Trifles, also known as loot

Still they seep out, items ‘from the Emperor’s Summer Palace’, the Yuanmingyuan. This is the long, long-established euphemism for material looted during the sacking of the Summer Palace by British and French soldiery ‘wild for plunder’ in the days before the complex was burned down by British forces on 18 October 1860. The context was the hard-fought North China Campaign, British and French forces slogging across the plain from the mouth of the Beihai river, avenging bloody defeat at the hands of the Qing at the Dagu forts on 25 July 1859, and the seizure and ill-treatment of Allied envoys by the Chinese. Civilisation and its virtues were reasserted by the destruction of the complex of buildings and gardens northeast of Beijing, the beauty of which had left observers stunned for words.

Lot 516 at today’s sale at Chorley’s, ‘Gloucester’s Fine Auctioneers’ is outlined as ‘An Interesting collection of items relating to General Sir John Hart Dunne KCB’. Then a Captain, Dunne served with the 99th Regiment of Foot. He seized one of the five Pekinese dogs found abandoned in the royal quarters, the one in fact that was presented to Queen Victoria, charmingly renamed ‘Looty’. Sarah Cheang has written nicely about this. Material relating to Dunne’s career was on view at an exhibition in sunny Sidmouth in the summer of 2018.

There are photographs in the lot of Looty, a negative of Dunne and a woman dressed in, presumably, clothing seized from the same place, ‘a filigree work bodkin case of cylinder form, the inner sleeve inscribed ‘A Trifle from the Emperor’s Summer Palace Gen John Hart Dunne'” and more.

Loot, and in fact fake loot, began circulating almost immediately after the days of plunder. Taipans rushed north to pick up what they could from antiques markets around Beijing, any savvy vendor of Chinese objets, or clothing, quickly ran up watertight provenance for their wares, all material now tracing its origins back to the Yuanmingyuan. The ‘fate’ of loot has been tracked by James Hevia, and by others.

And so still they circulate, in this instance ‘a trifle’, or two, and a record of others: relics of the entangled and violent history of British-China relations, items that pepper the collections of British museums and galleries, spoils of war all in plain sight. The photographs here come from the auction catalogue, and I have also edited the negative to reveal more clearly the figure of John Hart Dunne, all dressed in loot.

For more on the campaign and its legacies see my The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Penguin). I am grateful to Dr Stephen Lloyd, Curator of the Derby Collection, at Knowsley Hall, for drawing the sale to my attention.

And for dog-lovers: here’s Looty in colour, painted by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust website.

Otto, Mitzi, and Ho Chi Minh

‘A Military Messenger Heads for the Enemy’s Camp’: Japanese officers, Edna Lee, Otto, and Mitzi, leave the Kowloon Hotel on 13 December 1941.

When I first came across this Japanese military propaganda photograph of the ‘Peace Mission’ despatched across Hong Kong’s harbour from Kowloon on 13 December 1941, I knew it had to find a place in Out of China. It was not simply the bewildered look on the face of hapless hostage Edna Lee, whose husband was private secretary to the Governor, Sir Mark Young, nor was it the suave smartness of the glove-wearing Japanese officers preparing to cross the harbour with Mrs Lee, one of two British hostages they took with them. It was of course the fact that Edna Lee took her two dogs, and that they were dachshunds.

Smiles, gloves, and Otto (or Mitzi), on Hong Kong island, awaiting the British answer, 13 December 1941

Otto and Mitzi, for such were their names, got a starring role in this photograph that was widely distributed by the Japanese military press network. Mrs Lee was a ‘courageous woman’ ran the official caption. Indeed, as well as agreeing to the uncertain challenge of crossing the harbour under potentially hostile fire, Edna had the presence of mind to say that she would only consider going if a fellow captive on the verge of giving birth was also allowed to accompany them, and stay to receive British medical attention. But Edna also insisted on being accompanied by her dogs. American journalist Gwen Dew managed to talk to Mrs Lee as well as to the Japanese emissaries when they reached the island, and while they waited for answer to their message. The Dachshunds were an obvious conversation piece under the circumstances. ‘Yes, they’re Germans’, she told Dew, ‘but you can’t blame the poor dogs for that’. And as she chomped from a ‘tall pile of sandwiches’ brought from the Hong Kong Club — as you do in the middle of a battle — Edna reported that the Japanese had also filmed her, and had in fact repeatedly made her rehearse the exit from the hotel where she had taken shelter. This war was being staged as it was being fought, and what was being staged here aimed to portray the absurdity of anybody continuing to think of the British as imperial overlords: just look at the photograph again.

I thought of this episode the other day when I noticed that one of the stories published in the South China Morning Post on the very same day, under the heading ‘Merciful Release’, reported that Rosa Loseby, owner of the Kowloon City Dogs Home, had had all the 73 pets there put down before she had fled to Hong Kong Island. Loseby had brought over a few of her favourite puppies, and was not the only person to do so, but most of the dogs and cats in the city’s pioneering dogs’ home had been put down. This small massacre within the greater slaughter of the bloody battle for Hong Kong also echoed the mass euthanasia of some 400,000 dogs and cats in London in the autumn of 1939, which forms the subject of a recently-published book. So, lucky Otto, then; and lucky Mitzi. Lucky too, Gwen Dew, who managed to secure a passage on one of the exchange vessels in summer 1942. Her memoir of the Japanese assault and the first months of the occupation, Prisoner of the Japs (1943), mentions the plucky Dachshunds a few more times, for the Japanese fulfilled a promise to give Edna Lee and her pets special treatment for co-operating. But then they vanish from the record as Edna was eventually moved into Stanley Internment Camp. I am afraid that I do not think their canine luck held much longer.

And Ho Chi Minh? Oh, well: Rosa Loseby’s husband was a British lawyer, Francis Loseby, who had been instrumental in securing Ho Chih Minh’s release after he was arrested in Hong Kong in 1931. It took eighteen months, a great deal of skilful advocacy, and some cloak and dagger subterfuge. During the latter part of the period Ho was a regular dinner guest at the Loseby home, and in in 1960 the couple and their daughter visited Vietnam and were received by now President Ho. You can find plenty of photographs of this visit online on Vietnamese websites.