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 That case was withdrawn, but the Bank’s proceeded, and the evidence against Miriam Monteith seemed to be piling up despite a line of defence that partly revolved around the fact that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.

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.

From the Mystic Flowery Land … to Herne Bay

Charles Halcombe and Liang Ahghan, c.1896

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

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

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

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

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

‘Picturing China’ filmed

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

What shall we call Chiang Kai-shek?

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

T. P. Givens, SMP

T. P. Givens, SMP

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

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

To really hammer home the message they felt it was

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

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

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

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

Shanghai 1940, from the top of the bus


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.