Fly on an elephant’s back: The rise and fall of Suidi, a forgotten treaty port

Here is an extract from the introduction to the volume that Isabella Jackson and I have co-edited, and which has just been published by Routledge. I wrote this section by way of an experiment, and because it seemed worth exploring how narrative might best serve to help identify the wide range of issues that the study of these ‘flies on an elephant’s back’ provokes. This was Rhoads Murphey’s 1970 formulation about Shanghai, when he argued that the foreign presence there was irrelevant overall, because while the fly could ‘provoke a violent counter-reaction’, it could not ‘change the elephant’s basic nature’. Hmm. I also chose this form because I thought it might be fun. This is my first foray into fiction, although of course, it is all completely and utterly true.

Treaty Ports in Modern ChinaNineteenth-century European traders — let us say in this case Britons, because the British pioneered the majority of such moves — identify a Chinese port city as geographically well-placed, or well-positioned within trading networks, and within a regional economy, and so lobby for its opening to foreign residence and trade. They petition their diplomats or politicians at home and in China, directly and indirectly, and make their case through their local and metropolitan press, emphasising perhaps the imperatives of free trade and the commercial opportunities presented by a new foothold in China. The context in which this develops is that of the ‘treaty system’, a term which describes the set of privileges secured by foreign powers in treaties negotiated with the Qing state in the aftermath of the 1842 Sino-British treaty of Nanjing, that ceded Hong Kong island to Britain, and opened five Chinese cities – Canton, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai — to British trade and residence. This treaty brought to an end bloody bouts of a military conflict that had its roots in Qing initiatives to suppress the contraband opium trade in 1839: the First Opium War. Subsequent agreements saw the establishment of the principle of consular jurisdiction of Britons in China, that is, extraterritoriality: they were subject not to Qing law, but to the jurisdiction of their consuls. A second conflict in 1857-60 had its roots in British and French frustrations with the implementation of the first agreements, and in apparent Qing challenges to the principle of extraterritoriality at Canton. The actions of the provincial officials were subsequently shown to have been in conformity with the basic principles of the treaties, but the conflict had already by then taken hold. As a result, new treaties and agreements opened further ports in north China and along the Yangzi River. Other foreign powers took advantage of these developments to negotiate their own agreements with the Qing, and most-favoured nation clauses ensured that privileges secured by one were applied to all.

Gains secured never seem to have satisfied. So the fallout from a contingent event (a killing, usually) provides an opportunity for the foreign traders’ ambition to open a new city to be realised, for the opening of the port — let us call it Suidi – is one of the articles of the agreement or memorandum that wraps up the incident, and lowers levels of tension, at least until the next such event. A consular official is dispatched to oversee developments. Foreign entrepreneurs arrive quickly, perhaps even before the agreement is formally signed, and scout out opportunities. The consul, in collaboration with his understandably somewhat resentful Chinese peer marks out an area for exclusive foreign residence. (Resentful because his job will now get much more complex, for interaction with foreigners will lead to frictions, and he will be ill-placed between his superiors in Peking, and local elites, neither of whom will be satisfied with his handling of any incident). Under most-favoured nation clauses in their own treaties, other foreign powers are also able to take advantage of the opening of Suidi, and will dispatch their own officials. The first consul marks out a series of lots of land, and the traders hustle him to secure the seemingly best situated, on the waterfont, or with potential for development. Transfers from existing Chinese landowners are generally smoothly carried out, for agreed prices, though often graves or sites such as temples remain in Chinese ownership. There will be some dispute about what has actually been ‘opened’: the Qing authorities will say the harbour, the foreigners the city. A separate ‘ground’ outside the city proper by the waterfront will be the usual compromise. Perhaps another of the powers will negotiate a site as well, but this is a commitment to some level of state expenditure, which is never welcome, and if third power nationals can take happy advantage of the first power’s new concession, then that is often amenable to all. For the first contracting power, the British in our case (the Qing being the second), it means more bodies on the ground, which will be welcome.

The Maritime Customs Service appoints an officer to work with the local authorities to prepare port regulations and a mechanism for the establishment of trade. Most likely he will also work with the same authorities to prepare the bunding of the waterfront, and foreign-style properties are quickly built, allowing the port pioneers to move ashore from the ships they have been living on, or to move out of Chinese housing that they might have been able to rent (sometimes, however, this has not been possible, because of local resistance to the opening of Suidi). The port is added to existing passing steamship routes, or a shipping firm might essay a new line. There may be some disappointment, for the local Chinese traders often prove to have sufficient existing connections into the economy of foreign imports and exports, but something will be made to stick. Suidi, like other ports, will develop its own rationale and place within the hierarchical network of treaty ports across China, which are linked into regional and then global networks of communications, trade and the circulation of people, goods and ideas. The city will be written up in surveys of the treaty ports of China. Its entry in the annually-published Chronicle and Directory of China, Japan etc. will commence with a description of the growth of the foreign community and highlights from its history. It will represent itself through the regular dispatches to the editor of the North China Daily News in Shanghai of a budget of local news. Early on a photographer will pay a visit, and photographs of the lawns on the Bund and the buildings that the companies build on their lots will start to circulate; later ones will reach far and wide as postcards and will be collected for the stamps and postmarks affixed to them by the consulate post offices that are soon established.

The small foreign community quickly finds it needs to identify a site for a cemetery, and will look also — for this is just as pressing — for a location for a racecourse. Suidi’s Chinese residents will take to the races, which will become a big annual or twice-yearly event, providing opportunities for eating, watching entertainers, and for gambling. Some nearby hills or a seaside resort will doubtless provide an opportunity for securing respite from the summer heat, as foreign residents rent temples or even, eventually, acquire sites on which to build bungalows. They will have established a club, perhaps with a reasonable library in time, and Suidi’s lower class foreign men – Customs Tidewaiters – might have their own, or make use of the taverns or hotels, or skittle alley, that might be established. A newspaper is started; a masonic lodge established. Missionaries, who have also dashed in at the start, have established chapels and perhaps one will officiate at services for the foreign population. The new roads and jetties need to be maintained and the landrenters – for technically all land remains the property of the emperor and the foreign lot-holders are simply renting it on (generally) 99-year leases – elect or select annually a committee to oversee this, paying a small tax to provide the funds. In time this looks like, acts as and talks about itself as a Municipal Council, employing a police force, public health officials, perhaps in time running a school, and a public works department. It attempts to build a suitable system for sanitation in the concession for which it is responsible, but as none of the lot holders ever want to pay much by way of municipal rates – and as they form a small, closed circle who take it in turns, mostly, to run the Council – such work is underfunded and often rudimentary. Regularly, the concession will flood, because inadequate attention has been paid to local topography. The Council will adopt the formal Chinese title ‘Suidi 工部局‘ (gongbuju) – Board of Works Bureau’ – an awkward name copied from that of the Shanghai Municipal Council. Note that it blithely, and thoughtlessly, appropriates the whole of Suidi into its name, for in English the sense of foreign possession will be clear in the designation ‘British Municipal Council of Suidi’. Local people will call it the ‘foreign waterfront’. The relevant national Consul might have, ex-officio, a place on the Council, or the Land Regulations that he has promulgated will reserve to him the right of final approval for the decisions and budget of the Council, but each set of regulations turns out, on inspection, to be subtly different from every other one, for all have specific local characteristics.

Suidi will prove as brittle a site as any other. The Customs and a foreign shipping firm will argue over the siting of a jetty; the appointment of Sikh policemen will lead to a riot; an anti-dynastic secret society will launch an uprising; local elites will clash with the highest Chinese official in the port – the Daotai — over what they perceive to be his inadequate response to foreign impositions; missionaries at a station in the hills will be the subject of a violent incident, as people take fright at rumours of cannibalistic activities in a mission children’s home. Men will fortify the Council building as a redoubt, and for a while will sleep with revolvers close to hand. Foreign gunboats will call into the port regularly, and linger when there is tension. The Council’s pool of foreign recruits for its posts is not a large one, and it must make do with men who have, it is clear, failed everywhere else, and so whose qualities are such that they will cause ‘incidents’ through their casual or thoughtless violence, their laziness, insensitivity, or stupidity (although none of these qualities are exclusive to these men alone). Although initially planned as a zone for exclusive foreign residence, times of crisis, or simple rational choice, mean that Chinese businessmen, initially, and then their families and others, seek residence in the concession. The Land Regulations will be tweaked to allow this, but to disallow any representation on the Council. Suidi’s trade grows, and land values increase, and the Council looks for more space, securing an extra-concession district through land purchases and road building projects, which brings with it an existing Chinese population that cannot now be cleared out.

Intra-colonial tensions will not be absent either. Conflicts in Europe will give rise to fractures locally, and rising powers will assert forcefully their own rights within Suidi, for access for firms run by their nationals to an advantageous slice of the Bund, or exemption from this tax or that. In the 1890s a crown prince will visit on a tour of the ‘east’, and open a new club for his subjects as a choir sings anthems, the building behind them smothered in national flags. There will be a grand feast, and platitudes and loyal toasts from the empire’s most distant, but no less loyal subjects. This tour will be the subject of an important book stating a case for a new and aggressive forward policy in China. A new concession at Suidi will be demanded, adjoining the existing one. National prestige will be associated with a good site for an impressive consulate, or wharf, while the proportion of foreign trade in the hands of this nationality and that one will be closely observed. In the late 1890s and afterwards, diplomats will argue that their own nationals employed in the Maritime Customs should be appointed to this port or that one to reflect their own predominance in local trade. Occasionally it might look as if the British and the French, or the Russians and the British, might come to blows over such matters. In general these disagreements will be smoothed over. All the foreign consuls locally work together as a body in their dealings with the relevant local official – the Daotai and his successors in the last days of the Qing and during the republic — the longest serving amongst them acting as their spokesman and chair.

The ecology of foreign life in Suidi will become more complex as time rolls on and the community grows. At first the foreign men are all single, and find companions locally in relationships that are simply transactional, but some of these will last, and become formalized, and some relationships with Chinese women are genuine from the start. Children of plural heritage will be born. Missionaries may run a home for them, but some men, better off, may send their children overseas, or find them a job in the Customs, or look after them financially in their wills. Over time more foreign women will become part of the community. Some such families will stay locally for two or three generations: this one associated with the newspaper; that one with a niche trading firm and the club. The cemetery will fill, first with adult males, then with women and children as well. Their gravestones will mark out the most decidedly foreign-looking site in the city, yet as Suidi develops, more and more foreign-style buildings will be built outside the concession areas, which, as a result, start to look less and less anomalous.

Consuls will record births and deaths, and officiate at marriages. Lower class foreigners will marry Chinese, sometimes young women from the brothels; in the Republican period they will marry Russians. Missionaries will marry each other. Most foreigners of better social standing will marry elsewhere, usually back ‘home’ on their periodic long leaves from China (which on the whole they alone can afford). Most residents will not stay beyond a single generation, leaving for ‘home’ or elsewhere in the worlds of empire and global migration when they can afford to, often, though, with a lingering sense of exile from the sweet comforts of the colonial style life they have enjoyed in Suidi. They will forget their often profound, debilitating boredom. Loyal servants and civilized, cultured connoisseurs of the ceramics the better-off foreigners like to buy are often forefront in foreign memories. Such stories might be worth a column in a newspaper in New South Wales, or wherever they end up, or a public talk or two. Men working for the bigger China firms, tobacco and oil companies like British American Tobacco and the Asiatic Petroleum Company, trading houses such as Jardine, Matheson & Co., shipping lines (the Peninsular and Orient) and banks (Hongkong and Shanghai, Standard Chartered), will have been moved around several ports during their careers, gaining experience, cutting their teeth on working in different markets. At Suidi their eyes will usually be on a bigger prize: Tianjin or Shanghai, most often. They will complain of the effects of living in Suidi on their health and they might leave a child buried in the cemetery as they move on. They will drink heavily, wherever they are posted.

Private tragedy, happiness, and everything in between will find its way into foreign lives in Suidi. The world of colonialists – and Suidi is a site within that world, though China is not a colony and neither are its treaty ports – is a world of success, and failure, and all the various trajectories though life that a man and a woman can take. In the treaty ports, however, perhaps there is always more of the latter – failure — than the former: the China coast is a shore of disappointment. Corruption, crime of other sorts, and hopes unrealised will be features of foreign life at Suidi. The consuls will convene their courts, and their jails will have inmates, though these prisons might be a little makeshift sometimes, or else, they will borrow each other’s lock-up. Sometimes a more serious case is referred to higher courts in Shanghai. Some traders will always game the system, running what British consuls called ‘lie hongs’, fronting Chinese businesses as their own (for a fee), and claiming consular support in disputes with Chinese officials. Sometimes when one consul refuses, they will try another, and go court shopping too, claiming different nationalities. Perhaps a cannier trader has secured the honorary consulship of a nation that has little of a China presence, which is usually advantageous to him. The consuls will try to weed these front-men out, but will not always succeed, and meanwhile the original rationale of the Suidi concession as a residential site exclusively for foreigners has been so compromised that it is now simply a mechanism for foreign lot-holders to secure Chinese tenants: for a concession proves a useful place for resort in unsettled times, and China’s treaty century is a century too of war, civil war, rebellion and invasion.

The concession is rooted in the city, but in the wider network of treaty ports. Suidi’s economic growth is multi-layered. Parts of the commerce of the city and its hinterland are integrated into a new layer in China’s national economy – a treaty port economy – and some through that also into an east and southeast Asian economy and a global trade. As food processing technology and refrigeration develop, Suidi produce is consumed thousands of miles away along oceanic shipping routes. At the same time, what is initially an exclusively foreign shipping infrastructure captures some of the existing flow of goods: the foreign presence is as much interpolation, as innovation. The systems and processes of the Maritime Customs Service are designed to facilitate this, but many of the port’s Chinese traders continue to ship goods under the Native Customs flag, and the published annual returns on Suidi’s trade that the Customs issues are only a guide to the city’s commerce, not an accurate record of it.

Underpinning all of these developments is a complex and evolving legal framework, which was never entirely water-tight, for human ingenuity means that loopholes are exploited, and the law of unintended consequences is very much present. It is grounded in agreements about land transfers, negotiated locally, in most cases, and in the presence, application, or threat, of military violence, as well as other forms of power. In the port the gunboats come and go. Naval landing parties on occasion parade the Suidi Bund. Local foreigners form an ad hoc ‘volunteer contingent’ at one critical moment, taking their protection into their own hands. Suidi is entirely a product of an unequal power relationship, but it was also hardly planned to develop as it did. The growth of such semi-colonies – for such they seemed to outside observers, and such they were often assumed to be by those who experienced them – lies outwith the bilateral national treaties signed by those with plenipotentiary powers, though it was a consequence of those, and facilitated by them.

This is one version of a treaty port’s history. But there is of course another way of looking at it, in another language. This is a story of the dispossession of the original landowners, and while market rates were generally given for the initial transfers, there may have been disagreements, and perhaps sharp ones about continued access to land that held graves, or temple sites. Nonetheless, the opening of a treaty port always provided opportunity: for local traders to collaborate with the incoming foreign merchants, although this might also be complicated by the fact that the foreign firms already had their compradors and Chinese agents. There were opportunities to provide services for the incomers, as servants or shopkeepers. In the private economy there were opportunities for pimps and brothel keepers. As the concession developed its institutions there were employment opportunities in the police force, public works and other departments, but there was little scope for much beyond menial or routine work, overseen by European men who could not speak Chinese. The medium of communication was pidgin English, and gesture, sometimes (too often) a hand or a foot. The foreign companies needed labour, and so there were opportunities for contractors. Other Chinese entrepreneurs also arrived, perhaps from communities overseas in foreign colonies, who were themselves able to benefit from extraterritoriality in China, as colonial subjects, though sometimes to the consternation or against the opposition of consuls. Others gladly accepted them, for it gave them a larger presence of their own nationals to boast about in negotiations in Beijing.

The early photographs of Suidi, in particular, will have exploited the stark contrast between the streets and buildings of the existing city, and the new order built in the concession, with the smart lawns, the Bund, and the foreign-style company offices and warehouses that adopted the standard vernacular architectural forms of colonial southeast Asia, verandahs included. For Suidi’s residents, and for incomers from its hinterland, this was a window on the world beyond China. They already knew that such places had been built in Shanghai or Hong Kong and may have seen pictures in Dianshizhai huabao, or other pictorial publications, but now they could see for themselves what a foreigner looked like, and how he lived. If not exactly a site for tourism, Suidi’s foreign area was always a site for curious observation. This could lead to tensions, as concession police enforced rules and regulations about where Chinese could or could not go, or could or could not sit, or zealously prevented ‘gawping’ and ‘staring’, more often than not with a poke, a shove or a kick. Municipal by-laws regulated and penalized simple actions in the name of public health or public decency that meant that visitors found themselves hauled off to a court or roughly handled for relieving themselves in public, or sitting on a bench on the Bund or a pavement. Sometimes a policeman poked harder than he would later admit, and a man died. Chinese people were made to feel strangers in their own land; and likewise Suidi’s people foreigners in their own city. Offences such as ‘returning from deportation’ can be found in the annual reports published by the Council. Moreover, until the 1920s Chinese were prohibited from using the lawns and benches on the bund, which were reserved for ‘the exclusive use of the foreign community’.

Suidi is nonetheless a large city, with its own challenges, conflicts and developments, and it might take little cognizance of its growing foreign suburb, except that in time it becomes a key point of interaction between the city and the rest of China. Here the shipping lines stop, or trade goods come in, so it is a point of transit. Young men and then young women heading off to the new universities pass through, and in their memoirs will later note their outrage about the racist discrimination they encountered as they traversed this part of their own country. The local Chinese Chamber of Commerce will start more and more often to challenge the actions of the consuls, concession council, or the trading firms. There will be disputes over access and the siting of jetties. During periods of upheaval the concession council might build gates to regulate access, and once built such barriers would rarely be dismantled. Practical matters and the rising tide of nationalism will see more and more challenges to the pretensions of the concession authorities, and a simple incident, such as the squalid use of force by a policeman against a Chinese visitor, could cause a riot, a boycott, in time a formalized lobby demanding the removal of gates and the retrocession of the concession.

During times of revolution and civil war, nonetheless, people seek refuge under the shelter of foreign guns, but as well as being a place of resort, Suidi will have become a site of tension and conflict. At some point the diplomats will have had enough, and will decide that it is now more trouble to retain than it is to surrender, and that the triumph of Chinese nationalism in the mid-1920s is the opportunity to match deeds to words, for they had long dealt in platitudes about recasting bilateral relations with China to assume a more equal form. In fact they have no choice: they have to start to negotiate face-saving forms of surrender. So a retrocession is agreed, while elsewhere seizure during the nationalist revolution is recognized post-facto, and to Suidi comes a charming, foreign-educated Chinese administrator who has been appointed to run what is now the municipality’s First Special Administrative District: time, long-term foreign residents say, to be SAD. The sky, however, does not fall on their heads; water still flows from their taps; rubbish is more or less collected as ever; law and order do not break down, and their life continues much as comfortably usual until the Japanese assault on China during and after 1937.

Even before the retrocession there was significant change in the city. A protestant mission had established a college outside the concession, which had by the early 1920s became the school of choice for Suidi’s growing self-consciously ‘modern’ families. Student activism in the heady years after 1918 causes the missionaries to transfer more and more of the control of the college to their Chinese colleagues, and to local notables, a development finalised by the new education laws of the National Government. Other such foreign institutions outside the concessions – hospitals for instance – also have to adapt, and change at least nominal ownership. More widely the new laws of the National Government seep steadily into the concession, as even institutions there start to acquiesce in the face of its growing power and confidence. In another way, urbanites will colonise the cabarets, cinemas and hotels of the concession, which will merge into the city’s landscape of leisure. Suidi must not be defined by its concession. Its own development paths might show a consciousness of the practices and appearance of this detached zone, but urban reform across China has an autochthonous history.

The retrocession agreement pledges to honour pensions of foreign staff and commitments to municipal bondholders will lapse with the onset of the Pacific War, and diplomatic archives overseas will house lost claims for compensation. The rump foreign community will be displaced by the war, having been whittled down through the years of uncertainty during the conflict with Japanese. By 1949 the largest surviving community is that of the missionaries, and although consuls have some remaining secular foreign nationals under their charge, these are most likely to be outnumbered by Eurasians or the Chinese wives of their nationals who have been abandoned by their husbands, and by overseas Chinese. The consulate will close; its archives will mostly not have been kept, although its correspondence with the court in Shanghai and the Minister in Beijing will be retained. In amongst that will be caught much of the transitory Suidi palaver of the previous decades, and some of the official publications of the concession. If they survive the war, the Council’s archive will end up as part of the city government records. They will linger there, closed to readers, because deemed too sensitive, or simply because of a low priority accorded foreign-language documents.

On the whole, the foreign presence will be forgotten, certainly overseas, not least as the former concession staff are dispersed and pass away. Some of the built heritage will survive intact, but the widest known legacy will be a cultural one. A prominent European novelist will have come through in the very early 1920s and thereafter penned a couple of quite caustic pieces set amongst its foreign community, which linger on the pages of an impressionistic collection of Chinese Sketches, though Suidi is not named. An American journalist, the child of missionaries, will write a novel about a love affair between a foreign doctor and a Chinese woman, set against the backdrop of the Nationalist revolution. A missionary child will later self-publish a memoir about her life there, and the work of her parents. Perhaps an echo of the city’s pre-pinyin era name will survive in a phrase or the name of a type of its signature product, the one that drew the Europeans to the city in the first place. In China, Suidi local history studies give space only to the points of conflict and of resistance by the people of the city against the concession authorities. A book of documents highlighting this local degradation of China’s sovereignty will be published, and the city’s history museum will include a section on the concession with a diorama reconstructing a scene from the treaty port era. But when the ‘reform and opening up’ era starts to get underway in the 1980s the city’s experience will be re-examined for data and lessons about how that process might unfold. Later a growing local heritage initiative might restore some of the surviving buildings, or create a new museum display about the city’s cosmopolitan links in Suidi’s former 1920s Customs House, or about the overseas Chinese who came to trade in the city.

All of this actually happened, somewhere in the treaty ports in China, although it is a composite. It is an unexceptional colonial tale, with Chinese characteristics, or it is more accurately a modern tale, of a globalizing world in which criss-crossing developments and circuits of power and empire brought to China an improvised system which created such sites of sometimes frantic, sometimes languid, sometimes contentious, but generally autonomous and unintended activity. Most things, of course, are never meant. Underpinning it all, however eccentric it seemed, however far outside stronger currents of colonial power, were real issues of the deployment and use of law, land and power.

My thanks to Isabella Jackson for her comments and suggestions.

New book: Treaty Ports in Modern China

Treaty Ports in Modern ChinaTime to pester (politely, but insistently) a librarian: Isabella Jackson and I have co-edited a new collection of essays. Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land, and Power has just been published by Routledge, and provides a gallery of fine scholarship from a great set of contributors. We look at the legal underpinnings of foreign control, land and infrastructure, networks, science, and at the endgame, the Japanese invasion and the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party. No, we have not covered everything, but we have, we believe, brought new scholarship and thinking to address some of the key questions.

01 Pär Cassel, ‘Extraterritoriality in China: What we know and what we don’t know’

02 Isabella Jackson, ‘Who ran the treaty ports? A study of the Shanghai Municipal Council’

03 Chiara Betta, ‘The Land System of the Shanghai International Settlement: The Rise and Fall of the Hardoon Family, 1874-1956’

04 Stacie Kent, ‘Problems of Circulation in the Treaty Port System’

05 Anne Reinhardt, ‘Treaty Ports as Shipping Infrastructure’

06 Shirley Ye, ‘River Conservancy and State-building in Treaty Port China’

07 Hoi-to Wong, ‘Interport Printing Enterprise: Macanese Printing Networks in Chinese Treaty Ports’

08 Douglas Fix, ‘The global entanglements of a marginal man in treaty-port Xiamen’

09 Robert Bickers, ‘‘Throwing Light on Natural Laws’: Meteorology on the China coast, 1869-1912’

10 Chris Manias, ‘From Terra incognita to Garden of Eden: Unveiling the prehistoric life of China and Central Asia, 1900-1930′

11 Dorothée Rihal, ‘The French Concession in Hankou: The Life and Death of a Solitary Enclave in an occupied city’

12 Jonathan J. Howlett, ‘The Communists and the Kailuan Mines: Eliminating the legacies of the treaty ports’

This collection grew out of a 2011 conference held at the University of Bristol, and funded by ESRC Grant RES-062-23-1057, ‘Colonialism in Comparative Perspective: Tianjin under nine flags, 1860-1949’.

Fifty years in China

Actually, it came to almost 54 years: Thomas Carr Ramsey was unusual as a Briton in spending over half a century in China without leaving the country once. Of course, many Roman Catholic missionaries never left, but most foreign residents in China spent leave periods outside the country. Some worked for firms or oganisations such as missionary societies which had paid-leave policies, allowing them a furlough every five to seven years. This was deemed to be good for their health, but also for their general well-being, allowing them to reconnect with families. It did not suit everybody, and some found themselves at a loose end, distance and time having eroded their ties to their former homes. And of course, others were in China precisely to escape them.

Directory and Chronicle, 1917

Directory and Chronicle 1917, Swatow

Many memoirs share the title (or variations on the theme): My Twenty-Five Years in China, or Forty Years in China, and so on — the latter, by consul Sir Meyrick Hewlett, is quite one of the battiest of the genre — but it was unusual for a man actually to be able to boast five decades unbroken residence in the country. The occasion it was marked, at Shantou (Swatow) with a reception at the foreigners’ Kialat Club, presentation of a bowl and ‘numerous scrolls and plaques, testifying in classical Chinese characters to his many virtues’, a Chinese banquet, a cinema show, and a performance by a Chinese military band. Ramsey responded with a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, though he was no Scotsman, having been born in South Shields, the son of Captain Henry Ramsey, who worked as a pilot in Swatow from 1876 until his death in 1883. So the family connection with this, one of the quieter and lesser-known treaty ports, was longer still.

Directory & Chronicle 1905, Weihaiwei

Directory & Chronicle 1905, Weihaiwei

The younger Ramsey arrived in China aged 15 on 24 September 1874, sailing out via Cape Horn and San Francisco on a vessel captained by an uncle. His career thereafter in China was peripatetic, but after 1909 he was based in Shantou. He first worked in a shipping office in Hong Kong, moved to Swatow, then on Shanghai, where he married in 1885, then moved on to Chefoo (Yantai) — where his father had previously lived — to a gold-mining venture. That failed, and he followed the flow of the expansion of the British presence in China by arriving in Weihaiwei shortly before it was formally handed over to the British, being present at the ceremony itself. After an altercation in the British court there over the probity of the firm he had established, and its practices in supplying the government (he was acquitted), Ramsey removed back to Swatow, where he secured the local agency for the British-owned Kailan Mining Administration, and became a stalwart in the Kialat Club, and in yachting locally (he designed his own boats). He also secured for a decade the position of Norwegian Acting Vice Consul, which must have been useful for something. On the way he surfaces frequently in the treaty port press as a sportsman: a champion jockey and a useful boxer.

Desk Hong List, 1884, Shanghai and Northern Ports, Shanghai section

Desk Hong List, 1884, Shanghai and Northern Ports, Shanghai section

It is the pattern of movement that interests me most, as well as, conversely, his fixity at Shantou and that of his family. When he died in Shantou in December 1931, Thomas Carr Ramsey was buried in a grave next to his mother in the now-lost Kakchieh Foreign Cemetery, while his son, Noel Ronald Ramsey carried on the firm’s business in the port after his death. Thomas Ramsey roamed along the China coast seeking opportunity but settled on exploiting a niche. You can find many like him in the archive, often moving swiftly, pouncing on new opportunities that opened as the political geography of China changed. The opening of a new treaty port, or leased territory, or a change in the rules that allowed foreigners to enter a new sphere of activity – mining, for example, or manufacturing – saw men leap in to try to secure a windfall profit (scooping up land at the first auction of lots was generally a sure-fire way to secure a good return), or otherwise exploit the advantage of early arrival. In the wider history of the treaty ports we know more about the successful than the not so lucky, but the latter always outnumbered the former. (The spectacular bankruptcy of Dent & Co. in 1865, sometime biggest rivals to Jardine, Matheson and Co, means that they are largely absent from histories of the China coast). Legal records are full of details of debts, bankruptcies, and the sorting out of estates. Sometimes, however, a man stands out in the record, and in this case one chanced into my line of sight, when I was looking for something else, through a little sub-heading in the North China Herald: ‘Mr. Carr Ramsey’s Jubilee’.

The man seems finally to have cracked: for on 13 June 1928 the ‘Norwegian Consul and Merchant’ (as he styled himself to the immigration authorities) landed with his wife in San Francisco on the SS President Grant, where he featured in the local press due to his ‘record’ stay in China, before making his way onwards to Britain. Sixteen months later he arrived in New York heading westwards; Ramsey’s wife, Ella Mary McLeod, followed him, dying in Swatow in 1935. This family was more widely embedded in the China coast world: his wonderfully named brother, Alfred Formosa Ramsey, was a ship’s engineer, who married the eldest daughter of the Inspector of Hong Kong’s naval dockyard police in 1893. One sister married a mariner in Chefoo in 1873, a man who was later Parks overseer at Shanghai for six years before his death in 1902, and whose family were a local fixture. Another sister married the founder of Shanghai’s Inshallah Dairy, A.M.A. Evans, who kept a fine herd of Jersey cattle in the east of the settlement. Thomas Carr Ramsey’s son Noel married the sister of a Chinese Maritime Customs officer, but his daughter Violet broke the China mould, and relocated to the Straits Settlements.

Swatow, a short hop by steamer from Hong Kong, was never a very successful treaty port, at least as judged in foreign minds, but it was an important point of movement of China to and from Southeast Asia, and prospered as a result of remittances from its diaspora. The city was comprehensively wrecked by a devastating typhoon in 1922, and was badly affected by the communist insurgency in eastern Guangdong province in the mid-late 1920s: in 1927 it was even briefly seized and held by Communist forces. Like many other ports it had its small foreign community, and contrary to assumptions that foreigners came, ‘plundered’ — a term I found in use only last week in a talk given by a Fudan University graduate — and then quickly went, the Ramsey family’s multi-generational story was not uncommon, nor was the way in which they had secured a comfortable niche. Old Swatow is now mostly invisible in today’s Shantou, and the port and its ilk are generally overshadowed by the bright lights (and richer records) of Shanghai, but it was an important part of the infrastructure of the China coast, and the Ramsey family itself in all its branches is emblematic of this now obscured world.

Sources: North China Herald, various, especially 25 October 1924, 8 December 1931; US immigration records via Ancestry.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

closeupplaque

 

Lost monuments and memorials of the Shanghai Bund 1: The War Memorial (1924)

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.

It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.

It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.

James Fenton, ‘A German Requiem’

Old Shanghai’s remaining pre-1949 buildings get all the attention, and so too, to a lesser extent, the buildings that have been swept away by the rapid pace of urban redevelopment in the city over the last decade and a half. But what about the memorials and monuments that also formerly graced the city? In this and forthcoming posts I will draw from my recently published article on the subject, and look at the the stone and bronze memorials that once stood on the Bund at Shanghai, moving north from the last of them, the Allied War Memorial, that was placed at the intersection of what is now Yenan East Road and the Bund, and on the border between the French Concession and the International Settlement. In many classic shots of the 1930s Bund it is used to frame the picture.Allied War Memorial 1924Designed by Henry Fehr, who was responsible also for civic war memorials in Leeds, and in Graaf Reinet in the Eastern Cape, it was unveiled on 16 February 1924, and was the largest and most impressive of the foreign monuments erected on the Bund between 1864 and the Pacific War. Known in Chinese as the ‘European War Victory Memorial’ 欧战胜利纪念碑 or Angel of Peace 和平女神像, it commemorated the over 200 Shanghai foreign residents who were killed whilst serving for the allied armies during 1914-18, whose story I told in my recent book Getting Stuck in for Shanghai. It was unveiled and dedicated at an impressive ceremony attended by large numbers of veterans, servicemen, foreign civic dignitaries, and, as you can  see, Boy Scouts.

Unveiling of the War Memoria

The memorial was thereafter the site of 11 November Remembrance Day ceremonies, and others on ANZAC day, for example. In September 1943 the statuary and side panels were removed by the civi authorities, after Japanese pressure. In 1947 their smashed remains were found in a scrapyard, and transferred to the grounds of the British Consulate-General at the northern end of the Bund.

IMG_0080 edited

Although there were attempts by the United Services Association, which represented British veterans, to have the monument restored, nothing came of this. The memorial was always a site of anxiety. As we shall see, all of the Shanghai monuments were, but as the largest of them, and because of its emotional place in the civic war memory of local Europeans in particular, the Angel of Peace attracted a great deal of attention. The files abound with complains about ‘desecration’, and about Shanghai city people resting in its shade or, even worse in foreign minds, using the shelter from view its massive size offered to urinate against the back. In a city with few public latrines, this was hardly surprising, but European residents, ever quick to spot political slights, often interpreted such acts as politically motivated. Police protection was demanded, or barriers, and harsh punishment for those caught in the act.

It is worth remembering, of course, that China joined the war on the allied side in late 1917. But this was only just remembered in 1924, and resentfully so: China’s ‘late’ arrival on the Allied side was felt by many local foreign residents to be worse than not having joined the conflict at all. However noises were made in public about the need for an addition being made to the monument to recognise the sacrifice of the many Chinese members of Labour Corps who worked for the allied forces. But as far as I can find out, the monument never came to bear any inscription or plaque commemorating the Chinese dead of the Great War. There were plans sketched out by the city authorities after 1943 to rework it as a Chinese war memorial, but these also came to nothing. However, browsing around online I did find this wonderful re-imagining of the plinth, which dates from 1950.

 ‘Qingzhu Zhonghua renmin gonghe guo chengli youxing (Shanghai)’ (Parade celebrating the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (Shanghai)’) [1950], Hangzhou National Art School, published by Mass Fine Art Publishing House

‘庆祝中华人民共和国成立游行 (上海)’ (Parade celebrating the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (Shanghai)’) [1950], Hangzhou National Art School, published by Mass Fine Art Publishing House.

This is a fantasy, of course, but it represents a pragmatic response to the problem of how to deal with the plinth in a view of the Bund. This was needed because while the ‘Angel of Peace’ was removed, the plinth remained. You can glimpse it in many post-war photographs of the Bund, and for some years now I have been trying to work out when it was removed. I assumed it had gone pretty shortly after this poster was published in 1950, but just discovered that it was not removed for another ten years. According to an August 1960 ‘Shanghai Newsletter’ in the South China Morning Post it took a gang of workers two weeks to remove it, as part of a  general remodelling of the entire Bund that had just been completed. It had most recently served to hold up a cinema bill-board.

That provides a nice link to the final image, which came to me courtesy of Jeffrey Wasserstrom, with whom I have in the past written about the history of the Public Garden at the other end of the Bund and the politics of exclusion there. At the Chedun Film Studio’s Shanghai Film Park you can (the website tells me) ‘explore the bustling old Shanghai, take the tram car tour, and roam on the 1930s Nanjing Road, the old streets & alleyways’, and of course, you can have your wedding photographs taken there. Off you go.Shanghai War Memorial