Out of China: new book and talks

My new book Out of China narrates the struggle of China’s peoples across the twentieth century to roll back foreign power, and explores the explosive legacy today of the era of foreign domination. Starting in 1918 it charts the decline, fall and afterlife of the foreign enclaves that had been established in many of China’s great cities (as well as in some quite out-of-the-way backwaters). It shows how the battle to restore China’s dignity and sovereignty took place on battlefields, and in conference chambers, but also in museums and galleries, in Hollywood, in print, and on stage. Out of China is concerned with struggles over ideas, and political power, but I also draw out the human dimension, and the stories of those caught up by design or chance in this now largely vanished world. The battle for China was not over even when the last foreign colony, Macao, was handed back in 1999, and tensions over the record of foreign powers in China, and over the wider legacy and impact of the West remain live today.

I will be talking about the book in the Spring and summer at several festivals and events (to be updated).

1 July: Buckingham Lit Fest 2017, 4.00 – 5.00 p.m.

27 June: Chalke Valley History Festival, 3.30-4.30 p.m..

Media links: Out of China reviews

Interview in South China Morning Post, 3 May 2017.

‘Shifting realities’, review by Rana Mitter, BBC History Magazine, 1 March 2017.

Nationalism by another name’, review by Julian Gewirtz, in The Financial Times, 25/26 March 2017.

‘Power games’, review by Michael Sheridan in The Sunday Times, 26 March 2017 (paywall).

‘Boxed in Rebellion’, review by Gavin Jacobson, Times Literary Supplement, 19 April 2017.

Review by Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books, 8 May 2017.

Vanishing Policeman

I get contacted fairly regularly by relatives and descendants of members of the Shanghai Municipal Police (as well as the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, and China coast residents more widely). Sometimes they have found my book, Empire Made Me (and sometimes I have mentioned the men), or they have found the website or other references to the work. I learn a great deal from these contacts, and have often been able to share information accumulated from personnel and other police files in the archives in Shanghai, published staff lists, and newspapers. Some of the information shared with me has gone into my books.

Shanghai lives often have a trajectory of their own in family memories: every Shanghai Sergeant becomes chief of police; every Customs tidewaiter is harbour master; every man who died in service has been killed by armed robbers, instead of typhoid, for example. So often I am the scholarly spoilsport, digging out the death notice and UK National Archives probate file reference. Of course, sometimes they are right, but in general a combination of the very idea of Shanghai — exotic and violent in the Western (and other) imagination — and perhaps the tall tales told by grandfathers and great uncles when home on leave, means that most careers have very greatly improved with a retelling.

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 09.41.52A recent exchange highlighted both what can now be found out with relative ease, and the limits to tracing people in the past. What could I tell my correspondent in Australia about her grandfather, Philip James Doylend, killed in service shortly before her grandmother moved with the children from Shanghai to Canada? I found I could tell her quite a lot, for over a decade I had been contacted by other descendants in north America (who were unknown to her), and looked into his career a little. Born in Suffolk in 1880, Doylend had joined the police in 1903, after eight years service in the Royal Navy, and was promoted to Sergeant in 1907. He married a Finnish woman, Johanna Maatanan, in Shanghai in 1908 — when this photograph, left, was taken — and resigned to join the armed forces in 1917. In a common pattern he went on long leave on 23 June 1917, ahead of his contract actually terminating on 2 March 1918. Rather than leave his family in Shanghai, Doylend attempted to return to the UK via Finland, where they would stay until the war was over, heading overland on the Trans-Siberian railway. They ran slap into the Russian revolution: Finland was in turmoil, and they had to return to Shanghai — a much harder journey back across Russia. They arrived in February 1918, exhausted and penniless.

The Shanghai press next takes up part of the story. Far from finding stories of violent death at the hands of Chinese criminals, we find appearances in court in 1922 and 1923 of a couple whose marriage is breaking down. Doylend worked now in a Shanghai department store, and then in a hotel bar. His wife ran a boarding house. She sued him for maintenance and even at one point for the family furniture: when they were still living in the same house. The British judge made unenforcible orders that Doylend make a monthly payment, and attempted to cajole him to do the right thing: ‘I should have thought a great lazy man like you could do something’ to support them, he told Doylend, ‘you ought to feel ashamed of yourself’. The furniture issue gave the proceedings a novelty value, and papers in Hong Kong took up the story as well. In 1925 his wife and the children moved to Canada.

So far, so unexceptional. Except that after the last court appearance in December 1923 Doylend himself disappears entirely from view. He does not resurface in the newspaper, or in any of the databases I can access. New digital family history tools have generally changed the game, especially in the case of a group of men like this, serving overseas. The family history sites have ship passenger lists, for example, and you can trace men and women backwards and forwards, and it helps immensely also if they ever travelled across the United States or Canada. But Doylend’s name — and it is not a common surname surname — does not appear. The story in the north American side of the family was that a former colleague still serving in the Shanghai police delivered news to his family in England, early during the Second World War, that Doylend had recently died in Shanghai. But in fact this man, Alexander Aitkenhead, had also left the police, back in 1912.

The newly available digitalised newspapers and passenger lists mean that a researcher can often now track those who deliberately disappeared. You can trace people and their movements, life events, court appearances etc, through newspapers on sites such as Australia’s Trove, New Zealand’s Papers Past, the Singapore National Library Board’s NewspapersSG, and Hong Kong’s Old HK Newspapers (but not easily in the last, for it is a very poor platform). These are all free to access (you can also find some other resources I have created here). The English-language press in Shanghai can also be searched, but mostly only by those with access to scholarly resources (although an incomplete version of the North China Herald can be found in the international newspapers resources on findmypast). You can find an obituary — as I have — in a small town Canadian newspaper of a Glaswegian which bears no relation to the known facts of his life, but which is eloquent testimony to the power of his own reinvention far from home.

That sort of thing hardly surprises: as they career through life people often lie, dissemble, hide, or flee. Birth dates are often tweaked — for men are too old or too young otherwise for military or other service: Doylend added at least a year to his age on joining the navy, which has his birth in 1879. Men and women change names, invent backgrounds and careers. The Shanghai Municipal Police’s Special Branch files, helpfully scooped up the CIA in 1949, document various tricksters moving their way around East Asia, securing credit or an entree to society with this tall tale or that one. Of course, a patient sleuth could do this before, and such wonderful books as Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, about Sir Edmund Backhouse, a liar, fraud, forger and fantasist, living on remittance in Peking for decades a very long way from his family, have emerged from such searches. It does seem, however, to be much easier now than ever before to track people down, even those who hid their tracks. In Doylend’s case perhaps it was as simple as assuming another name, for I can find no trace at all of him, having ransacked all the newspapers, family history websites, city directories, etc. that I know of. Perhaps we should respect his choices, and leave him in whatever obscurity he found. Perhaps I simply have not looked in the right place, and of course the paper archive still dwarfs the digitised one. He might simply be just out of sight and reach.

So while the family tales were incomplete, and had grown fanciful in the telling, a mystery remains: Philip James Doylend, where are you?

Shanghai policemen and their novels

Drums of AsiaA recent post on the blog Sikhs in Shanghai drew attention to a little known fact: Captain Edward Ivo Medhurst Barrett, C.I.E., Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, well known Hampshire cricketer, and the target for a bolt of lightning which struck Aldeburgh golf course in summer 1932, had also been a novelist.  Barrett was fired for reasons that were never quite made clear in 1929, and was to die in 1950 when he was knocked off his bicycle. The novel, a secret agent thriller, Drums of Asia, was published by Lovat Dickson in 1934, the author being given as Charles Trevor.

Barrrett had been recruited from the Malay States Guides to head the SMP’s Sikh Branch in 1907. Various records show him to be an important collaborator with Government of India intelligence activities in Shanghai aimed at countering Indian nationalist activities there. To find that he had written a novel which commences with German diplomats in Shanghai plotting to entice some Indian activists to organise a plot against the British in the pre-era was an enticing thought. ‘Herr Von Truebb-Blaich, German Consul-General in Shanghai was deep in thought’ it begins, as all such thrillers should. From the Consulate-General’s views of the Astor House Hotel and the ‘Whangpoo’ river, the plot ranges across the globe and fetches up with a finale in a barely disguised Afghanistan where it all unravels and the British Secret Service triumphs, predictably. What unexpected light, though, might it shed on Barrett’s role in Shanghai? How much was this a roman à clef? I had long wondered if Barrett was not in fact an intelligence agent of some sort, and perhaps this might shed light on that.

A file in the India Office Records noticed by Sikhs in Shanghai’s blogger promised some answers: entitled “Drums of Asia by Captain E I M Barrett alias Charlie Trevor: India Office correspondence with publishers on suggested changes prior to publication” (IOR/L/PJ/12/469, File 657/33), it details attempts by the India Office in London, liaising with MI5, and the Government of India, to thwart the book’s publication, or, as that was deemed impossible, to ‘shape’ the text. After all, one official notes, surely the India Office could not allow it to be alleged that British Secret Service agents operated under cover in foreign countries, could it? Well, another — perhaps more worldly colleague — remarked, it would not exactly be an entirely new fictional scenario. As you can see, Captain Barrett is identified as the author in the catalogue, and the file does have some interesting comments about him. He had, noted one man, ‘an ‘intimate knowledge of Indian political movements and individuals connected therewith’, and even though he was ‘very well known as a keen officer who did much for the Government of India in Shanghai’,  he was also ‘impetuous and indiscreet’.

Alarms bells rang; the drums of Whitehall were beaten: memos were exchanged. New Delhi was contacted; MI5 was called on. A lengthy list was drawn up of troublesome passages and characterisations in the manuscript. Even though the nationalists who were named as plotters were now dead, officials worried that the characterisations would ‘give much offence in nationalist circles in India’. It could also prove difficult for relations with Afghanistan. In fact, publisher and author were actually to ‘behave in the most wonderfully accommodating manner’. The publisher, Lovat Dickson had brought the issue to the attention of officials himself, calling on them in early July 1933, pointing out that Barrett had supplied the facts, while the book had then been written up by a professional writer, by the name of Broadbridge. Much of the material was actually in the public domain, Dickson later argued, but he and Barrett proved more than happy to change plot details, names and locales, and generally defuse the book’s more worrisome factual elements.

Early memos and notes in the file show officials trying to work out who Barrett was, and how much he might really know. Someone clearly managed to find an old China hand who could oblige, and a month after the file was opened a note on Barrett was entered into the file, indicating also that he left the Shanghai police in those somewhat unclear circumstances and that he was now living in Aldeburgh. On 25 August, Dixon and Barrett called by arrangement on Sir Malcolm Seton, Deputy Under Secretary of State, to clarify how things stood. There must have been a perplexing phase in the discussion, for Barrett stated that he had never been in Shanghai in his life, and that his ‘only Eastern experience’ had been service with the West Kent Regiment on India’s North West frontier during the First World War.

Indeed it proved true: this was and has been a wild goose chase. India Office worries about security leaks and offending nationalist sentiment had been heightened by the belief that one of their own, with ‘intimate‘ knowledge of Government of India intelligence activities, was supplying the facts on which the ghost writer was preparing his text. Those of us interested in the colonial and anti-colonial politics of Shanghai had been bemused and pleased to find a prominent figure in that world writing what was presented as a lightly fictionalised account of events and personalities concerned. But the India Office cataloguers had finalised their summary of the file’s contents without getting to the bottom of its convoluted narrative. They had, we had, the wrong Barrett.

So we are left with Barrett the cricketer (that’s him, 3rd from left in this photograph on Sikhs in Shanghai) , rugby player, Sikh branch commander and police chief, and golfer, but not Captain Barrett, C.I.E., the novelist. However, we are also left with a previously unnoticed 1930s thriller partly set in Shanghai, and an interesting account in the file of the engagement of the British intelligence establishment and popular culture. But never fear: all is not in fact lost — that is, for those of us looking for novels written by Shanghai’s police commanders. Captain Alan Maxwell Boisragon, who held the post of Captain Superintendent in 1901 to 1906 obliges instead: his book for boys, Jack Scarlett: Sandhurst Cadet, was published in 1915. Was the War Office warned, we wonder?

The Shanghai Volunteer Corps

SVCLOGO2One hundred and seventy years ago this week, the North China Herald reported on a series of consular and public meetings which had led to the creation of what was originally called the British local Volunteer Corps, and in time became officially know as the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Formed after the seizure of the walled city of Shanghai by a rebel ‘Small Sword Society’, it saw action the following year in the 2 April ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’. This was a successful, if incompetent affair which drove away Qing government forces who were besieging the rebels, but who were camped too close to the foreign settlements, thereby drawing fire onto foreign property. Most of the handful of SVC dead were probably killed by ‘friendly fire’.

Quiescent thereafter until 1870, a revived SVC came under the control of the Shanghai Municipal Council, and in time became a vital component in foreign military defence schemes, and in internal security. A servig British officer was seconded to lead the Corps. Different foreign communities served in national or other companies (American, German, Jewish, the Customs, Philippine etc); the Shanghai Light House deemed itself the socially most prestigious; the Shanghai Scottish probably had most fun in the Mess; and the Chinese Company was formally the most efficient: they shot well and true.

t-flagIn 1927 a paid Russian detachment was created from refugee White Russian soldiers, becoming in 1932 the Russian Regiment. In 1941 this was transferred to the Shanghai Municipal Police as the Russian Auxiliary Detachment. The Corps was abolished in early 1942 after the takeover of the international settlement by Japanese troops. In 1954 a gala dinner at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club commemorated the centenary of the ‘Battle of Muddy Flat’ with fillet steak, wine and song.

At times a very significant proporton of young foreign businessmen served in the volunteers. It can not have helped the way many of them understood the nature of the foreign presence in China, let alone the way they were perceived by the Shanghainese who regularly saw parades of armed foreign traders marching down the Nanjing road.

Empire Made Me … in Chinese

Cover of Chiense translation of Empire Made Me

Cover of Chinese translation of Empire Made Me

Zhejiang University Press has recently published a Chinese translation of the book, as 帝国造就了我:一个英国人在旧上海的往事 (Diguo zaojiu le wo: yi ge Yingguoren zai jiu Shanghai de wangshi). The main title has been retained, although the sub-title has been slightly changed to stress the fact that policeman Maurice Tinkler was adrift in ‘Old Shanghai’.

One choice which puzzles me is the decision not to use at all the photograph of Tinkler which was central to the UK cover. That photograph, of Tinkler on a houseboat holiday west of Shanghai, standing in a field holding a pistol in a firing position, seemed to me encapsulate a great deal about the man and his image of himslf. In fact, it was looking at that image which suggested some of the key themes which I explored in the book. Instead we have a slice of the Shanghai bund, younger Tinkler swaggering in his all to brief days as a trainee officer at the end of the First World War, and, charmingly, a figure from one of his war-time drawings, which I found in his sweetheart Lily Wilson’s commonplace book.