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.

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

 

Fisher Island mystery

Nelly O’Driscoll’s grave, from Findagrave.com

Who was Nelly O’Driscoll? I have been asked this more than once, and you can find numerous Chinese tourist blog posts and others asking the question. Her grave sits next to the Hsiyu 西嶼) Lighthouse — formerly known as Fisher Island Light — in the Penghu group (or Pescadores) west of Taiwan. The map of the site shows a ‘洋人古墓’ — a ‘foreigner’s old grave’ just outside the compound. A colleague just sent me a postcard of the lighthouse, one of those designed by scottish engineer David Marr Henderson, who served as Engineer in Chief of the Chinese Maritime Customs from 1869-1898.

I do not have an answer, but I have got closer. Thomas O’Driscoll joined the Customs as a Third Assistant Lightkeeper in January 1887. After serving on Ockseu (Wuqiu) Island, he was posted to Fisher Island where he was serving by July 1890. Nelly might have been a child, for there is only a single year engraved on the stone, but may also have been his wife: ‘Nelly’ is as likely to be an English name given to a Chinese woman, as the name of a foreign spouse: and an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper only three years into his post was more likely to have a Chinese or indeed a Japanese wife or housekeeper than a fellow national. It is possible that he did not know her precise age.

O’Driscoll himself has left few further traces in the records. He left the lights service in 1902, after a period of leave, and moved to the ‘Outdoor’ staff of the Customs as a Tidewaiter at Shanghai, but stuck that for barely a year. Therafter he surfaces as a supervisor of some sort for a firm of Civil Engineers, Davies and Thomas, overseeing some bunding at Wuhu in 1907, testifying in a court case related to building at the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai in 1909, and taking part in the Customs Club Fancy Dress Ball in 1911 (he wore a Chinese costume — such are the odd traces we leave behind us). In 1912 his 33-year old wife Helen died at their home in Shanghai, but by the time he died in the city on 15 May 1915 he had remarried. O’Driscoll is listed as a ‘Clerk of Works’ in the consulate records, and his last appearance in the North China Herald was a member of the Committee of the St. Patrick’s Society at Shanghai.

O’Driscoll most likely fetched up in China as a seamen, joining the Customs Lights Service in Amoy (Xiamen), as a softer perch than one afloat. Lives like his on the China coast generally throw up few traces. The lIves of their partners, wives or daughters are even less accessible. I can only approach Nelly through the man O’Driscoll, although it is her gravestone and name that has eingmatically remained, while Thomas O’Driscoll himself has been buried in the archive.

Shanghai Amateur Circus

Human pyramid, SACHere are Shanghailanders at play, in the third of the Shanghai Race Club Amateur Circus events, in 1901, a year after the Boxer War, while foreign troops still occupied parts of north China, and were stationed at Shanghai. The first two circuses were held in August 1894 and 1895, a hot and steamy time of year for the foreign community to be masquerading as Sophie Skylark, Tottie Chuckerout and Professor Nankin Roady (to select a few from the programmes). The leading light was British merchant Frank Maitland (‘Frankini’), sportsman, sometime Master of the Shanghai Paper Hunt Club, Race Club Steward, founder of the Shanghai Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Animals, proprietor of the newspaper Sport and Gossip, and then of the Shanghai Times.

It was, as far as I can see, an entirely masculine enterprise, originating in a ‘circusette’ put on one sultry Wednesday evening in June 1893 in the Race Club Grand Stand. A lavishly illustrated souvenir of the 1901 performances surfaces at auctions, and sells quite handsomely. Amongst its photographs is this pearl: Tottie Longsocks — who ‘wins all hearts’.

tottie longsocks