-going. He had not received much schooling, and for the reviewers this showed. The author was ‘a clever man’, remarked The Westminster Review in 1899 in a notice of his novel about reincarnation and ancient Rome, The Romance of a Former Life, ‘but we doubt whether he has yet mastered the art of fiction’.  “One reads on from page to page wondering what extraordinary mistake the good man will make next’, wrote Country Life‘s reviewer, patronisingly, of ‘the flood of childish and pretentious errors’ to be found in its pages. In 1905 Halcombe placed a letter in the Daily Mail offering a reward for the return of his journals which recorded the shipping disasters that he had survived, and which had been lost when his parents moved home. He was planning a work on his early travels, but his seems to have been a forlorn request, and neither the diaries nor the book seem ever to have appeared. His writing trailed off after 1906.. Halcombe died in May 1931 in Dover, noted still as an author and traveller, but also as a former local councillor, and civil servant, altogether a more secure occupation than novelist, or, particularly in his case, sailor.

It is Nina — Liang Ahghan — I think of, however. There are few traces of her outside her husband’s various references in his writings: in June 1900 she was baptised in a Herne Bay church; she appears in the 1901 and 1911 census; and she is nearly always mentioned in local press accounts of Halcombe’s work. There were 1,825 people born in China recorded in the 1911 census of England & Wales, although many of those were, unlike Liang Ahghan, not Chinese, but the offspring of missionary, commercial or Customs service families — as were Herne Bay’s two other China born residents. (The couple themselves had no children). What were the dynamics of the household caught in the 1911 census: the author manqué – pompously careful to have his status as District Councillor recorded on the form — his widowed 78 year old mother, the 18 year-old Kent woman who was the household domestic, and Liang Ahghan. A more agile novelist then Halcombe — a man whose books mostly fictionalised and mythologised his own life, and which repeatedly picked over his culturally brittle relationship — could make something of that, perhaps a comedy of manners and nations set against the backdrop of Herne Bay’s pier. Liang survived her husband by the best part of two decades and seems to have died in late 1949, in Folkestone. I wonder about her later life, and of what she made of these towns of coastal Kent after Yantai, Canton, and Hong Kong. We are left only with her husband’s mythologisation of her life, and of her father — who forms the subject of one essay in The Mystic Flowery Land (available in a 2009 Chinese translation, for some reason) — and this rather touching photograph of an Anglo-Chinese marriage.

‘Picturing China’ filmed

The Arts & Humanities Research Council have made a nice little film about one of my projects, ‘Historical Photographs of China’. This is one of a number of films they have commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the council, and which showcase projects that it has funded. We have placed 9,155 photographs on the site, with another c.22,000 in process, and just in the last few days have received wonderful collections showcasing Chongqing and the Upper Yangzi river in the mid/late 1930s, and north China at about the same time. Our collection ranges back as far as 1857, and as recently as December 1950. And we know there’s a lot more out there … so what’s safely tucked away in your attics and on your bookcases?

What shall we call Chiang Kai-shek?

Tortoise? Leech? Snake? In the later 1930s, and especially during the 1941-45 Pacific War, Chiang Kai-shek was ‘the Generalissimo’, and was routinely and even fulsomely praised by British and US commentators. He and his wife, Song Meiling, graced the cover of Time magazine at least a dozen times. This positive view somewhat declined towards the end of the war — though not in Time — , and then dramatically so thereafter, as perceptions of incompetence and corruption amongst the Nationalist elite started to take root. Back in 1926-27, however, there was no love lost between British observers and Chiang. His diaries show his own hatred in this period for the British, who had intervened militarily at Canton, where Chiang and the Nationalist Party were building up the revolutionary base from which they would set out on the ‘Northern Expedition’ to unite China. British, as well as French, marines and armed volunteers, had killed over 70 National Revolutionary Army cadets and Nationalist supporters during the 23 June 1925 ‘Shakee massacre’ . Chiang was the ‘Red General’, the British felt, and a Russian stooge to boot, subject in their eyes to the authority of the leading Comintern operative in Canton, Mikhail Borodin.

T. P. Givens, SMP

T. P. Givens, SMP

In late January 1927, the issue of how to portray Chiang became urgent for staff in the Intelligence Office (later Special Branch), of the Shanghai Municipal Police. They were working loosely in alliance with the anti-Nationalist forces who controlled the city, who Chiang’s army was moving on to confront. Chief Detective Inspector Pat Givens, a Tipperary man, had a chat with his Chinese staff, and filed a report to Scotsman William Armstrong, Director of Criminal Intelligence.

The Chinese attached to the Intelligence Office … believe that the wickedness of General Chiang Kia [sic] Shek can only be brought home to the lower, uneducated classes by representing him as an unscrupulous, avaricious and blood thirsty traitor.

To really hammer home the message they felt it was

essential to disseminate cartoons representing him alternately as a tortoise, a leech, a cobra, a wolf and a “running dog”.

Armstrong forwarded the note to the Commissioner of Police, E. I. M. Barrett, remarking that ‘This form of propaganda is that employed by the Nationalists themselves’, and that it was ‘very effective and is easily understood by those whom it is intended to reach’. The report was written in response to a newspaper article describing posters with caricatures like this being pasted up all over the city, and which argued that they were too crude and merely amusing people.

It is not explicitly clear from the file containing this note that the police force itself was behind the campaign, but it is quite strongly implied, and it was all in a day’s work for a Shanghai policeman during a revolution that they opposed. However, attitudes amongst the British changed rapidly once Chiang purged communists and leftists from the party in a series of bloody manoeuvres later that Spring, after his forces had taken the Chinese-governed parts of the city. Givens, a later account noted, was ‘the first official of the Settlement to welcome General Chiang Kai-shek’ (North China Herald, 25/03/1936). The Shanghai Municipal Police would work very closely in the 1930s with the Nationalist policing authorities, as they waged a quite successful campaign against the Chinese Communist Party and Soviet and Comintern agents. T. P. Givens rose steadily within the force. William Armstrong perhaps felt too compromised by his close collaboration with the anti-Nationalist forces, and quickly left Shanghai, retiring in June 1927. And so it went on: enemies had turned allies, and allies turned enemies as Chiang’s forces crushed the Communist Party and the Comintern teams fled. And so the Chinese wolf lay down with the British lion.

Source: SMP Special Branch files, US National Archives and Records Administration, NARA RG263, file IO7563, 27 January 1927.

Shanghai 1940, from the top of the bus

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Bus on the Nanjing Road, Shanghai, 1930s

Really, if you have ever wondered what the streets of Shanghai looked like from the top of a double-decker bus, in 1940 — and I expect you may have done — try checking out the sequence in this German home-movie, which is available for viewing from the commercial site AKH Agentur Karl Höffkes. You will need to move it along nearly to the end to start at 10:45:08, the sequence is captioned ‘Shanghai im Kriege 1940’, but then why not sit back and enjoy the ride through these strangely empty streets.

 

Asia House, London, 3 February 2015: From Peking to Paris: China and the First World War

Penguin China WW1 boxsetA number of contributors to the Penguin China Specials series ‘World War One 100h Anniversary’, including myself, will be speaking at Asia House, London, on 3 February 2015.

Details of the event, from the Asia House website (where bookings can be made):

During the First World War, 95,000 Chinese farm labourers volunteered to leave their remote villages and work for Britain. They were labelled “the forgotten of the forgotten”, as their stories failed to form part of the public record on the War. This is just one example of many of the lesser known stories relating to China and the Great War. But these stories are now starting to be addressed.

To mark the centenary of the First World War, Penguin China has published a series of short histories on the economic and social costs it brought to China and the Chinese. Each book – written by a leading expert in the field – tells a fascinating tale which will fill the gaps of your China and WWI knowledge, including the only land battle in East Asia fought by Japan and Britain against the German concession in Shandong.

Asia House is pleased to host a panel with several of these authors, who will all talk on their chosen subjects.

Speakers include:

Best-selling author and historian Paul French, the chair of the panel (Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution)

Journalist, best-selling author and China analyst Jonathan Fenby (The Siege of Tsingtao)

Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural Studies, Dr Anne Witchard, from the University of Westminster (England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War)

Professor of History at University of Bristol, Robert Bickers, (Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund)

Curator of Chinese collections at the British Library, Frances Wood (Picnics Prohibited: Diploma in a Chaotic China during the First World War)

Join us to hear the fascinating and all too often forgotten stories of the Great War.

A drinks reception will follow, with signed copies of the books available to purchase.

Venue: Asia House, 63 New Cavendish St London, W1G 7LP

Time: 18.30-20.00

Tickets can be purchased from here.

Not like Hong Kong

Further to my recent post on the London Underground, Punch magazine in 1924 published this further take on the Royal Navy’s routine experience of the China Station. This cartoon was the work of Leonard Raven-Hill (1867-1942), who was educated at Bristol Grammar School, which is 200 yards from where I am typing this.

Leonard Raven-Hill, 'Somewhere in the NOrth Sea', 1924

Leonard Raven-Hill, ‘Somewhere in the North Sea’, 1924

Lost monuments and memorials on the Shanghai Bund, 3: the Iltis monument, 1898

IltisThe Kaiser approved. Well, at least, his favourite sculptor Rheinhold Begas did, the man whose florid creations littered the sites of Wilhelmine power in Germany, and had oversight of the creation of the first German memorial erected in Shanghai. The Iltis Monument — the Iltis Denkmal, 伊尔底司碑 — commemorated the 77 dead German naval personnel, whose ship, the gunboat SMS Iltis, had foundered off the Shandong coast in July 1896. As the vessel sank the men were reported to have gathered around the mast and sung a hymn: ‘Now thank we all our God’. Three days earlier the ship’s officers had entertained Shanghai society at a reception on board, and so it seemed only proper that the International Settlement should host a memorial. The German seizure of Jiaozhou Bay (‘Kiaochow’), and the development of what became the city of Qingdao did not take place until 1897, and Shanghai hosted the largest community of the ‘China Germans’, who were inscribed as such — Die Deutschen Chinas — on the memorial itself.

Iltis drawingThree and a tons of bronze were cast into the shape of a broken mast, around which was wrapped a flag on a staff. A broken mast was a common funerary device, given added piquancy in this case by the facts of the Shandong disaster. The design was sketched by a German naval officer, and then the monument was designed by August Kraus. It was cast in Germany and shipped out to China where it was placed on the Bund, not far from the entrance to the Public Garden and close to the German Club Concordia.

Unveiling of the memorial, 21 November 1898

Unveiling of the memorial, 21 November 1898

It was unveiled by Prinz Albert Wilhelm Heinrich von Preußen (Crown Prince Henry of Prussia) on 21 November 1898. A German naval band played the hymn the crew had sung. Even more than the Allied War Memorial unveiled a quarter of a century later, the Iltis Monument came to serve a ceremonial function. The visual life of the structure online attests to this — for there seem to be many more postcards and other images of this monument than any of the others that were erected, and so more collateral records of it have survived. It came to be a common ritual for visiting German dignitaries or military personnel to pay a formal visit to the site and to lay a wreath, and this is recorded in photographs and postcards.

Count Walldersee pays his respects, 1900

Count Walldersee pays his respects, 1900

If the monument acquired a life as a nationalistic symbol, it was also much lauded as a symbol of Anglo-German friendship. The memorial was situated on a piece of the Bund foreshore that the British firm Jardine Matheson & Co. had residual rights to, but the company had pointedly acceded with alacrity to the request to allow the monument to be sited there. The interests of treaty port Germans and Britons were increasingly closely intertwined at this point. They formed companies together, hosted each other at their clubs, collaborated in running Shanghai’s International Settlement and Race Club, saluted each others’ monarchs, and cemented their commercial relations through marriage. Respecting and honouring the dead of the Iltis disaster was a part of this.

Breaking apart these ties when the lengthening war demanded it in 1914 proved difficult. But the Lusitania sinking in May 1915 and the ‘Roll of Honour’ published in the British Shanghai press started to have a tangible impact. With the allied victory in November 1918 debate immediately commenced about the Iltis monument. Why, demanded some, was a nationalist monument  ever allowed to be erected on the internationalised Bund. But why should triumph change our past view, others countered, of the heroism of the men it honoured: ‘Is victory to turn us into Huns?’ asked one British woman? But the debate proved irrelevant, for a large contingent of French sailors, aided by others, pulled the memorial over on the evening of 1-2 December 1918 and made off with the flagstaff. Nobody saw a thing, funnily enough.

The memorial after it was pulled over, 2 December 1918

The memorial after it was pulled over, 2 December 1918

But the monument survived (and even the flagstaff was anonymously returned). The structure was placed in storage, and in 1929 it was restored to the German community and re-erected in the grounds of the German school in the west of the settlement. There it resumed a ceremonial role, as a site for annual Volkstrauertag — memorial day — ceremonies on 16 March. These were steadily Nazified after 1934 as ‘Heroes’ Day’ (Heldengedenktag). The Iltis made the longest journey of the mobile stone and bronze memorials that were erected on the Bund, and proved the most potent of symbols, to its friends and to its enemies. It was tied up both with the rising imperialism and nationalism of the Wilhelmine state, the Nazification of the Shanghai Germans after 1933, and of course the unforgiving belligerence of the victorious allies. But for some the attack on the monument broke a taboo: foreign power in China was rooted in solidarity, even when the imperialist states jockeyed for advantage and position with each other. The destruction of the memorial set a very bad example, some argued — German and Briton alike in 1914 — for who alone, ultimately, stood to gain from the internecine strife of the Europeans, if not the Chinese.

Crowded train to China, 1924

 

‘Ow fer you got ter’ go, Mate?’ asks the ‘chance companion’ of the sailor, as both emerge from the crowded London underground train in this February 1924 Punch cartoon by George Scholefield Dixon (1890-1960). ‘China’ is of course the answer. I like Dixon’s cartoon for what it suggests about the quiet interpenetration of the worlds of Britain and of the British in China. February 1924 was not a time of crisis, but one of calm in Chinese-British relations. Most Royal Naval personnel would have spent some time on the China Station during their careers, whatever their ranks. The man squashed next to you on the underground might well be heading out to China, or on his way back home with silks and souvenirs. And where, after all, was the absent naval father in Arthur Ransome’s much-loved Swallows and Amazons: he was of course out in China.
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All aboard for the war: the Suwa Maru sails from Shanghai, 1914

The photograph below was taken at just after 8.30 on the morning of 16 October 1914, and shows just a part of the estimated 7,000 strong crowd that thronged the Bund at Shanghai, and all possible river-side vantage points to wave off 110 British men who were heading out to board the Japanese mail steamer, the SS Suwa Maru. The men were on the first leg of their journey to Britain, and to the various front lines of what we now know as the First World War. This is the story I tell in Getting Stuck in for Shanghai.

waving off the Suwa Maru from the Shanghai Bund, 16 October 1914

Waving off the Suwa Maru from the Shanghai Bund, 16 October 1914

Some 35 of the men were colleagues of the policeman you can see in the foreground. Others worked for various British trading companies and banks, local department stores, the Shanghai Municipal Council’s Public Works Department, and the Chinese Maritime Customs. Some had been born in China; some had only just arrived to take up posts in Shanghai. One was a policeman from British East Africa, and I have not yet worked out what he was doing in China.

This was possibly just about the largest crowd that had yet ever assembled on the Bund, and it was certainly the noisiest. They hurrahed and sang, competing with the horns and whistles of ships in the harbour, until long after the tender carrying the Shanghai British Contingent had sailed out of sight. A couple of months earlier similar scenes were reported at Shanghai’s North Station, when hundreds of German residents assembled to cheer off 40 military reservists returning to the colours, and entraining for Qingdao, the Germany colony in Shandong. At least two of those had been killed in action before the Suwa Maru reached London in December 1914, others were taken prisoner as Japanese forces captured the city, and were to be placed in POW camps in Japan.

One of the Britons who sailed was 22-year old Albert Rothery, son of a farmer in Patterdale, in the English Lake District. Rothery, apprenticed from school as a plumber, had come to China in 1907 to work for the Shanghai Waterworks Company, a British firm. Earlier this year I helped the Patterdale and Glenridding War Memorial Project find out a little more about Albert, who was listed on the local ‘Roll of Honour’ as a casualty. In fact, as you can see from their webpage about him, Rothery had survived the war, earning a Military Medal and a Military Cross on way, emerging as a Lieutenant in the Tank Corps in 1918. He had first joined the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, along with about 40 of the Suwa Maru volunteers. Lt. Rothery returned to China and the Waterworks, eventually retiring in 1934, and returning to live near his home, settling 30 miles away in Carlisle.

Part of what drives my research is an interest in the British local history of the relationship with China. Far from being the exotic preserve of an ‘imperial’ British elite, you can find links to China like Rothery’s in the local histories of a great many British localities through the people who went out to work there. The China British certainly included the elite businessmen who went to work for Jardine Matheson & Co — the ‘Princely Hong’ that was at the centre of James Clavell’s 1966 blockbuster Tai-Pan (as the ‘Noble House’, ‘Struan’s)– or the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. But they included too, in far greater numbers, these drapers and policeman, tobacco and oil salesmen, tidewaiters and public health employees who sailed on the SS Suwa Maru in October 1914, and the staff of the Shanghai Waterworks, men like Albert Rothery, the plumber from the Lake District.