Nicholas Kitto describes the project which culminated in the recent publication of his book ‘Trading Places, A Photographic Journey Through China’s Former Treaty Ports’ (Blacksmith Books)
It was quite late on 16 December 1996, and I was walking along Racecourse Road in Tianjin. We had just finished a fine dinner hosted by my client’s local office and as this had included traditional rounds of maotai, the cold night air was very welcome. We had driven along the road earlier in daylight when returning from the client’s facility in the Tianjin Economic Development Area and had spotted a house that may have been the one I sought. As we were leaving for Shanghai the next morning this was the only opportunity I would have until a subsequent visit.
As a professional accountant based in Hong Kong, from the mid-1990s I began to travel frequently to the mainland on business. Two weeks before my 1996 visit to Tianjin, I was with my father on the Isle of Man and mentioned my forthcoming trip to the city where he was born and had lived until aged six, when the family moved to Hankou (my grandfather, Jack Kitto, was with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (North China) Limited, one of two subsidiaries of the Royal Dutch Shell group operating in China at the time). ‘Wouldn’t it be a laugh if you found our old house’, he challenged before drawing a rough sketch of the building and a map of its location, despite the years which had passed and his age when he had last been there.
Thanks to my father’s drawings, once I was on foot that chilly evening it wasn’t too difficult to identify the house due to certain unique features and it being on an apex of a bend in Racecourse Road at a point where two other roads joined in a ‘V’ shape. The next morning I was up early to take some photographs and my father soon confirmed that we had succeeded.
The following year in December 1997, armed with a photograph from around 1930 provided by my father as second challenge, I was able to locate the former Tientsin Country Club. My father remembered the Club well, at least from the outside, as children were seldom permitted inside. This time I had the hotel driver’s local knowledge to thank for the find.
In the years that followed I continued to visit Tianjin occasionally (memorably attending a ‘tea dance’ in the Tientsin Country Club one Friday afternoon in January 2002) but my interest in the buildings was largely limited to those with connections to my family, although at that time I had little idea of the extent of their activities in China. While visiting Tianjin with my father in November 2004, this began to change. On this occasion, apart from having a drink in the old family house, now conveniently a bar, and also a guided tour of the Tianjin Country Club by a kind and understanding caretaker, we walked around the old city centre and it was hard not to notice the large number of western-style buildings. I wanted to know more about these buildings: who used them and for what purpose, how many of them remained in China and in which cities were they to be found? And so I began to read about the treaty port era and was soon fascinated, especially as it was obvious that, even from my limited experience in Tianjin and Shanghai, a great number of buildings from those days had survived.
Happily, a long-time friend, Robert Nield (1), shared my interest and, after a tentative visit to Tianjin in November 2007, in September 2008 our exploration of China’s former treaty ports commenced in earnest. Robert’s objective was to write on the subject; mine to photograph as many of the surviving buildings as we could find. During our travels we certainly found a large number of these buildings; indeed there was no city we visited where we didn’t discover something.
We were fortunate with our timing. With the approaching Beijing Olympics of 2008 many cities had invested significant resources in restoring buildings of historical interest (not only from the treaty port era of course), and restoring them to a very high standard. This activity was not limited to the Olympic host cities as restoration projects extended throughout the country from Harbin in the north, to Beihai (Pakhoi) and beyond in the south.
Often extraordinary effort was made to save a building or restore a whole area close to how it looked in the 1930s. This included, but was not limited to, moving structures several metres to make way for new development, diverting traffic underground and demolishing gruesome concrete bridges from the 1950s. Demolition to make way for the new might have been a more popular option and it is impressive, and certainly fortunate, that this was not adopted in so many cases. And the restorations continue to this day. At the time of writing, the city of Yantai (previously known as Chefoo) is undertaking a large project to restore the former foreign settlement area to its previous state. Although much has already been completed, work will be ongoing for some years yet.
Our planning for each visit followed a similar pattern. Robert had by far the greater knowledge and resources, especially when it came to maps, but I would always undertake my own research, with a particular emphasis on buildings which may have survived. A day or two before a visit we would ‘fly-over’ the city on Google Earth, comparing interesting-looking roofs to old maps. From this Robert would produce extensive copies of maps and we would plan a route, with me keeping an eye on the position of the sun for the benefit of my camera.
Once on site, we would leave our hotel after an early breakfast and explore on foot, that being the only way to ensure we did not miss anything. Each day was long with no break for lunch, but we would try to be back at our hotel by 6pm. Often we would cover more than one city in a single visit. Generally we booked a hotel car and driver for a day trip to another city but sometimes the distances were too far, in which case we would go by train and stay for a few days.
We frequently created considerable curiosity but this was always friendly and, in particular, I never had any trouble with my large camera and lenses. Sometimes our driver would become interested in our activities, especially if we had hired him for more than one day. I remember one appearing on the second day with his own pocket camera and he enthusiastically joined-in the hunt. On another occasion we were investigating the recently redecorated former Butterfield & Swire agent’s residence in Qingdao when the architect arrived with more than a concerned look at our intrusion. As it happened, we had copies of G. Warren Swire’s earlier photographs of the building which we offered to the architect. He was delighted, but insisted on returning them after he had made a copy. We had many such experiences and these all helped to make every visit fruitful and thoroughly enjoyable.
By 2016, having made over fifty visits to as many former treaty ports and settlements, I had accumulated over 4,000 photographs of buildings (2) and it seemed timely to produce a book to showcase them and to assist those interested in locating them. That took time as I had writing to be completed and photographs to be chosen, but the book was at last published at the end of March this year and a few of the more than 700 photographs it contains are reproduced here.
During our exploration of the treaty ports I also discovered a great deal about my family’s activities in China, but that is another story altogether.
Dedicated website: www.treatyports.photos
Two podcasts on the book: Part 1: https://mbp.ac/703 Part 2: https://mbp.ac/704
- Robert Nield is author of ‘China’s Foreign Places, The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era, 1840-1943’ (Hong Kong University Press, 2015). See his blog post on Visualising China: ‘Robert Nield on Wuzhou, old and new‘.
- A complete set of my treaty port images resides with the Historical Photographs of China project at the University of Bristol.