Dragon boats … in Bristol

If you are in our local neighbourhood, you can catch dragon boat racing in the Floating Harbour, Bristol on Sunday 14th September.  The first race in this annual festival starts at 10.30am and the last race is on at about 5pm.

More details from the event organiser’s website here. And here are some photographs from the Banister family collection of racing in Mao Zedong’s hometown of Xiangtan, Hunan province, in the early twentieth century.

Dragon Boat Festival, Siangtan (Xiangtan), c.1900-1930. Banister collection Ba04-62

Dragon Boat Festival, Siangtan (Xiangtan), c.1900-1930.
Banister collection Ba04-62

Watching the Dragon Boats, Siangtan (Xiangtan), c.1900-1930. Banister collection Ba04-23

Watching the Dragon Boats, Siangtan (Xiangtan), c.1900-1930.
Banister collection Ba04-23

Dragon Boat Festival, Siangtan (Xiangtan), c.1900-1930. Banister collection Ba04-58

Dragon Boat Festival, Siangtan (Xiangtan), c.1900-1930.
Banister collection Ba04-58








Posted in Photograph of the day | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham on poverty

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham who is our guest blogger this week, is a historian and writer based in Shanghai. Follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham.


Indigent child, c.1920: Palmer collection, pa02-004 © 2008 C. A. L. Palmer FRCS

The Americans and Europeans who came to China in the first half of the twentieth century often expressed dismay at the number of beggar children on Chinese streets, particularly in the city of Shanghai. They worried, as did many Chinese government officials, that these children would grow up to rely on charitable handouts, unable to support themselves or their families. In Shanghai, Chinese philanthropists opened a number of institutions meant to train poor children and young beggars rounded up by the police in a range of crafts, such as rattan-work, shoemaking, weaving, and printmaking. These vocational schools were intended to prevent the scourge of urban poverty from being transmitted to the next generation.

While most pitied indigent youths like the boy pictured here, foreigners also sometimes demonstrated a wariness of Shanghai’s beggar children and depicted them as wily, if charming, predators who knew an easy mark when they saw one. As an essay published in a 1920 collection, With Our Missionaries in China, stated ‘we must not forget the beggar children, with their shrewd devices for drawing the reluctant coppers from the fingers of the foreigners. Many of these beggar children, in Shanghai at least, are plump, and rosy (under the dirt), and well fed. Begging is their trade …’ [1]

Articles and Letters to the Editor in Shanghai’s North-China Daily News repeated this accusation time and again over the decades, as expatriates in the city vacillated between feeling genuine pity for impoverished youth and suspecting that these children (at the direction of their families) were exploiting soft-hearted foreigners for money.

The numbers of beggar children in Shanghai increased during the Anti-Japanese War and grew even further during the civil war years as the city filled with refugees and displaced persons. By the time of the PRC’s founding, the sight of “wandering children” (liulang ertong) living on Shanghai’s sidewalks was a common one, as was the collection of frozen children’s corpses by benevolent societies during the bitter winter months.After 1949, the new CCP-led Shanghai municipal government made the elimination of child beggars an early goal, one which would improve both the youngsters’ lives and the city’s appearance. The authorities began rounding up as many of the beggar youth as they could find; the children first went to an orphanage in Shanghai before being moved to an institution in Jiangsu Province in the spring of 1950, intended to provide them with more space and fresh countryside air. Within a few short years of the PRC’s founding, it seemed that Shanghai had eliminated the child beggar menace that had plagued the metropolis for so many decades. ‘These children were destroyed and abandoned by the Old Society,’ a 1952 children’s book on the topic proclaimed, ‘[but] luckily, they are growing up during the era of Mao Zedong, which has ended their wandering lives.’ [2]

1.  Adelaide Bee Evans, “The Children of China,” in With Our Missionaries in China, ed. Emma Anderson (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1920), pp. 301-302.

2.  Wang Xiaoshi and Chen Danxu, Liulang ertong de xin sheng (A New Life for Wandering Children) (Shanghai: Shanghai beixin shuju chubanshe, 1952), p. 5.

Posted in Guest blogs, Photograph of the day | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Verity Wilson on Fancy dress, far from home

Our guest blog this week comes from Verity Wilson, who teaches the history of design on the joint master’s course at the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Prior to that, she worked for 25 years at the V&A as a curator in the Far Eastern Department where her area of expertise was East Asian textiles and dress. Her current work centres around fancy dress and disguise, and she is particularly interested in the relationship between photography and dressing up. She is the outgoing editor of the peer-reviewed dress studies journal Costume.

In the nineteenth century, British people living abroad were accustomed to dressing up. It has been argued that diplomatic and army dress uniforms were part of what kept the Empire going. Photographs in the HPC Collection exemplify the flummery of the British ruling classes but this image (26386) speaks of a rather different aesthetic, albeit one involving clothes. Across the globe, wherever there were British residents, there was fancy dress. The year is 1889 and the place Beijing but it could easily be Delhi, Durban, Melbourne or Ottawa.


Uncaptioned photography in album entitled ‘The Chinese Customs in Peking 1889-1891’. National Archives file, C0 1069/421. Crown copyright image reproduced by permission of The National Archives, London, England

The photographer has pleasingly grouped the masqueraders on some low steps. There is a mix of ages, as well as a balance of men and women. They seem at ease and probably knew each other well. We, as onlookers from the twenty-first century, do not even know their names – the details of the picture are lost to us today – and so these costumed sojourners are defined by the characters they chose, fleetingly, to inhabit a century and a quarter ago.

At the centre front, a small girl poses in an ostentatious mob cap, the unmistakeable attribute of the pretty child depicted in Millais’s Cherry Ripe. John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was commissioned to paint this sentimental subject specifically for graphic reproduction.

Cherry Ripe 1879 by John Everett Millais

Large, coloured copies reached colonial outposts stapled into the centre of the Graphic magazine Christmas annual of 1880. The cover of this issue featured a personification of Pax Britannica who is depicted showing Millais’s painting to people of different nations, including a Chinese gentleman. Cherry Ripe fancy dress appeared at the annual Lord Mayor’s Juvenile Balls at the Mansion House in London throughout the 1880s and was replicated wherever British children lived. Just as the mob cap defines the girl as a Millais facsimile, so the tall hat of the man sitting on her right marks him out as Uncle Sam, the embodiment of America. The widely known World War I  recruitment image of Uncle Sam, based on the British pointing finger poster, was still in the future but many of the elements – the tail coat, the high hat with stars and stripes, and the goatee beard – were all in place by this time. The Uncle Sam costume does not seem to have been a favourite of British fancy dress devotees so could this man be an American guest? ‘Yankee’, but not ‘Uncle Sam’, is suggested as a possible costume choice in the 1882 encyclopaedic guidebook Gentleman’s Fancy Dress: How To Choose It by Ardern Holt.  Holt’s description for a Yankee costume accords with that of the man behind Uncle Sam, perhaps another American. The remaining players in this game of pretend are, clockwise from left, Mary, Queen of Scots, Cardinal Richelieu (an uncertain designation as neither his defining biretta nor his wide-brimmed hat are shown), a witch and Polish count, with Old Mother Hubbard sitting in the middle having her hat tweaked.

The costumes are substantial, the detailing precise; we assume that such dressing up events were long anticipated because the outfits must have taken time to assemble. The likelihood is that some were hired from specialist firms in London and may have done the rounds of fancy dress parties in British enclaves elsewhere. These singular events, peopled with imaginary figures, provided a touch of disorderliness for those bound by the social conventions of a British community living in China.  

Posted in Guest blogs, Photograph of the day | Comments Off

Hong Kong in the early 1920s

We have just gone live with a collection of 82 photographs taken or acquired by Francis Alexander (Frank) Davidson, who arrived in Hong Kong in the autumn of 1921, fresh from vet school in Edinburgh, and who worked as veterinary surgeon at the Dairy Farm in Pok Fu Lam (薄扶林). Davidson stayed in the British colony until late 1923, when he headed home to take up a place at the Royal Veterinary College in Edinburgh before embarking on a career in Scotland.

The collection came to us from its family home in Canada, and includes photographs he took of Kowloon, the Dairy Farm and some of its 930 cows — Hong Kong’s fresh milk supply — Canton (Guangzhou), including Canton Christian College, now the site of Zhongshan University, and a series documenting the powerful typhoon which hit the colony on 8 August 1923.

My favourite is one of a number labelled as being taken at ‘Dead City Canton’ (as was common amongst foreign visitors, photographs of Chinese funerals and burial practices were of interest to Davidson). This is the Yongsheng si, 永胜寺, a temporary resting site for the coffins of sojourners in Canton, awaiting dispatch on to their places of origin for proper formal burial. It was a site much-recommended in foreign guidebooks.

Frank Davidson, 'Coffin with spirit servants, City of the Dead, Canton': Delnavine Collection, rd-s095 © 2012 Rosemary Delnavine

Frank Davidson, ‘Coffin with spirit servants, City of the Dead, Canton': Delnavine Collection, rd-s095 © 2012 Rosemary Delnavine

Posted in New Collections, Photograph of the day | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

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).

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.

Jessfield Park, Shanghai, 1932, Ephgrave Collection, Ep01-216
Posted in Guest blogs, Photograph of the day | Tagged , | Comments Off

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.

Denniston and Ross display 1

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.

Posted in History of photography in China, Photographers | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

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.


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.’’

12 Concrete Cooling Towers

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.

Lighthouses mosaic_low

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.



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.

Posted in History of photography in China, Photographers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Photograph of the day | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

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

Posted in Photograph of the day | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Photograph of the day | Tagged , , , | Comments Off