The Chairman joked, and Chinese film history got confused

Not that Chairman, but Henry John Howard Tripp, Chairman of the Shanghai Recreation Club in 1897. A long-time resident of Shanghai, where he worked as agent for the Mitsui Bishi Company (having previously lived in Japan), Tripp was a keen (if apparently not brilliant) sportsman, a sometime jiujitsu practitioner, and an energetic chair who had the recreation ground — which sat within the Shanghai Race Club track — cleared of Chinese grave mounds. So Cape Town-born Tripp left his mark on Shanghai’s landscape, but he also left it, quite inadvertently, in the literature on the history of Chinese cinema.

How so? Well, some accounts of the history of the arrival of film in China state that the first scenes filmed in China were screened on 5 August 1897 at the Shanghai Recreation Ground. Tripp was most likely to be the Chairman of the evening’s events. A trio of entrepreneurs, scenting opportunity, were touring the larger foreign communities in China, giving exhibitions of films using the newly Cinematograph and Animatoscope equipment. Film historians have been assiduous in tracking down reports of their movements and shows, combing English-language and Chinese newspapers, noting audience reactions and diligently matching the descriptions given of the films with the known body of work being produced in Europe. The first screening in Shanghai seems to have been at the Astor House Hotel on Saturday 22 May 1897 and we have excited and detailed reports about this and other shows, with lists of film titles and descriptions of the machinery.

What is most striking is the suggestion that these machines were being used to film, as well as to project. And so in the literature you can find accounts of performances which note also that on 5 August 1897 some shorts filmed in Shanghai were shown to the audience at the Recreation Club. The titles were: ‘The Arrival of the First Train from Woosung’, ‘The Meet of the Shanghai Bicyclist Association’, ‘Workmen Leaving the Shanghai Engine Works’, and ‘Diving at the Shanghai Swimming Bath’. So, it seems, cinema history was made in what would in time become China’s movie-making capital, and a city much mythologised on the silver screen. The source is a report of the event in the North China Herald published on 13 August 1897. The evening, we are told, was a great success, and culminated with the assembled company singing songs. Having recounted all this (barring the singing) — a report that other scholars have relied on and repeated — one history asks: ‘But who made those films?’

Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat train station (1896)

‘The arrival of the first train from Woosung’ (1897) … ? Hmm

Well, the answer, in a sense, is probably Henry John Howard Tripp. For the report has more than once been been misread. No films shot in Shanghai were shown that hot August night in Shanghai. Instead, we are told that ‘much amusement’ was ’caused by the Chairman wittily giving his own titles to the pictures shown’. And so Shanghai was given ‘a peep into the future’, and ‘Workmen Leaving Portsmouth Dockyard’ became in his words ‘Workmen Leaving the Shanghai Engine Works’, while one of the Lumière Brothers films showing the arrival of a train became ‘The Arrival of the First Train from Woosung’. Very droll, especially the latter, for it was noticed that the conductors and passengers were all European.

Droll but confusing for some, and Tripp’s joke became a statement of fact, and the cheerful night a landmark event in the onward march of film-making in China. So the first film footage shot in China was instead that which we know to have been shown on Saturday 18 September at the Lyceum Theatre in the city. (First, that is, if we are to rely on this the first comment in this vein in China’s English-language press). The audience that night was small, for perhaps the novelty was wearing off: there had been complaints about the way the Animatoscope vibrated, and that while people seemed to be rendered faithfully, something very funny happened to turning wheels. But in amongst the other shorts of the procession in London to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (which had brought an earlier audience to its feet to sing the National Anthem)  ‘the most novel feature was a view of the Bubbling Well Road, in the neighbourhood of the Recreation Ground, which had to be shown twice in response to the demand of the audience’. We are told that ‘the proprietors hope to be able to show some more views of Shanghai in the course of a day or two’.

Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat train station (1896)

Lumière Brothers, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat train station (1896)

So I hope that this is now cleared up. Although of course, I do not know for sure that it was Tripp himself who presided on 5 August. It seems a reasonable supposition but might, however, be yet another red herring. Over to you.

And here, just for the record, is a photograph of the first train from Woosung.

Shanghai-Wusong railroad opening ceremony, 1876

Shanghai-Wusong railroad opening ceremony, 1876, Source Virtual Shanghai.

Sources: North China Herald, 13 August 1897, p. 296; 10 September 1897, p. 498; 6 April 1912, p. 16.


Cheng Jihua (ed.), Zhongguo dianying fazhanshi (Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1963).

Law Kar and Frank Bren, Hong Kong Cinema: A Cross-cultural View (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004), pp. 17-18, p. 307.

Matthew D. Johnson, ‘International and wartime origins of the propaganda state : the motion picture in China, 1897-1955’ (University of California San Diego, PhD thesis, 2008), p. 38.

Huang Xuelei, Shanghai Filmmaking: Crossing Borders, Connecting to the Globe, 1922-1938 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 143-44.

What Daisy Knew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Handover songs

I’m currently in Hong Kong, which is buzzing with excitement about a new song and video, commissioned by the government to commemorate the twentieth anniversary this summer of the handover of the former colony to China. Perhaps I exaggerate, but ‘Hong Kong Our Home’ the ‘Hong Kong SAR 20th Anniversary Theme Song’ has not had a warm reception.

Something about it seemed familiar to me. Then I realised that we might place it not simply in the history of lamentable Hong Kong handover songs, and there is such a history, for it is not the original musical commentary on this momentous political change. The first accompanied the handover itself at a special concert, and then another was released for the tenth anniversary. Suffice to say that a parody of that song has apparently received rather more viewers on Youtube.

But handover songs commence rather in 1943, with the transfer of the International Settlement at Shanghai to the control of the collaborationist government of Wang Jingwei on 1 August that year. Here are the words of the ‘Greater Shanghai March Song’ penned, at least nominally, by quisling mayor Chen Gongbo, and performed for the first time at a ‘special patriotic concert’.

“Greater Shanghai! Greater Shanghai!

Overlooking the Middle Pacific

Guarding the mouth of the Yangtsze River

Your bold face shines on Asia

Your name is known throughout the world!

Greater Shanghai! Greater Shanghai!

Our wealth is every growing;

Our civilization is ever progressing.

Let us rejuvenate China,

Safeguard East Asia

And perfect our freedom and independence.”

Of course, this is most unfair, for the lyrics and sentiments are very different to those of ‘Hong Kong Our Home’:

“That’s why I treasure Hong Kong

That’s why I admire Hong Kong

We love her  with an eternal glowing flame

that grows as time goes by

revealing her true strength

Our beautiful Hong Kong shining ever brighter

Our beautiful Hong Kong up on the world stage

Step by step, we will carry on

astounding the world as we always have

Step by step, we will carry

on astounding the world as we always have

This is our home”

Ah. Well, the politics are of course, quite, quite, different, but I rather think, on reflection, that in many, many, ways, the song, at least, remains the same.

Banjo, cricket, and ‘Social Shanghai’: Mina Shorrock, editor

Mina Shorrock, from Arnold Wright, ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, China etc (9108)

Mina Shorrock, from Arnold Wright, ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, China etc (9108)

On the evening of 14 March 1921, forty members of the Wells Branch of the Women’s Institute gathered to hear a talk on ‘Life in China’ delivered by ‘Mrs Shorrock’. The talk was followed by a ‘an enjoyable sing-song’; and Mrs Shorrock probably led the singing with a tune or two from her banjo. We know more about her role in the musical life of WI meetings in Somerset – ‘minstrel’ songs’ were her specialty, alongside Scottish ones – than we do about her thoughts on ‘Life in China’, but it would be good to know more about her and what she thought, for Mina Shorrock was one of the earliest woman editors of any newspaper or periodical published in China.

That periodical was Social Shanghai, which commenced monthly publication in February 1906, initially aimed squarely at a female, foreign, ‘society’ readership. It rapidly broadened out its appeal, and it remains distinctive as the first foreign-language magazine published in China that took advantage of the technological developments that allowed substantial use of reproduced photographs in its pages. In fact this was a very strong part of its appeal and rationale. You bought it because you expected to be in it, or to know those who were, or you had left for ‘home’ and wanted to keep up. In turn it tried to guarantee sales by stuffing its pages with photographs of those who might purchase it. Mina was an imaginative promoter of her journal: it would be nice to see a photograph of the costume she wore to ‘Mr Porter’s Fancy Dress Ball’ at the Country Club in March 1906, for she went dressed as ‘Social Shanghai’, while between 1908-1910 she parlayed the goodwill of the magazine’s name into a ‘Social Shanghai Tea Rooms’ on the city’s Kiangse Road. Surviving copies of the journal are now very rare. There is a good run in the Shanghai Library Rare Books collection at Xujiahui (the Zikawei Library), and an almost complete set in the G.E. Morrison Collection at the Toyo Bunko Library in Tokyo. Individual copies are held in some other libraries. The journal was discontinued after its November 1914 issue, by which time Mina Shorrock had landed back in the UK, where she lived until her death in 1938.

She died as Mina Shorrock, but was born Jemima Thomson Gow, the youngest daughter of a Glaswegian hotelier and wine merchant. Educated at Bellahouston Academy and at the Ladies’ College, she married Samuel Hope Sharrock, a Blackburn-born businessman, in Edinbugh in 1888. In 1897 the couple moved to Shanghai, where her husband established ‘Sam. H. Shorrock & Co.’, described as ‘Manufacturers’ Representatives and Machinery Importers’, with an office in Salford. Mina quickly established herself as a ‘a very gifted and clever amateur vocalist’. On her first outing she gave the audience a fine rendition of Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Willow Song’, and then, by way of encore — the first of many such – ‘The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond’.

The musical contributions Mina Shorrock made are all we hear about her for some years. Sam Shorrock, an enthusiastic freemason, rapidly became a fixture in the elite world of foreign Shanghai, most notably after securing the agency for construction of the tram system in the international settlement, and was being tipped for a turn on the Municipal Council when he died suddenly of dysentery in September 1907. Settlement flags flew at half mast for this enthusiastic sportsman, who trained the local English team for the walking races that were all the rage, and who donated the ‘Shorrock Cup’ to the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. This shooting trophy was being competed for long after Mina Shorrock departed for home.

Social Shanghai cover 1914It was an unusual foreign woman who made a living before 1914 through an independent business venture in settlement Shanghai, or at least one that was not a boarding house, or – it has to be said — a brothel. (We know a fair bit about this latter world from the work of Eileen Scully). The only other resident woman journalist I am aware of in the latter part of the nineteenth century was Alicia Little (“Mrs Archibald J. Little”), nee Berwicke (1845-1926), novelist, photographer and frequent contributor to the North China Daily News. ‘Journalist’ is how Mina Shorrock described herself on various immigration forms as she travelled to North America and the UK in 1914. She also wrote, under the moniker ‘Belle Heather’, for the North China Daily News (a column on ‘The Feminine Note’ from 1904-1905), and for Sport and Gossip (which as far as I can see, survives nowhere).

Gordon, WG photographIt might be tempting to ignore the journal, for as I have described it so far it sounds insular and, frankly, superfluous as a record of Shanghai’s history. But as a repository of photographs it provides a good additional visual record of the city, albeit with a strong focus on the activities of its foreign residents. We are unlikely to be enthused by the portraits of the ‘Young Generation’ — babies and youngsters — that were strategically inserted into its pages (and, one assumes, bought in multiples by happy parents), but one of its strands of interest was historical, and sometimes much older photographs were published, which were contributed by long-term residents and which I have not seen elsewhere. An example is this 1859 portrait, one of four of Chinese merchants apparently taken by silk trader W. G. Gordon (William Alexander Grant Gordon). Social Shanghai is worth taking seriously on this, and a number of other counts.

Mina Shorrock died in Horrington, just east of the Somerset cathedral town of Wells, where she had lived for at least 20 years, and where she was known for being ‘a great friend to children’. She was cremated in Bristol a few days later. Shorrock’s last recorded Chinese gesture was the making of a splash at the February 1925 ‘Hard Times’ fancy dress dance in Horrington, which she had organised, and at which she arrived in the ‘highly picturesque costume of a Buddhist priest from China’. A minor irony worth noting, is the prominence of fancy dress events in the social life of Shanghai’s foreign community, some of the best visual records of which we can find in the pages of Social Shanghai. Little else survives to tell us much about her: there was a profile in an encyclopaedic 1908 survey of the treaty ports, which also provides the only photograph of Mina that I have encountered (not, thankfully, in ‘Buddhist’ garb).

There may be a little more to glean about her in the pages of Social Shanghai, but otherwise, aside from the occasional appearance on Somerset’s Women’s Institute stage, all we know is that Mina Shorrock, ‘working hard alone and almost unaided’, chronicled ‘all the brighter phases of life’ in Edwardian Shanghai through the heavy art paper pages of her magazine. (In fact, she did step back from editing it for 18 months in 1909-11, when the role was filled by an Australian, L. H. Drakeford, but then resumed charge). This is a shame, for it would be interesting to learn more about this banjo-playing journalist, who also, incidentally, organised Shanghai’s first ever women’s cricket match (in 1910): ‘out-and-out duffers are not desirable’, she wrote, calling on the ladies of Shanghai to pitch in, ‘but one can never know what one can do till one tries’. This last thought seems to have been something of a guiding principle behind the activities of an engaging China coast entrepreneur.

Sources: North China Herald, 26 November 1897, 21 February 1898, 6 September 1907, 9 September 1910; Wells Journal, 18 March 1921, 20 Feb 1925, 24 June 1938; Arnold Wright, chief ed., Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other treaty ports of China (1908). I am grateful to Charlotte Ward for prompting me to dig further into Mina Shorrock’s background, and for her thoughts on fancy dress balls.

Living on her wits

It was a huge sensation in the late spring of 1912, 35 year-old Miss Miriam Monteith, ‘well known in society in China’, was arrested at the Peak Hotel in Hong Kong on the basis of a warrant issued by the British Supreme Court in Shanghai, and brought to the colony by Detective Sergeant William Brewster of the Shanghai Municipal Police. The charge was having earlier that year in Peking given a cheque for £50 — in purchasing power equal to over £4,000 in 2014 — to an Austrian, Fritz Materna, serving in the Chinese Maritime Customs. The cheque was a dud. After a police court hearing in Hong Kong, Brewster accompanied Miss Monteith north to Shanghai where on 17 May things started to get complicated.

On 21 June she was sentenced to 8 months, with hard labour, for fraud, and two days later was escorted back to Hong Kong and entered the Victoria jail. Others had been waiting for Miriam Monteith in Shanghai, principally the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, which had taken a cheque from her for almost $250 in September 1910, drawn on the Equitable Trust Company of New York. This too had been refused when presented, and the bank at Shanghai had alerted its branches about her. What started to complicate things was that the woman who presented the cheque to the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank was known there, and to her fellow residents at Bickerton’s Hotel on the Nanking road, as Miss Macnaughton.

She told me she was a correspondent for Scribner’s magazine, deposed one man, that her father was a British consul in Tehran, and her mother from Virginia. Another met her at Bickerton’s Hotel and gathered that she was writing books. Yes, this is her, he said in court, though I knew her as Macnaughton. That was how she was known in Kobe, where she spent part of the spring of 1912. Chequebooks for banks in Beirut, Rome and Simla were found amongst her papers in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Fritz Materna thought better of joining in the show, and failed to arrive in Shanghai to give evidence. That case was withdrawn, but the Bank’s proceeded, and the evidence against Miriam Monteith seemed to be piling up despite a line of defence that partly revolved around the fact that she, a woman who provided proof of how she had only the previous year crossed the Atlantic First Class on the Mauretania, would hardly knowingly defraud the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. She did indeed make that journey and on that ship in March/April 1911, and she may well have had a trust fund established under father’s will worth £1,000 p.a. as she claimed, but the jury took ten minutes to find her guilty.

It is a beguiling tale because Miriam Monteith, if that was her name, remains a mystery, but she had made some interesting connections in her time. In 1911, three weeks before she sailed to New York, the 1911 census enumerators recorded her as a visitor at Warwick House, next to St James’s Palace in London, home of a fantastically rich American heiress, Mary Hoadley Dodge, theosophist, suffragist, and great friend of Muriel, Countess De La Warr. The Countess De La Warr’s residence was given as Monteith’s last address in Britain before she sailed to New York. The immigration form records the arrival in New York of an Edinburgh-born woman, five foot four, with brown hair and eyes, who had visited New York before in 1904 and 1906. She was on her way to stay with a friend, she said, a Mrs Getsinger, at the Willard Hotel, Washington DC. Given Monteith’s apparent contacts in London, it would be no surprise to find that this was Lua Getsinger, who was certainly in DC in June that year, and who was a prominent early convert to the Baha’i faith.

When Miriam Monteith appeared back in Hong Kong in June 1912, she was the subject of an excited eyewitness account in the Hong Kong Telegraph, delighting in the fall from her station of a ‘society’ woman heading into jail wearing ‘a Panama hat with a black band, a soft collar and black tie, black skirt and silk shoes of the same sombre colour relieved by silk bows’, and accompanied by her cabin trunks and travelling rugs. Clearly Fritz Materna was discomforted by her also, and so I think were other male witnesses who mentioned dining with Miss Macnaughton, and who were summoned to court to identify her.

In court in Shanghai back in 1912 there had been were two further odd episodes. Mina Shorrock, editor of a local society monthly, Social Shanghai, was caught during a break trying to speak in Monteith’s favour to members of the jury. She was fined £10. And Miriam Monteith at one point interrupted the proceedings to accuse one of the witnesses, Amasa Standish Fobes, a 74 year-old American merchant who had ‘met her several times’ in 1910, and who provided the crucial letter of introduction to the bank, of covertly taking a photograph of her in court. Fobes denied the charge, saying ‘he had no camera with him and had never owned one’. It is perhaps a moment telling of Miriam Monteith’s aim to hide and mask herself.

After the jail door shut in Hong Kong I have managed to trace only one more appearance of Miriam Monteith in the public record. In London in May 1916 she was fined £9 for travelling on the underground railway without a ticket. ‘She represents herself as the daughter of Lord Monteith’, said the police detective prosecuting her, ‘but she is a dangerous woman and a society adventuress’ who had been jailed in Shanghai for fraud. Living in Twickenham, she was allegedly ‘living by getting money from missionary societies and other charities by representing that she was highly connected’. Clearly she was connected, at least in 1911, but who she was really remains a mystery to me. I cannot trace any likely British consul as her father; I cannot find her birth listed; I cannot trace her after 1916. Simla, Beirut, Kobe, Washington DC, London, Peking, Hong Kong and Shanghai: Miriam Monteith moved through them all, at times it seems living quite hand to mouth and on her wits, leaving a few traces, but as silent about herself in the end in the records, as she mostly was in court in June 1912.

Update, Spring 2021: Prompted to return to this by a query about Fritz Materna, I’ve now managed to track ‘Monteith’ backwards and forwards in time, from her true origins until her death. This has generated almost as many puzzles as it has solved, fittingly. More anon.

Sources: North China Herald, mainly 22 and 29 June 1912; Hong Kong Telegraph, 28 June 1912; 1911 Census of England and shipping records, via Ancestry; Times, 13 May 1916.

Iltis monument miniature

Iltis memorial miniature

Iltis memorial miniature

This is a nice puzzle. It is a barometer in the form of a monument to the SMS Iltis, the German naval ship that was shipwrecked off the coast of Shandong in 1896. But the real puzzle is its relationship to the memorial unveiled on the Bund at Shanghai in 1898. They share the broken mast, and the tangled ropes, but it is not a close copy, and the broken mast was a common funerary symbol. I have not seen its like before, and would be interested to know if anybody else has.

What shall we call Chiang Kai-shek?

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

T. P. Givens, SMP

T. P. Givens, SMP

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

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

To really hammer home the message they felt it was

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

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

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

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

Shanghai 1940, from the top of the bus


Bus on the Nanjing Road, Shanghai, 1930s

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Speakers include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time: 18.30-20.00

Tickets can be purchased from here.