Exhibition: ‘A Trading Journey’


Exhibition by Alejandro Acin

From 12th to 22nd of November 2015 // 10am to 5pm

Hosted in a shipping container, next to M Shed Museum Cafe

 A project which has grown out of the Historical Photographs of China project takes the form of an unusual and unique exhibition in a shipping container. Inspired by themes that emerge from within the 34,000 images digitised by the project, photographer Alejandro Acin has been working around some of the most important markets in the port of Bristol’s twin city Guangzhou – Canton.  This south China conurbation has long been a transhipment point for the country’s engagement in the world’s economy.

© 2015 Alejandro Acin

The question ”WHAT ARE THE LIONS STARING AT?” is posed on the side of the container but it is also the reference point from which Alejandro Acin has positioned himself to develop this photographic work. ‘Guangzhou has more than 2000 years of history, and it has always been a global trading hub. Through all this time statues of pairs of stone lions were used as markers of prosperity and protective symbols outside temples or wealthy family homes. They used to be expensive to make. But today you can find lions everywhere, in supermarkets, hotels and so on … after a conversation with a local resident of Guangzhou where he told me: “We don’t realise how quickly the city is changing” I thought that these lions are the only witnesses of all this change and transformation’.

Alejandro  has placed this exhibition in a shipping container by the Bristol harbourside, creating the perfect context for this work.

This exhibition is part of the University of Bristol’s InsideArts Festival of the Arts and Humanities, and is part of the national festival of the humanities, Being Human. It is a collaboration between Historical Photographs of China, M Shed Museum and IC Visual Lab, and is funded by InsideArts and a Cultural Engagement award from the Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded the British Inter-university China Centre.


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The Japanese afterlife of Frank B. Strawn

On this site you can find over 9,000 digitised images, but one key thing lost in this mode of presentation is their existence as physical objects. The social lives of our photographs took many forms: they are given as gifts, exchanged, bought, collected, arranged in albums or otherwise preserved. They were sent as keepsakes, or as evidence, posted home to convey stories of success, or as memorials of loss – not least the photographs we have of tombstones in foreign cemeteries. (We have more of these than photographs of the cemeteries themselves). Without their survival as physical items, lodged on bookshelves or in trunks after being carted back from China, we would not have the opportunity to digitize the 9,000, allowing them to commence new journeys online. How we might adequately convey some of these stories has been a concern since the project started (and we have always copied every page of every album, so that we can in future reconstruct them as objects) but for now we have concentrated on conserving them digitally and disseminating individual images.

IMG_1571I was reminded of this by a chance encounter in a Tokyo lifestyle store. Notoria is a tiny outlet, on the fourth floor of a nondescript block near Shibuya station, downstairs from a related business, the clothes boutique Grimoire, whose style it matches. The shop’s aesthetic that can only be described as early Edwardian clutter: ‘Antique and Installation’ is its tag-line, and it is chock-full of antiques, mostly sourced overseas: old books, suitcases and trunks, bell jars, prints, stags heads with antlers, and the like, and photographs. It reminded me too of a store I encountered near a Buddhist temple in a Xiamen back-street once, which was stocked with the contents – as far as I could tell – of an antique shop from somewhere near Guildford, in Surrey. Every so often, I was told, the owners ship in a container load of material from Britain, and here it was, on sale for Xiamen’s style-minded urbanites.

IMG_1567At Notoria, it seemed, the last shipment had come from somewhere around Cleveland, Ohio, or at least had some sort of Cleveland connection. For that was a place name that recurred on many of the photographs, or was written on the elementary school exercise books and spelling blanks that were having an unusual after-life in Japan. On top of one bundle of photographs was a portrait of a school group from perhaps around 1910. A cross marked one of the children, and on the back was written ‘Seventh Grade at Bolton School. Frank Strawn’, and then someone had added, ‘with X’.


Seventh Grade, Bolton School, Cleveland, Ohio c.1913/14

IMG_1565A little research showed that X marked Frank Brookland Strawn, born in October 1901, in Cleveland, the son of a prosperous jeweller. He would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps, and managed a jewellery shop with one of his brothers. Strawn married in Ohio in 1928, but by the 1930 census was living in California, occupation ‘None’. There is a tale in here of the crash of 1929, and then Strawn re-emerges as a salesman, living in a then still rural Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley northwest of Los Angeles. A 1959 news item describes him as a rancher of 25 years standing in Van Nuys. A much-syndicated photograph five years earlier, shows him with some of the 342 miniature pipes that he collected. This is much, much more, than we can offer by way of information for many of our own photographs which, typically, come with no information at all.

Frank Brookland Strawn died in Los Angeles in January 1983, and yet his school class photograph sits today in a Japanese lifestyle store in Shibuya. Asian objects have for centuries travelled to Europe and to the United States, and an Oriental chic has from time to time been all the fashion. (Sarah Cheang has recently written nicely about this). Now antiques ship the other way. The encounter also brought to mind an 1890 article in Shanghai’s North China Herald that warned readers that some local photograph shops were selling lucky bags of cartes des visites of foreigners, and suggesting they be careful about who they patronized if they did not want to find themselves in Chinese hands. Frank Strawn had no such opportunity, but his appearance aged about 13 in a trendy Shibuya store reminds us of the life of photographs as things, and as things that can travel globally.

Photographs, as objects, move. I have myself bought handfuls of photographs in flea markets in Moscow and Lyon, and in Surrey and in Shanghai – and in Xiamen – and our project has received material from families in Australia, Canada the United States, and from China, as well as from across Britain. This time I left Frank Strawn to his afterlife in Japan, and his photograph to whatever new adventure that would befall it, one divorced forever – unless someone in the future rehearses this search across family history websites — of any information other than the fact that X marks a boy in Bolton School’s Seventh Grade.


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Royal fakes

image2Not for the first time, a correspondent asks us about the genuineness, or otherwise, of some photographs of the Manchu royal family. This accordion-style booklet certainly looks old, but you can find many news items online in Chinese about it of the ‘Granny cheated out of 21,000 yuan for 5 yuan booklet’ variety (just about verbatim, that one). The title is 皇室舊影 if you want to image search for yourself. Another shot of a couple of the pages is below.

Perhaps fake isn’t quite the right word, but it is clearly being sold in ways which trade on the desire to find old and usual items. The photographs are genuine enough, and have been widely reproduced and studied. There is a very useful essay on them with many good quality reproductions of original prints from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on MIT’s Visualizing Cultures platform. As you can see there, once the Manchu elite took to photography, there was no holding them back.

That is not to say that we do not come across genuine photographs of the last Manchus, for we do. Just last week we took delivery of a couple of photographs dated 1926 of Puyi at the Peking races with a group of Europeans (that is him below, on the right, in the fake booklet). So do keep looking, but do be very wary: it is no coincidence that ‘copycat’, or fake, (shanzhai 山寨) was one of the keywords words discussed by Yu Hua in his 2012 book China in Ten Words.


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Guangzhou: The Southern Gateaway

Alejandro Acin, photographer and project assistant at the Historical Photographs of China, recently participated in a learning exchange programme in Guangzhou – a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of Lancashire. The project is part of the AHRC-funded British Inter-university China Centre’s cultural engagement activities. Alejandro is one of BICC’s three Cultural Engagement fellows at Bristol and his photography commission focuses on the city of Guangzhou (China), one of the main coastal ports in China and a significant node in the country’s integrated transportation system.

Alejandro was inspired by themes that emerged from the many thousands of images of China digitised by the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ project. He aims to create a visual narrative based on the daily trading activities and the relationships between the traders, their communities and environment.


Dockers (un)loading sacks, Canton, 1911. From the Swire collection,  sw16-076. © 2008 John Swire & Sons Ltd.

“During this trip I had the opportunity to visit a city that I knew only through the old photographs copied by HPC. Guangzhou has grown rapidly in the last decade and the new Nansha Port is becoming the trading reference port for South China.

“After discussions with local government officials, I had the opportunity to visit the new Nansha Port, but only for half a day. It is the gateway to the ocean for the Guangzhou-Foshan economic area and the city cluster in the west part of the Pearl River Delta and it has the facilities to unload the world’s biggest cargo ships. There, I started to realise the magnitude of trading in this city.


Shops and their signboards, Sheung Mun Tai Street, Canton, 1870. From the Bayley collection AB-s05 © 2014 E.Tarrant

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“During the first part of my trip, I visited some of the more important markets in the city, such as the jade market, the fashion market, the medicine market, the leather market, and the tea market. The extent of these markets is incredible; they cover whole neighbourhoods with thousands of small and big shops, or malls, selling similar items. Daily-life activities are completely embedded in a trading environment. The activity is frenetic. People are driving bikes loaded with huge bags or boxes, everybody is carrying goods, people are clapping at the front shops trying to attract the attention of passers-by – it’s like a classical orchestra formed of many instruments that all sound harmoniously.”

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“In the plane from Amsterdam, I read an article about Guangzhou in the English language edition of a Chinese newspaper. The Mayor of Guangzhou was quoted as saying that the city is facing a very serious population problem. The city has 10.33 million registered residents, with targets and housing based on this number, but the city actually has a population of nearly 15 million, including a vast migrant population. This obviously has a tremendous impact on Guangzhou and the city is growing out towards the new Nansha Port.

“I wanted to visit this new area and juxtapose it with the ancient city I had in my mind due to my work at Historical Photographs of China. The New Town, with its financial centre, is composed of sky-scrappers and big commercial malls, international chains and Government buildings, surrounded by new residential areas. The contrast with the older city is huge, the small alleyways and harmonious chaos is now shifted onto big roads and lighted gardens with golden lions.


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“I was very lucky to meet Tao, a local photojournalist, who kindly accompanied me for one day. He told me that I must visit Xian Village, one of the 138 ‘urban villages’ scattered throughout Guangzhou. The municipal authorities are aiming to redevelop these areas in favour of new residential buildings and businesses. But this area was one of the few where the community organised to resist the pressure of local government to move out. This issue clearly shows the complexity of these urban conflicts, which are currently taking place in the city, however my understanding of it is very little due the socio-cultural layers of this issue.

“After this first trip to Guangzhou, my mind was full of experiences that needed to be digested. I believe this is the beginning of a series of trips to the city required to develop this body of work about the impact of trading in the city. Meanwhile, I am planning an exhibition in Bristol to showcase part of this work in progress”.

Thanks to Robert Bickers, Amy Binns, Matt Horn, Tao, Duncan, Emma and Emily for making this trip possible.

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The Chinese Photobook Exhibition

The Historical Photographs of China team recently visited “The Chinese Photobook’’ exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, London. Digitization Assistant, Alejandro Acin reports:

The exhibition is based on a collection of photography books, compiled by Bristol-based photographer Martin Parr and the Dutch photographer duo WassinkLundgren (Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren).


Inspired initially by Martin Parr’s interest in propaganda and socialist realism, and as part of his ongoing research into the history of the photobook around the world, Parr went to Beijing to meet Ruben Lundgren. They visited Beijing flea markets in search of photobooks, as well as buying items online. After a year they had made sense of the many surviving publications, grouping them in different categories and periods. Martin said that to acquire the books, it was essential to have someone based in China, who spoke Chinese and had a Chinese bank account. Ruben, being a Beijing resident with an interest in Chinese contemporary photography, was the perfect candidate. Their Chinese photobook collection quickly expanded, forming the basis for a major research project, the exhibition and The Chinese Photobook published this year by Aperture and the China Photographic Publishing House.


China has a long tradition of publishing photobooks, in a variety of approaches and styles, as a consequence of the country’s political twists and turns during the last hundred years. This richness of form, content and authorial perspective is captured in The Chinese Photobook. The exhibition is divided in six sections, includes key publications from as early as 1902, through to contemporary formats by emerging Chinese photographers.


The exhibition offers a glimpse, a tight selection, of what you can find in the eponymous book. WassinkLundgren noted the difficulty of showing photobooks in an exhibition. Collectable photobooks are normally presented in vitrines, where visitors can see only one or two spreads. In this exhibition, WassinkLundgren have combined this display method, with a variety of others, showing the complexity of the publications and facilitating enhanced engagement with them. There are books in vitrines, as enlargements on panels, on screens, as well as being available to touch, smell and physically engage with. Copies of The Chinese Photobook and interviews with the authors are also available in an interactive library.


Raymond Lum, and Stephanie H. Tung both contributed to The Chinese Photobook. Lum, formerly Librarian at the Harvard-Yenching Library, and now Resoures editor of Trans Asia Photography Review, explores how imperialist agendas in China in the early twentieth century gave way to the People’s Republic of China. For example, French forces in China during the Boxer Uprising took the earliest aerial photographs of the country, which were reproduced in a loosely bound “clever” book (which could be taken apart and rearranged), adorned with Art Nouveau flourishes: La Chine à terre et en ballon (See a photograph of the French army engineers’ observation balloon).


French army engineers' observation balloon, 1900.  National Archives, London © Crown copyright 2011.

French army engineers’ observation balloon, 1900. National Archives, London © Crown copyright 2011.

Tung, who is working toward a dissertation on the history of photography in China, writes about the period between 1931 and 1947, which produced photobooks reflecting more artistic practices, as well as books depicting the effects of the Sino-Japanese war. Tung highlights the work of Lang Jiangshan, arguably one of the most famous photographers in Chinese history, who pushed limits of representation in the 1930s and 1940s. Of his layered negatives of landscapes and nudes, Tung remarked that the photographer aimed to evoke the texture of classical Chinese landscape paintings: “He’s trying to express a Chinese essence through photography.” The Japanese publishers introduced some of the first propaganda-style photobooks, lauding occupied Manchuria. Books by Chinese publishers chronicled a nation torn apart by war.

Newspaper_Chinese-Photobook_Page_04 (1)

Lundgren, of WassinkLundgren, illuminated Chinese Communist propaganda in the post-1943 period that preceded the rise of Mao. Photography remained extremely important, promoting an image of a prosperous China. Mao even had his own personal photographer. Joyous, but largely anonymous, images of progress characterise the period. The Cultural Revolution of 1966 brought about its own unique style of imagery, emblazoned with portraits of the communist leader. “What you’ll see is, I collect these books, all different times of censorship, especially crosses,” Lundgren added, pointing to an image of Mao and another man, who has been cut out of the image. “It’s a very good example of the craziness of its time.” Thijs also observes: ”This shows that photography is never innocent, it has always a purpose”.

Newspaper_Chinese-Photobook_Page_10ch4-bk17-021After Mao’s death Chinese photobooks changed dramatically, and photographers began to capture scenes of public grief. “You see the first instances of young photographers not working within a particular political ideology, not on political assignments, creating their own photobooks,” Tung said. Also on view is the catalogue from China’s first free photography exhibition during this period. “We see photobooks go from completely commercial to experimental to die-hard journalism,” Lundgren added. “It goes in every single direction imaginable.”


In part of the contemporary section, we see fabulous work such us Modern Times by the Taiwanese Patrick Tsai, and the publications of Thomas Sauvin’s Silvermine, alongside some other quirkier publications, like Chinese Sleeping.


The exhibition provides only a glimpse into a fantastic collection of books. One wants to see more: the exhibition is not enough. This visitor would love to have seen the setting they had at the Rencontres d’Arles, where this book was firstly exhibited, and where visitors had to use torches to see the books in the darkness. What I really know is that after seeing this exhibition I cannot wait to have a copy of The Chinese Photobook and start digging into it. Who knows, maybe it can be an inspiration for the Historical Photographs of China project to produce a series of photobooks in the future showing the richness of family photograph albums as a historical contribution?


“The Chinese Photobook” exhibition finishes on 5 July 2015.

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Donna Brunero on the Maze Collection of Chinese Junk Models

Junks can be spotted in many of the photographs in our collections of harbours, coasts, and rivers. They attracted curious interest from residents and visitors, for they seemed ‘picturesque’, but they were also caught in snapshots simply because they were an integral part of the maritime and river economy. As Dr Donna Brunero explains in a new article in the Journal for Maritime Research, they also inspired academic research, and an initiative to record them in another format: as models.

The Chinese Maritime Customs service (CMCS) is best known for its role in regulating and reporting on the trade of China from 1854-1950. A relatively less known facet of the CMCS was its contributions to the knowledge of the maritime history of China. Customs staff wrote for the Mariner’s Mirror and over time produced a number of books on Chinese shipping such as George Worcester’s Sail and Sweep in China (1966).


Foochow junk with cargo of poles, Shanghai, 1899. From the Darwent collection, Da01-21 © 2009 Jane Hayward

My initial research has focused on a project to develop a collection of Chinese Junk models that was inaugurated under the guidance of Sir Frederick Maze in 1933. Maze was an often-controversial Inspector General of the CMCS between 1928-1943, and he donated his collection of models to the Science Museum in London in the 1930s. From the outset, it appears Maze was inspired to capture what he saw as a ‘vanishing era’ of Chinese shipping. He may also have been inspired by his contemporary, James Hornell, whose maritime ethnographic works on India remains well-known. The links between Maze and Hornell’s work provides further scope for considering the ‘imperial gaze’ through the act of gathering knowledge on native shipping (and is the subject of on-going research). By exploring the development of the Maze collection we have insights into how maritime ethnographic studies were conducted in the 1930s and also museum curatorial policies of the era. We also have insights into how CMCS resources – in this instance the talents and time of staff – were redirected to this project. Maze was often frustrated that he felt his collection was not being given a prominent enough position at the Science Museum; here the tensions between an ambitious donor and the museum curator comes to the fore.

Min River, Foochow, 1890s. From the Oswald collection. Os05-004. © 2008 SOAS

Min River, Foochow, 1890s. From the Oswald collection. Os05-004 © 2008 SOAS

Described by The Illustrated London News as a collection of ‘ancient and picturesque sailing craft’ the Maze Collection of Chinese Junk Models remained on display in the Water Transport section of the Science Museum for over 60 years; the collection is now in storage awaiting another opportunity to be rediscovered.

Foochow Junk_Maze Collection

Model of the ‘Foochow Junk’ from the Maze Collection, as displayed by the Science Museum (c.2004). Photographer: Donna Brunero.

Detail_Stern of Foochow Junk_Maze Collection

Model of the ‘Foochow Junk’ from the Maze Collection, as displayed by the Science Museum (c.2004). Photographer: Donna Brunero.

Donna Brunero is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. Her research and teaching covers the intersections between maritime and imperial history, with particular reference to the British in Asia, and the Colonial port cities (and treaty ports) of Asia. Dr Brunero’s current projects include: work on maritime ethnography and museology, the British maritime empire in Asia in the long 19th century, and the material life and culture of Britons in treaty port China. She is the author of Britain’s Imperial Cornerstone in China: The Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1854-1949 (London: Routledge, 2006) .

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Robert Neild on Wuzhou, old and new.


Wuchow, c.1915. From the Banister collection, Ba06-114. © 2008 Peter Lockhart Smith

Britain’s commercial forays into China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not always popular at the local level.  More than a hundred towns and cities, large and small, were identified as places of potentially profitable trade by Britain and the other powers.  Wuchow (Wuzhou) was opened as a Treaty Port by a British treaty in 1897.  Some 300 kilometres up the West River from Canton (Guangzhou), Wuchow was the head of navigation for ocean-going vessels.  Hopes were not high amongst the foreign merchants, but the opening of the West River was seen as an important step by Britain if French ambitions in the area were to be contained.  The image above dates from from about 1915, and shows a foreign steamer loading up at a Wuchow pontoon, under the watchful and protecting eye of a British gunboat from the Royal Navy’s West River Flotilla.

Today’s Wuchow contains much of interest for the Treaty Port historian. The former British Consulate, opened in 1903, has been tastefully restored and is now a museum dedicated to the British period.  A nearby enormous former American Christian Missionary Alliance building from 1902 is also in very good repair, but seems to lack a current purpose.  Also still standing are the suite of seven Maritime Customs buildings erected in 1922.  The condition of these is variable, with some in use, some almost derelict and some being renovated.

Wuchow and all the other foreign commercial stations in China are described individually and in detail in Robert Nield’s new book China’s Foreign Places: The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840-1943, published by Hong Kong University Press.

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Another Prince on the Bund, 1926

Prince George, Shanghai, 3 June 1926. Lang collection, AL-s37 © 2015 Robert Bickers

Prince George (centre, looking towards the camera), Shanghai, 3 June 1926. Lang collection, AL-s37 © 2015 Robert Bickers

This is Prince George, great-grand uncle of the Duke of Cambridge, who is currently visiting Shanghai. The date is 3 June 1926: Empire Day. The Prince is just about to inspect a parade in the extensive grounds of the old British Consulate-General at the north end of the Bund. Prince George spent 18 months on the Royal Navy’s China Station in 1925-26, and it was from HMS Hawkins, that he had come ashore to take part in the patriotic celebrations. The Consulate General building, which you can see in the background, still survives, but now it houses a very exclusive (Chinese) government guest house, and what was formerly the consul-general’s house, just behind it, is dedicated to sales of a very expensive brand of luxury watch. That does at least mean that a visitor can stroll in and around the building and its grounds — but do affect the air of a customer in search of a timepiece (solar topee no longer required).

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A Prince on the Bund

Union Insurance of Canton, The Bund, Shanghai, festooned for the Duke of Connaught’s visit, 8 April 1890 © 2012 Billie Love Historical Collection, BL01-08.

Union Insurance of Canton, The Bund, Shanghai, festooned for the Duke of Connaught’s visit, 8 April 1890 © 2012 Billie Love Historical Collection, BL01-08.

The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, has arrived in Shanghai to open the ‘GREAT Festival of Creativity‘ being held at the Long Museum from 2-4 March. It was a century and a quarter ago, on 8 April 1890, that an English Prince first visited the city. That brief foray by the Duke of Connaught — Queen Victoria’s seventh child, and her third son — was recorded in a set of photographs we have placed on the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ site from the Billie Love Collection. The Bund was lavishly decorated for the arrival of the Prince –Arthur William Patrick Albert, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn — ceremonial arches were erected, bunting draped from lamp post to lamp post, and banners hung across the roadway. ‘Young Shanghai welcomes tee Scion of old England’ proclaimed this one with a nice copying error, evidently a Chinese sign-maker misreading the text he was presented with. We have an exhibition of the project’s photographs of 1920s-30s Shanghai on display in the festival.


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One of our funders, and strong supporters, is the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which is marking its tenth anniversary with a series of films about its activities since 2005. The Historical Photographs of China project is the subject of one of the latest of a series of short films it has commissioned. It highlights a rich variety of our photographs, and gives you a glimpse of how we work, and why we are doing this. Enjoy.

Don’t forget that you can also still listen to the July 2012 BBC Radio 4 programme about the project and its work, ‘Old Photographs Fever: The search for China’s pictured past‘, and hear from some of the donors of the material we have digitised. Nearly 300 people got in touch with us shortly that was broadcast, many with offers of material.


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