Paul French on Jessfield Park, Shanghai: A Brief, and Probably Mostly Apocryphal, History

In the first of our new series of guest blogs Paul French, writer and prolific blogger, reflects on on the history of what was formerly one of Shanghai’s largest parks. Most recently the author of a new Penguin China Special, Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles led to China’s long revolution, Paul is most prominently the author of Midnight in Peking: The murder that haunted the last days of old China (2012).

For much of 1990s and 2000s Jessfield Park (now Zhongshan Park) was a favourite stroll of mine as I lived nearby. Bounded by the Suzhou (Soochow) Creek, the old Shanghai West Railway Station and St John’s University the old name was something of a mystery. One origin of the name Jessfield may be a myth, but is a good story anyway. Legend had it an early Portuguese Shanghailander was strolling past a circus tent in Hongkou (Hongkew) one day when he heard the cries of a little girl being ill-treated. He bought her freedom from the circus and sent her to America for an education. When she returned he promptly married her. Her name was Jessie and so he called his country house Jessfield. More likely though is that John Macgregor (of the booze importers Caldbeck & Macgregor), who owned the land, named it after his first wife, Jess. The park was at the end of Jessfield Road (now Wanhangdu Road).

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British “Jessfield” Camp, Shanghai, 1902, Carral Collection, Ca01-097

As the photo shows it appears to have been a British army camp at one point but by 1914 was a park, laid out in an English style, with flowerbeds, hothouses, the Municipal Conservatory, ancient trees and a reasonably well-stocked zoo. Sadly Shanghai’s ratepayers turned down a request by the Municipal Council to spend $10,000 on building a monkey-house in the park in the 1920s. The park’s popularity was also derived in part from the regular concerts given by the municipal band. It remained a park after 1949 and many Shanghai contemporaries of mine recalled roller skating at a special rink while the rather Soviet-style 1950s fun fair rides remained well into the 21st century. It’s still a major Sunday strolling destination though the pictured pavilion is, to my knowledge, long gone and the park is now surrounded by high end property developments and a massive shopping centre on top of the adjacent Zhongshan Park subway station.

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Jessfield Park, Shanghai, 1932, Ephgrave Collection, Ep01-216
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Who took the photographs? 2

A good source of contemporary photographs of Shanghai and its doings between 1906 and 1914, is the journal Social Shanghai; and other parts of China, edited by Mina Shorrock.

In volume 3 there is an article about the Shanghai photographic firm of Denniston and Sullivan. It is sometimes assumed that photographs in a historic album will all have been taken by its original compiler, but as we have discussed before, they are often compiled from images purchased, or otherwise acquired, and commissioned, as well as taken by the compiler or their family. The Social Shanghai article has two rather telling illustrations on this theme. In the first, below, is a display of ‘Souvenirs of Shanghai’ for residents and visitors to browse through and purchase — and perhaps later paste into their albums.

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Denniston and Ross display of Shanghai postcards and photographs, from Social Shanghai, volume 3, 1907.

Junks, arched bridges, pagodas at Jiashing, city gates, the Huxingting Tea House in Shanghai and the city’s Nanjing road, can all be spotted and, bottom right, the Hangzhou Bore. We have some of these photographs on our site.

The second illustration tells us a little more about the interests of local residents, perhaps, for it can never be assumed that they are really very interested in the city in which they live. Denniston and Ross caters for them as well: its customers want photographs of famous foreign actresses. They have many to choose from.

Actresses for Shanghai, from Social Shanghai, volume 3, 1907.

Actresses for Shanghai, from Social Shanghai, volume 3, 1907.

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Typologies, memories and preservation

There are few photographers with a body of work as obsessively cohesive as that of the German collaborative artists Bern and Hilla Becher.  The duo, Bernhard “Bernd” Becher (1931 – 2007) and Hilla Becher (born 1934), are best known for their extensive series of photographic images, or typologies, of industrial buildings and structures in Europe and North America.  A married couple, they worked together for more than five decades, an impressive achievement.

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Bernd and Hilla Becher. Water Towers, 1980-89.

The Bechers sought to depict how a single type of structure (water tower, blast furnace, etc.) varied markedly in its external appearance, due to its specific historical and geographical context.  This site-specificity was most clearly visible when they showed their photographs in groupings and grids, comparing the different forms, which soon became their preferred method of presentation.  The Becher’s work, with its emphasis on impersonal series, was successfully integrated into the broader arena of Minimal and Conceptual Art.  But this wasn’t something that worried them.  Hilla once said, “The question ‘is this a work of art or not?’ is not very interesting for us.’’

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Bernd and Hilla Becher, Cooling Towers Wood-Steel, 1959-77

I could also further discuss the effect the Becher’s work had on subsequent generations (known as the Düsseldorf School).  This post, however, is focused on another element highlighted in their work: memory or preservation.  The Bechers were documenting the rapid effects of technological development, which left earlier innovations in the dust, often to be destroyed.  They worked actively to preserve the memory of these structures by photographing them, often scheduling their projects around demolition dates.  Their work freezes the images of these structures, stripping away sentimental or nostalgic responses from the viewer, who is unable to know if the structures shown were demolished or still extant.

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Lighthouse from ‘ Coastwise Light of China ‘ by T. Roger Banister (1932)

The Becher’s work came to my mind when I was working with Coastwise Lights of China: an illustrated account of the Chinese Maritime Customs Lights Service by T. Roger Banister, published in 1932.  The book celebrates the benefits to world trade that the Customs Service’s lighthouses provided.  It contains nearly a hundred images of lighthouses, creating a typology of them. This typology is not as meticulous as Becher’s, but it gives you a good idea of the types and locations where they were built.  Just over a decade after this book was published, towards the end of the Pacific war, many of these structures were bombed by the US Air Force, and destroyed or very badly damaged; so this book became an invaluable document preserving images of these lighthouses as they stood in 1932.

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OPTICAL APPARATUS, NORTH SADDLE LIGHT.

The HPC project is rich in lighthouse materials. We have also digitised photographs held by the family of David Marr Henderson, who was the Engineer-in-Chief of the Chinese Maritime Customs from 1869 until 1898, and who designed many of the lights shown in Banister’s book.  Our holdings are further augmented with two dozen photographs from Augustus Anthony, who worked as a Clerk of Works in the Customs from 1911-13.

The Customs Service prided itself on its work in constructing this network of lights, which facilitated China’s incorporation into global networks of shipping communications.  Lighthouses played important symbolic roles too, they were sites of modernity, and of ‘civilisation’, in the sense that they were public goods designed to prevent loss of life at sea, that were not paid for by those who benefited from them.  It was as important to display your lights at international expositions as it was for their lamps to shine out over Chinese coastal waters and along its major rivers.  Banister’s book was commissioned by the then Inspector-General of the Maritime Customs, Sir Frederick Maze, partly to showcase the achievement of the Service, but quite clearly – as his private correspondence shows – as part of a campaign to secure personal recognition and honour in the UK.

Setting that aside, the lighthouses constructed from the late 1860s onwards by the Customs, with their equipment coming from Birmingham or Paris, form a notable and lasting achievement – most of these sites still house lights. The images in Banister’s book form a haunting record of this programme.

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Dancing in Peking on St Patrick’s day

The blog plays catch-up, as it is Oxford University’s Professor of Art History, Craig Clunas, who spotted that we have a St Patrick’s day photograph (Ph04-092), and has tweeted it via his ever-interesting twitter-feed @CraigClunas.

Dancing at the Tomb of the Princess, Peking, St Patrick's day, 1929

Dancing at the Tomb of the Princess, Peking, St Patrick’s Day 1929, Phipps collection, Ph04-092, © 2008 Charlotte Thomas

This is a spring picnic — very Peking Picnic for those who know the Ann Bridge novel of that name (and if you don’t know it, it is a great read). This group — with then British Minister (as the ambassador as formally known), Sir Miles Lampson on the left (with pipe, cap, height), his nieces, and embassy staff — are enjoying themselves at the 公主坟, Gongzhufen, the ‘Tomb of the Princess’ as they will have known it. This was west of the south entrance to the Forbidden City Complex, and they rode out there. Other photographs in the series can be found on the site. The tomb’s name survives as a Beijing No.1 subway line stop: but as the site is now smothered by the intersection of the capital’s third ring road with Fuxing road, neither dancing nor picnics are to be recommended.

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Still feverish

A recent trip to Shanghai reminds me how popular the rediscovery of historic photographs of China remains. Here in one shop on Fuzhou lu, Shanghai’s bookstore street, is a good stash of Lao Zhaopian magazine, which sparked off the ‘Lao zhaopian re’ — ‘the old photographs fever’ (craze) of recent years. Other shops were well equipped with stocks of ‘then and now’ surveys, as well as the street photography of people like Lu Yuanmin 陆元敏. Next to the blue book below is a copy of The Streets of the Past 消逝的老街 by Kaihara Shuhei 海原修平, an evocative portrayal through a wide-angle lens camera of Shanghai’s very recent past, 1996-2000: almost wholly a different city. Historic can be relative.

Copies of the magazine Lao zhaopian (Old Photographs) in a Fuzhou road bookstore, Shanghai, Feburary 2014

Copies of the magazine Lao zhaopian (Old Photographs) in a Fuzhou road bookstore, Shanghai, February 2014 (photograph by Robert Bickers

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Flooding in China

This winter will be remembered in the UK for extensive flooding.  Floods in China are on a vastly different scale, the Yellow River having the solemn sobriquet ‘China’s Sorrow’.  There are many photographs of various floods in HPC collections.  It is interesting that the photographers were interested enough to risk their kit in capturing these expressions of a devastating force of nature.

Tientsin flood, September 1938, Morrison collection, Mo04-149.

Tientsin flood, September 1938, Morrison collection, Mo04-149.

Watermarks, Tientsin flood, September 1938, Morrison collection, Mo04-143.

Watermarks, Tientsin flood, September 1938, Morrison collection, Mo04-143.

Playing football on a flooded pitch, unidentified location, 1930s, Masson collection, Ma01-173.

Playing football on a flooded pitch, unidentified location, 1930s, Masson collection, Ma01-173.

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The time in between

A guest blog from Alejandro Acin: I sometimes feel that street photography has become just a game where photographers try to create simple easy to understood messages in standalone photographs often meant to be amusing. There are many exceptions of course, but a majority of photographers belong to a group where this sort of standalone photographs is their main goal. One street photography work that caught my eye is The Present by Paul Graham published by Mack in 2012.  Jörg Colberg reviewed the book:  ”The Present goes about street photography in a different way. In a nutshell, Graham uses the tropes of the genre to subvert it. That short moment street photography is centered on loses its relevance by being placed alongside another short moment, right there, occasionally even yet another short moment. Just like in real life, the focus might shift – from one person to the next, from one configuration of people to another one. Groups form, groups dissolve. It is as if life on the street was a gigantic card game where the cards are constantly and slowly shuffled while the game is going on.” (Read the full review).

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Image from The Present © 2012 Paul Graham.

Image from The Present © 2012 Paul Graham.

It is very interesting to see how a photograph, which appears generally uninteresting, becomes extremely meaningful when it is placed next to another photograph taken seconds before or after it. This way of approaching the urban environment is very powerful, as we can feel how the ‘urban troops’ flow through the streets making the city landscape very volatile. Graham also questions the qualities and weaknesses of photography as a medium, in representing the real world through time and space parameters.

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Image from The Present © 2012 Paul Graham.

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Image from The Present © 2012 Paul Graham.

The essence of The Present came to mind while I was working with the Montgomery collection. This is a large collection of images taken during the two traumatic phases of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.  I have chosen some of these images to illustrate Graham’s point.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-16.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-16.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-015.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-015.

In these images, the photographer is following a group of soldiers in Shanghai.  Suddenly something happens and one of the soldiers is on his hands and knees on the pavement, while the other two look back as if someone had shot at them.

A similar situation appears later on in the album: in one of the photographs a soldier walks alone; in the next photograph two soldiers are carrying a casualty on a stretcher. These photographs were placed next to each other in the album, so we suppose that they were taken almost one after the other. In war, a ‘normal’ situation can quickly become a dangerous one.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-020.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-020.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-021.

Image digitised by Historical Photographs of China. Montgomery Collection, JM04-021.

We cannot be completely sure of what happened to those soldiers, photography doesn’t tell us everything – but one thing we can demonstrate is: a decisive moment leaves out many other decisive moments, which together could create a much more complex narrative.

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On the British perimeter

On the British perimeter. Shanghai beauties out for a “look-see”, Shanghai, c.1937.  Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt.  Rosholt collection, Ro-s075.

On the British perimeter. Shanghai beauties out for a “look-see”, Shanghai, c.1937. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. Rosholt collection, Ro-s075.

Valentine’s Day approaches and look-seeing is in the air.  Most probably taken in 1937, this photograph by Malcolm Rosholt, has a certain tension that may have mirrored the tension of a city at war, or on a war footing.

Rosholt’s captioning (for publication use) on the back of the photograph Ro-s075.

Rosholt’s captioning (for publication use) on the back of the photograph Ro-s075.

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Year of the Horse at BMAG

龍馬精神

The Chinese new year galloped in at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery over the weekend.  Canton Camera was exhibited, among many other celebrations.  The atmosphere was great (there were over 9,000 visitors) and the Mayor announced his intention to hold the event in the streets of Bristol next year.

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Snaps by Jamie Carstairs

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Happy New Year 新年快樂

Say goodbye to the aged Year of the Snake – and hello to the new year.

John Lee Guinness Oswald, posed on a saddle, c.1908, Foochow (Fuzhou), Oswald collection, Os05-112.

John Lee Guinness Oswald, posed on a saddle, c.1908, Foochow (Fuzhou), Oswald collection, Os05-112.

Best wishes for the Year of the Horse to all friends of ‘Visualising China’.

馬年大吉

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