January’s face

IMG_5933 copyHappy new year! The project’s pleased that the Arts & Humanities Research Council has used one of its photographs, taken by Shanghai-born Jack Ephgrave, as the first image in its desktop calendar for 2015.

This photograph of a woman’s face was one of a number of the BAT employee’s images that were showcased in an AHRC Online Gallery exhibition in 2013. We think it dates to about 1933. Plans are afoot for a modest display of photographs from Ephgrave’s collection, and others relating to Shanghai, in that city in early March this year.

The project has also just received for copying a rich collection from the family of William Charles Grant, an officer of the Shanghai Municipal Police who became the chief of its Ward Road Jail (now Tilanqiao Prison), one of the largest in the world by the 1930s.

IMG_5911 copy


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Best seasonal wishes from the HPC team

Dancers looking at Canton Camera, during Chinese New Year events, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 2013.  Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

Dancers looking at Canton Camera, during Chinese New Year events, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 2013. Photograph by Jamie Carstairs.

It’s been another very busy year at the Historical Photographs of China (HPC) project. Here’s news of some of our achievements.

The Chinese Year of the Horse kicked off with a new exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in February. We devised Canton Camera, to highlight nineteen photographs of Bristol’s sister city Guangzhou, chosen from eleven different collections, and displayed on ten pop-up banners.

We copied over 5,100 photographs in fifteen new collections this year. While augmenting the HPC website is the project’s main aim, public events also reach many hundreds of people for the first time, including Chinese communities in Bristol (both long-time residents and students). We welcome to the team Miss Yuqun Gao, who publicises the project online to Chinese social media users through our Weibo site.

The heart of the HPC project continues to be the collections of photographs kindly lent by people with historic family connections to China. Each collection captures particular experiences of people, place, and period. When brought together, and shared by the HPC team, they significantly expand and multiply opportunities for knowledge and insight. We see and learn new things from even the smallest handful of photographs that are shared with us. This year we received contributions that ranged from the oldest known surviving photographs taken in Shanghai (c.1857), to photographs by a British Army Signal Engineer taken in China during World War Two.

HPC is a highly regarded, and much used, resource for scholars, other researchers and students around the world. During 2014 the project was visited by the Taiwanese Ambassador, by the Vice Directors of the State Archives Administration of China and representatives from the Wuhan Customs Museum, and others.

Partnership is essential to the continued success of the HPC. This year we copied marvellous archive collections held at the University of Birmingham and the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute.

We also worked with an independent filmmaker on a film about the life of Sir Robert Hart, the long-serving Inspector General of China’s Imperial Maritime Customs Service. More information about For China and The World is at http://www.roberthartfilm.org/.

For China and the World – a film about Sir Robert Hart by Calling the Shots.

For China and the World – a film about Sir Robert Hart by Calling the Shots.

Looking ahead to 2015 – we launch a revamped HPC website, hosted in Bristol. Once that is up and running, we will be working hard to make the collections lent to the project since 2012 available for all to see. We also plan to hold a new photographic exhibition about Guangzhou.

All welcome to Bristol’s famous Chinese New Year event, at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, 21st and 22nd February.

Compliments of the season to all friends of ‘Visualising China’.

Christmas tree, Commissioner's House, Lappa (Macao) 1908. Hedgeland collection, He01-217, © 2007 SOAS.

Christmas tree, Commissioner’s House, Lappa (Macao) 1908. Hedgeland collection, He01-217, © 2007 SOAS.

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Paul French on The Metropole Hotel, Shanghai

Friend of the blog, author Paul French, ruminates on the Metropole Hotel, which the ‘Historical Photographs of China’ knows well. You can catch more of Paul’s discussions of Shanghai and other histories on his China Rhyming blog. Over at ‘Historic Shanghai‘ you can also keep abreast of the fortunes, or otherwise, of the city’s heritage architecture. The photographs came to us from the British Steel Archive.

These pictures of the Metropole Hotel (today the 新城饭店) under construction show the creation of what remains one of the most impressive “circuses” of a major city – the junction of Foochow and Kiangse Roads at the heart of the International Settlement. The hotel remains of course, now at the junction of Fuzhou and Jiangxi Roads.

Metropole Hotel under construction, Shanghai, August 1930. BTCA collection, BS-s10: © 2011 British Steel Archive Project.

This crossroads was the administrative heart of
the International Settlement with the Central Police
 Station, which included the offices of Special Branch 
(formed in 1898 and known as the “Intelligence Office”
until 1925) and had first been built on the road in 1854; the headquarters of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps as well
 as most of the chief departments of the city administration. Close by, the major administration building of the Shanghai Municipal Council occupied a full block at the junction.


Metropole Hotel under construction, Shanghai, September 1930. BSPA collection, BS-s11: © 2011 British Steel Project Archive.

The Metropole was built in 1930 and designed by the well known architectural firm of Palmer and Turner and the construction was carried out by Sin Jin Kee Building Contractors. The same team built both Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel and Hamilton House, adjacent to the Metropole.

The Metropole was not a new name to long term Shanghailanders, there had been a hotel of long standing and often dubious reputation on the Bubbling Well Road close to the race course but that was long gone by 1930 and so the name was obviously appropriated with its connotations of modernism suiting the city and structure well. Hamilton House was home to a constantly revolving range of businesses over the years including insurance firms, Shanghai Dairy Farms main offices, radio stations and gramophone companies and the editorial offices of the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (who preferred to list their address as Hamilton Haus).

Metropole Hotel and Hamilton House under construction, Shanghai, October 1930. BSPA collection, BS-s13: © 2011 British Steel Project Archive.

Metropole Hotel and Hamilton House under construction, Shanghai, October 1930. BSPA collection, BS-s13: © 2011 British Steel Project Archive.

Tani and Anatole Maher, in their book Memoirs: From Old Shanghai to the New World, recall the hotel as luxurious when they stayed there shortly after its construction.

It’s worth recalling the construction of this magnificent hotel now as it is about to undergo a “refurbishment”, a word to send chills through the soul of any dedicated Shanghai preservationist. Most at risk appears to be the American Bar, once a gathering spot for many Shanghailanders (the American Club was just round the corner on Foochow Road). The hotel of course maintains that it will retain the features of the bar, yet then says that the space will be converted into a gym …


Metropole Hotel under construction, Shanghai, August 1930. BSPA collection, BS-s09: © 2011 British Steel Project Archive.

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What’s a photograph for?

Public gardens copy

Bandstand, Public Gardens, Shanghai, 22 June 1911, by F. Mattos, source: private collection

This photograph appeared in a 1911 issue of the monthly magazine Social Shanghai, and shows the Bund-side Public Gardens crowded with Chinese visitors. The date is that of the coronation of King George V, and the original caption reads:

A Memorable Occasion

The Chinese were allowed to enter the Public Gardens for the first and only time.

Why did the journal print this photograph? It had a novelty value, certainly, for as many of this blog’s readers will know, and as the caption suggests, Chinese — excepting servants tending foreign children — were barred from using the public parks in the International Settlement at Shanghai. The rules were in fact quite blunt: regulation no.5 stated ‘No Chinese are admitted, except servants in attendance upon foreigners’ (a later, rephrased, iteration of these rules can be below). The racist exclusion of Chinese from the settlement parks, which lasted until June 1928, has been the subject of myth and fury since around the time this photograph was taken, and was the subject of a 1995 article I co-authored with Jeffrey Wasserstrom (someone has posted the PDF online here). For, in 1914, a story started circulating that the signboards stated things more baldly: ‘Chinese and Dogs not admitted’.


Public and Reserve Gardens Regulations sign, Shanghai, 1917. Bickers collection, Bi-s079: © 2008 Professor Bickers

Much attention has now been paid to tracing the trajectory of this tale, which remains unproven, though believed by many, but which also distracts attention from the more routine, bureaucratic realities of the egregious and pervasive racism of the foreign interests that controlled Shanghai. Based on our assessment of the archives of the Council itself, Jeff Wasserstrom and I concluded that we were dealing with an urban legend, albeit one which spoke to an essential truth.

The use by Social Shanghai‘s editor of this photograph is clearly designed not to document a novelty, but to reinforce this policy of exclusion. Look, reader, it says, ‘this is what will happen if the Chinese are allowed in’. There are many postcards of the Public Gardens in circulation, and we have various commercially produced as well as privately taken photographs of it (this shot of the entrance was taken in about 1910). In these, mostly, it is a picturesque sight, a place of quiet and reflection in the hurly-burly of Shanghai. Mattos’s photograph presents the nightmare of colonial power which has let slip its guard, and let slip the barriers and exclusions which define it.

The policy was the subject of debate within the foreign community, and was contested by Chinese political and commercial leaders, as well as by ordinary people. It became by the 1920s a very prominent issue, that did irreparable harm to the public image of the foreign authorities in Shanghai. Variations of the story live on today, and only this week a further twist was added to it, when a Beijing clothing store was found to have barred Chinese from entering (its customer base was in fact Russian). Commentators immediately drew attention to the history of exclusion in Shanghai, its legacy, and its lessons for ‘national dignity’.

The photographer, ‘F. Mattos’, was possibly Filomeno Mattos, who worked for the department store Weeks & Co, and who was a founder member of the Portuguese Company of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. In the Shanghai context ‘Portuguese’ mostly meant Macanese, that is, the community of people of mixed Portuguese and Chinese heritage originating in Macao. They were as a result subject to their own exclusions and discrimination by the foreign power-holders at Shanghai, but these were far less easily caught on camera.

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Joshua A.Fogel, Maiden Voyage

Joshua A.Fogel, Maiden Voyage: The Senzaimaru and the Creation of Modern Sino-Japanese Relations (2014)

The photographs posted to our site — 9,151 now, and rising — have often found their way into publications, and in this post we’ll introduce a handful of them.

Joshua Fogel, Canada Research Chair and Professor of History at York University, Toronto, has used a cropped section from a panorama of the Bund at Shanghai, on the cover of his fascinating new book on the first modern Japanese diplomatic mission to China in 1862. The ship of the title, the Senzaimaru, was in fact originally a British steamer, the Armistice, constructed at the Wilkinson shipyard in Sunderland in 1852. By 1860 it was exclusively working in China sea waters and in 1862 was bought by the Japanese for the mission to Shanghai.



Another form of transport was used on the cover of Manchurian Railways and the Opening of China, edited by Bruce A. Elleman, and Stephen Kotkin, whose publisher used a 1911 photograph by G. Warren Swire of the platform at Harbin railway station.

Elleman Kotkin

G. W. Swire, Harbin railway station, Manchuria, c.1912, Swire collection, sw16-009: © 2007 John Swire & Sons Ltd

G. W. Swire, Harbin railway station, Manchuria, c.1912, Swire collection, sw16-009: © 2007 John Swire & Sons Ltd.

It is not only university academics who ask us for permission to reproduce photographs — requests that we relay directly to the rights owners, as we do not own the rights to the majority of the photographs on the site. Instead, we secure a license from their owners to display them. A recent request came from a picture researcher working for Granta magazine for its Japan issue, who used our photograph of the ‘Willow Pattern’ tea house at Shanghai (the Huxinting), from the Billie Love Historical Collection, to illustrate David Peace’s ‘After the War, Before the War’. The story is set in Shanghai in 1921.It is one of many images we have of this Shanghai icon, located at the heart of the original walled city.




Australian author and translator Linda Jaivin‘s publisher, Reaktion Books, secured permission through us to use an image of a couple of Europeans enjoying a picnic on a part of Peking’s old city wall in 1919. Jaivin’s book, Beijing, is described as an ‘an intimate and informed portrait of a city at the centre of one of the world’s oldest civilizations and the capital of one of its newest superpowers’. Reaktions’ books are usually extremely well-designed and visually powerful, and this is no exception.




A selection of the Reverend Charles Darwent’s photographs of Shanghai in 1902, were showcased in an article in the magazine of the Ritz-Carlton hotel group. Guests staying in the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai were thereby able to get a taste of Darwent’s superb photographs this way, for the magazine found its way into every one of the rooms. That hotel is situated just a short walk from the former Bubbling Well Temple, that formerly gave its name to the road on which both sit. It has of changed a bit, as has most of Darwent’s city.


Ritz-Carlton Magazine, Winter 2014 pp 98-99

It is always interesting to see how users of all stripes — and you are a very diverse audience — react to the images on the site, and see possible further uses for them. Our attention is often drawn to  unnoticed details and echoes, and the occasional error. Additional information from users has been fed into many of our captions, and the accompanying metadata. This project is in fact an exercise in crowd-sourcing, both of the images themselves, and in many cases of key details about them.

Here at ‘Historical Photographs of China’ we certainly want the images to be used, and our licence terms allow for their use for teaching and research within the terms agreed with the contributors. We are not always able to respond positively to requests for print publication, as the decision is not ours to make, and rights owners sometimes say no. Occasionally we pre-empt them, knowing now how they have responded to specific types of re-use request before, but on the whole most requests for publication are agreed to. The terms and conditions of use, and any permissions fees, are the prerogative of the owners.

The lives of photographs are unpredictable ones, and they can find their ways into all sorts of unexpected contexts. One image on the site will shortly grace the cover of a CD of Brazilian music. More routinely they have entered discussions about local heritage in China, or about social or cultural history. Some have been re-united with private family histories, as descendants of people identified in the images have come across their ancestors, in one case for the first time in a photograph. These lives will continue to evolve, as the corpus of material we make available grows, and as you, the users, continue to respond to them.

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M is for Ming!

Man with statue of military official, guarding the Spirit Way to the Ming Tombs, c.1902: Ca02-115, © 2008 Queen’s University Belfast

‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’, the British Museum’s autumn exhibition opens today. Photographs in Historical Photographs of China of surviving artefacts from the 1368-1644 Ming dynasty include tourist silliness like this early 1900s shot of a visitor posing with one of the guardians on the seven mile Spirit, or Sacred, Way: the avenue of approach to the Ming tombs north of Beijing. But perhaps the contrast here tells us something about the Ming, the last Han Chinese ruling house, which was overthrown by rebellion and invasion by the Manchu state from the north, which established the Qing dynasty — still ruling when this photograph was taken. Our tourist, and others like him, might aim for an Ozymandias effect — ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ — but I rather think he has failed, and that the solid achievements of this dynamic period of Chinese history have overshadowed him. (And don’t you wish for the general’s right hand to fall?).

You can find exhibition blog posts here. For good introductions to the world of the Ming see Timothy Brooks, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China, and Craig Clunas, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644, and of course the quite stunningly beautiful exhibition catalogue, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming: 50 years that changed China.

大英博物馆秋季特展“明:改变中国的50年”近日开展。“中国历史老照片”收藏的关于1368-1644年明朝文物的照片,包括一些游客的蠢萌行为,正如这张摄于1900年北京北郊明皇陵七里神道上,一名游客和其中一尊武将合影的照片。但也许这其中的对比正能看出明朝这一汉人统治的最后一个王朝,即便被叛军终结、被来自北方的满族入侵并建立清朝,在这张照片拍摄之时,仍有着统治地位。许多像他一样的游客旨在寻找着一种奥西曼迭斯效应——“强悍者呵,谁能和我的业绩相比!”[1]—— 但我宁愿相信他失败了,宁愿相信这中国历史的生动一页蒙蔽了他。(可别祈祷将军的右手掉下来砍断他的头哦?)

 关于特展的更多信息可关注官网。想要了解西方学者对明朝的解读可参考翟莫西·布鲁克(Timothy Brook)的《喜人的变乱:明代商业和文化》(The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China)和柯律格(Craig Clunas)的《大明帝国:明代中国的视觉和物质文化,1368–1644》(Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644)。当然柯律格和霍吉淑女士(Jessica Harrison-Hall)策划的 “明:改变中国的五十年”精彩展览更是不容错过。

Chinese translation courtesy of Yuqun Gao

[1] 引自英国19世纪云雀诗人雪莱(Percy Bysshe Shelley)的一首14行诗《奥西曼德斯》(Ozymandias,1817年)。“奥西曼德斯”是希腊语对法老的称呼。“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,  The lone and level sands stretch far away“(我是奥西曼德斯,众王之王。强悍者呵,谁能和我的业绩相比!在这巨大的荒墟四周,无边无际,只见一片荒凉而寂寥的平沙。)

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Simon Drakeford on rugby in old Shanghai

Our Guest blogger this week is Simon Drakeford, whose book about rugby in Shanghai titled  It’s a Rough Game But Good Sport has just been published. More details can be found at www.treatyportsport.com

Given the importance and prevalence of the numerous sports played in the treaty port of Shanghai, there are surprisingly few photographs of sportsmen in the public photographic archive.

Percy John Poole, SMP. © 2008 Professor Robert Bickers

Born in 1905 in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, policeman Percy Poole, looking very formal in this photo, was one of the most, if not the most prolific rugby playing policeman in Shanghai in the 1930s. After leaving the Shanghai Municipal Police in 1937, he became an Usher in Shanghai’s British Supreme Court.

He is first seen in the rugby records in November 1930. Before his last game on New Year’s Eve 1938, he played in at least 80 games of rugby in Shanghai. His primary team was the Shanghai Municipal Police but he also featured in many Shanghai first XV fixtures. This included numerous matches against the U.S. Fourth Marines first XV, several against British United Services XVs, visiting Japanese teams from Meiji University and the Imperial Japanese Railways and two matches in the most important fixture of the 1930s, representing Shanghai against Hong Kong in 1934 and 1935.

Percy Poole was also a boxer of some repute. Before arriving in Shanghai he boxed for the Royal Horse Guards in London from 1924 to 1929. Amongst other famous boxers of this era, he sparred with Italian boxer Primo Carnera, nicknamed the Ambling Alp (he was 197cm tall), who became the heavyweight champion of the World in 1933.

A Percy John Poole appears on a Royal Navy list as being a volunteer in the Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in October 1940. Intriguingly I cannot find his name either on the casualty lists or the internment camp lists which suggest he was able to leave Hong Kong before the Japanese arrived in December 1941. Where did he go and is he the same rugby playing Shanghai Policeman? He is next traced arriving back in the UK in December accompanied by his wife, Mei Yuen and daughter.

Editor’s note: rugby football has had a renaissance in Shanghai, led by the re-establishment in 1997 of the Shanghai Ruby Football Club.

本期作客博主是Simon Drakeford,他关于上海橄榄球历史的的最新著作即将出版。关于本书的更多内容请移步:www.treatyportsport.com


这位在照片中衣冠楚楚的珀西·普尔(Percy Poole),1905年出生于威尔士蒙茅斯郡纽波特,是20世纪30年代上海橄榄球界进球数最多的警察之一。 1937年,他从上海公共租界巡捕房离职后,成为英国在华最高法院的一名引座员。

关于他的橄榄球记录始见于1930年11月,直到1938年除夕他的最后一场球赛不下80场的上海橄榄球赛事上有迹可循。他主要效力于上海公共租界巡捕房队, 但同时也活跃在许多上海队伍的首发十五人阵营中, 包括对阵美国海军四师的多场比赛、英国联合服务队的几场、来自日本明治大学和日本帝国铁路的访问队的几场对决,以及在1934和1935年的两场20世纪30年代最重要的橄榄球比赛中,代表上海对抗香港。

珀西·普尔同时也是一名小有名气的拳击手。还没来上海前的1924年至1929年间,他就为伦敦皇家骑卫队的拳击队效力。在同一时代的著名拳击手中,他曾和来自意大利的卡尼拉1940年10月的香港皇家海军志愿者名单上曾经出现“珀西·约翰·普尔”这个名字。但令人费解的是,遇难者名单或拘留营的名单上都找不到他的名字,也无法推断他是否在1941年12月日军侵华前成功离开香港。这个人去了哪儿?他是否就是那个在上海打橄榄球的警察?最后能追寻到的他的踪迹是他于12月和他的夫人袁梅(音:Mei Yuen)及其女儿回到英国。


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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








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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.

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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.  

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