New Perspective: Trinity Church and Treaty Port-Era Shanghai

Cole Roskam is an Associate Professor of Architectural History in the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. The author of Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937 (University of Washington Press, 2019), his research explores architecture’s role in mediating China’s relationship to the world. Cole has just completed work on a book-length manuscript Yale University Press tentatively titled Designing Reform: Architecture in the People’s Republic of China, 1970-1992.

A look at contemporary Shanghai’s skyline makes it hard to believe that Trinity Church (renamed Trinity Cathedral in 1875) was once the tallest and one of the best-known buildings in the city (Figure 1). Only through a closer look at historical images of the building available on the Historical Photographs of China web site do we gain a sense of its striking verticality and monumentality, particularly in relation to the existing Chinese walled city and the emerging urban fabric of the British Settlement. Shaped by the ambitions of a foreign community seeking to distinguish itself within Britain’s vast imperial sphere, the building stands as a reminder that desire on the part of cities around the world for globally recognizable architectural icons is nothing new.

Figure 1. Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, c.1902. HPC ref: LD01-100.

The cathedral is one of the numerous architectural projects detailed in my recently published book, Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937 (University of Washington Press), which examines architecture’s manifold contributions to the production of the treaty port’s unique extraterritorial environment. The existing structure, designed by the famed British architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) and completed in 1865, was built to replace an earlier iteration of the church completed by George Strachan in 1848, which had been built largely through the efforts of the American missionary and bishop William Jones Boone (1811-1864) and with the financial backing of the British government (Figure 2). In 1863, the first structure’s deterioration due to poor construction standards – its roof collapsed one Sunday in July 1850 prior to service – prompted the British Settlement’s British Episcopal Church Society to write to Scott requesting his services in the design of a new edifice.

Scott was Britain’s most preeminent Gothic Revival architect and a designer of notable renown whose involvement in the project imbued it with certain international distinction. No architect was arguably more closely associated with architectural representations of Britain’s evolving imperial ideology at the time than Scott. In addition to completing the designs and/or construction of the exterior of London’s Foreign and India Offices in 1858, its Colonial Office (1870-74), as well as its Home Office (1870-75), he was also responsible for the design of numerous projects in Great Britain, Newfoundland, India, South Africa, and Australia.[i] Through his involvement, the settlement’s British community connected itself, albeit tangentially, to active and ongoing public debate back in England over the search for an appropriately British architectural style, and, not unrelatedly, the future of British imperialism.[ii]

Figure 2. Trinity Church after a fall of snow, Shanghai, 1858. Photograph by William Jocelyn. Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution reference: L04357-012b. HPC ref: VH02-038.

Scott accepted the commission and its requirements that the new building be able to support a congregation of eight hundred people, at a construction cost of no more than twenty thousand pounds. Drawings for an ‘early-thirteenth-century Gothic style’ design were completed in November 1864. Unfortunately, however, Scott’s plans did not adhere to the community’s initial requests. For example, the proposed church included seating for only 460 members. Equally disappointing and potentially damaging to its international status, the church as proposed did not feature a spire, which residents desired as archetypal of ecclesiastical architecture back home in Britain. William Kidner, an English designer employed by Scott who relocated to Shanghai in 1864 to assist with the project’s construction, was subsequently asked to complete revisions to the scheme while additional funding was raised. Kidner’s proposed revisions were approved by Scott, who purportedly expressed relief that Kidner, who ‘so thoroughly understood his views and who appeared to be so capable of carrying them out satisfactorily,’ would see the project to completion.[iii]

The building’s foundation stone was eventually laid on the most ‘favourable’ afternoon of May 26, 1866. Numerous American, European, and Chinese residents attended the ceremony, which was led by members of the settlement’s various Masonic lodges – an active and influential social organisation not only in Shanghai, but in numerous locales throughout the British empire. Upon its completion, the building measured 152 feet long and 54 feet high and featured an impressive ribbed vault ceiling and a detailed mosaic floor.

Kidner’s redesign accommodated three hundred more people and featured brick construction rather than Scott’s proposed stonework; it also included a wooden ceiling, rather than brick, to alleviate the building’s weight given Shanghai’s soft, alluvial soil (Figure 3). These gestures also accommodated the skills of the city’s Chinese workforce, which was an often unacknowledged but vital force in the treaty port’s construction. Other notable features include the church’s organ, which was manufactured by Walkers of London – another of the building’s many links to the imperial metropole. The church’s stained-glass windows were gradually accumulated and installed through local donations. Due to a lack of funding, the church’s spire was not completed until 1893.

Figure 3. Interior of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shanghai, c.1870. HPC ref: Fr01-128.

Trinity Church-related images included in the Historical Photographs of China database capture the building and its groundbreaking monumentality, though they do so in new and unusual ways. In particular, a series of photographs taken from the first church of its surrounding environs provide us with a rare vantage point from which we may better understand its surrounding urban fabric (Figure 4). Taken together, these wonderful images offer a unique panoramic view of the fortress-like mercantile compounds designed for and by capitalism that dominated the foreign settlements’ emergent urban fabric, thereby underscoring the church’s early and notable physical prominence.

Figure 4. View from Trinity Church tower, looking northwards, towards Wusong, Shanghai, 1859. Photograph by William Jocelyn. Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution reference: L04357-065b. HPC ref: VH02-148.

[i] See M. H. Port, Imperial London: Civil Government Building in London, 1851-1915 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995) 2–3; and G. A. Bremner, Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), xiii, 203.
[ii] G.A. Bremner, ‘Nation and Empire in the Government Architecture of Mid-Victorian London: The Foreign and India Office Reconsidered,’ The Historical Journal 48, no. 3 (September 2005): 703–42.
[iii] Minutes of Annual Meeting of Subscribers to the British Episcopal Church, January 25, 1866, F.O. 17/454, National Archives, Kew.

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The joys of everyday life on the China Coast

The F. Hagger collection encompasses some 260 photographs of China in the early 1930s, as well as many of Japan, Singapore, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), North Borneo, Manila, India, Egypt, and others which are not on the Historical Photographs of China website. The album will be available for consultation at University of Bristol Special Collections.

A neatly captioned page from F.Hagger’s album (HPC ref FH01), which has an olive green cloth cover, woven with a playing cards design, manufactured by Yeikwan.

A neatly captioned page from Hagger’s album (HPC ref FH01), which has an olive green cloth cover, woven with a playing cards design, manufactured by Yeikwan.

We currently know little about Hagger other than he was an Electrical Artificer in the Royal Navy. His job involved the installation and maintenance of electrical systems, including in generators and motors, on ships. He almost certainly served on the China Station aboard H.M.S. Medway, the first purpose-built large submarine depot ship built for the Royal Navy.[1] An album of photographs inscribed with his name ‘F. HAGGER, E.A.’ [E.A.=Electrical Artificer] was donated to the Historical Photographs of China a few years ago, but even then the connection with Hagger himself had been lost. Although some of the photographs in the album appear to be duplicates of images found elsewhere, many seem to have been taken by Hagger himself – or perhaps by someone close to him. The album is thoroughly captioned, and the HPC team was able to identify Hagger from some of the indications provided in the captions. He appears in several photographs, either in individual portraits – in uniform, in civilian clothes or with little clothes – or in group shots with other Royal Navy personnel.

F. Hagger by a mooring bollard, H.M.S. Medway. HPC ref: FH01-261.

F. Hagger reading on the beach, Huangpu (黃埔), Guangzhou (廣州). HPC ref: FH01-253.

Whilst photograph albums of China coast Navy servicemen are not uncommon, the Hagger collection is impressive for the quality and variety of images. It is a rich holding for historians interested in China’s social, economic, and international history. Those working on urban and rural life in Republican China, the British military presence in the country, everyday life in the treaty ports, Hong Kong history, and maritime history (there are several photographs taken at sea and a few portraying the people who worked and lived on boats) will likely find images in this collection of interest.

A woman and a child on a sampan, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-279.

The collection offers a visual record of the human and material dimensions of the routine exercise of British naval power at a period of transition when other competitors, notably Japan, were in the ascendancy. Hagger’s tour in China took place in 1932-33, at the height of the Manchurian Crisis and in the aftermath of the Shanghai War of 1932, key events in the origins of the Second World War in East Asia.[2] A state of tension was very much in the order of the day. During a visit to Japan in 1933, H.M.S. Medway was reported to ‘have been observing photographing the fortified area while traversing the Moji Straits’ by the Moji water police, an allegation denied by the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief of the China Station, Admiral Sir Frederic Charles Dreyer (1878-1956).[3] The suspicion was not unfounded, though. According to Antony Best, the Medway was indeed being used to ‘gather information on Japanese consular, military, and mandated islands traffic’ as part of a three-month watch on Japanese wireless transmissions activities in East Asia that had been planned by the Naval Intelligence Directorate and the Government Code and Cipher School.[4]

The Hagger album is also a treasure trove for those interested in gender history. Scholars of masculinities would find here plenty of inspiration: there’s a variety of depictions of male bodies, portraits of homosociality and spaces of masculine leisure and consumption (including a before-and-after sequence of a New Year’s party onboard), and examples of photographic imperial and male gaze, as well as racialised categorisation – an album page on ‘types’ of Japanese women is an illustrative example of that.

A picnic party apparently applying sun tan oil, Weihai (威海). HPC ref: FH01-266.

Royal Navy personnel resting after a Christmas party, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-200.

Although images of male camaraderie abound, the collection also holds very interesting images of women, especially outside shots of women at work – such as one of women road members in Hong Kong – or simply walking on the street. If 1930s China is often associated with the much-debated ‘new women’, Hagger’s photographs provide, intentionally or not, a testimony of the visibility and confident deportment of women in Chinese streets. Two photographs of ‘café girls’, seemingly photographed in Japan, also provide an interesting prompt to reflect on the transnationality of ‘modern girl’ archetypes.[5]

Women road menders, with a roller, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-239.

Red Cross Road, Yantai (煙台). HPC ref: FH01-099.

Women and children walking on the street, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-226.

One of two photographs in the album, captioned ‘Café Girls’. HPC ref: FH01-097.

One of two photographs in the album, captioned ‘Café Girls’, most probably taken in Japan. HPC ref: FH01-097.

Images of bustling city life are aplenty in this collection, capturing fascinating details of the many people, businesses, and means of transport that dotted everyday activities in mainland China and Hong Kong in the 1930s. Some carefully framed images offer postcard-like distant views over the urban landscape, such as a serene shot of the Peak Tram or an impressive view over Qianmen street in Beijing.

The Peak Tramway, 1933. HPC ref: FH01-307.

View over Qianmen street (前門大街), Beijing (北京). HPC ref: FH01-147.

Other photographs, taken at street level, show random shots of daily activities such as eating or chatting. The Hong Kong photographs offer quite a few gems: a side view of a fruit stall in front of a wall full of advertisements with a man eating, standing nearby, a moment of contrasts in a busy Des Voeux Road, with a barefoot girl standing on one side of the road while pedestrians, cars and rickshaws rush on the other side, or a seamstress with bound feet concentrated on mending clothes while a passer-by glances at the photographer.

A fruit and vegetable stall, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-194.

A girl standing on Des Voeux Road, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-313.

A seamstress with bound feet, repairing clothes by a shopping street, Hong Kong. HPC ref: FH01-159.

One of my favourites, probably taken in Weihai, depicts a neighbourhood ally where women, children and what appear to be itinerant food sellers congregate. It was photographed from under an archway – a curious suggestion of the photographer’s position: an outsider looking in, from a distance.

People in a back alley, with an itinerant fruit seller. HPC ref: FH01-247.

Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Yantai, Weihai, and other China coast locales can be found in the extensive Hagger collection. Its photographs celebrate the opportunities offered to male agents of empire, but also offer fleeting glimpses of the everyday pleasures and pains of urban China during the ‘Nanjing decade’. You can browse the whole collection here and will no doubt find something interesting.

If you have information on F. Hagger or the 1932-33 China Coast tour of H.M.S. Medway please get in touch with the Historical Photographs of China Project.

[1] The ship was launched in 1928 and was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean in 1942.
[2] About the latter, see Donald A. Jordan, China’s Trial by Fire: The Shanghai War of 1932 (Ann Arbor, 2001).
[3] ‘Admiral Dreyer Denies Medway Took Pictures of Nippon Forts’, The China Press, 29 September 1933, p. 1.
[4] Antony Best, British Intelligence and the Japanese Challenge in Asia, 1914-1941 (Basingstoke, 2002), p. 109.
[5] On this topic see: Alys Eve Weinbaum et al (eds), The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham, NC, 2008)

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The sinking of the Chusan

There are several photographs of disasters, including some of shipwrecks, on the Historical Photographs of China site. A collection we are in the midst of readying for publication includes several that show the aftermath of the disaster that befell the S.S. Chusan, a China Navigation Company (CNCo) steamer wrecked near Weihaiwei (now Weihai) in early October 1932. This series of photographs comes from the F. Hagger Collection (about which more soon). We can relate them to other images on HPC, such as this one below, taken by the CNCo Chairman, Warren Swire, and with other materials.

S.S. Chusan berthed at Tianjin (天津). Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw06-028.

Built in Greenock, Scotland in 1914 by Scotts Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. – the Scotts had intertwined interests with Swire – the Chusan was commissioned by CNCo, one of the associated companies owned or managed by John Swire & Sons in London. In China, CNCo was managed by the firm’s subsidiary, Butterfield & Swire. On the evening of 2-3 October 1932, while en route to Shanghai from Yantai (Chefoo), the Chusan ran aground, wedging on rocks of an outer island near Half Moon Bay.[1] Maritime accidents in China’s coastal waters were rarer by 1932 than they had been in the nineteenth century, when the Chinese Maritime Customs Service was still developing its lighthouse network, but they still occurred.

News reports of the time are not very clear as to the exact cause of the accident, but it seems likely the Chusan ran aground after hitting a reef. Its Captain, George Alfred Evans, a twelve-year veteran with the firm, was immediately dismissed, suggesting that he was found to be at fault; the Chief Officer was promoted. The North China Herald had reported that ‘the spot upon which the vessel ran aground is probably that known as the “Pinnacle”, which has on its crest a lime-washed piled of stones […],’ which suggests the area’s risks were not unknown.[2]

Map pointing the location where the Chusan ran aground, The North China Herald, 12 October 1932.

More than a hundred passengers and crew, most of them Chinese, were on board the Chusan when the accident happened. Assistance was provided by the British Royal Navy warships HMS Kent and HMS Medway and it is thought that someone from one of these ships, or possibly F. Hagger himself, photographed the events. These warships picked up the Chusan’s S.O.S. signals and came to rescue the passengers. They were taken to Weihaiwei and later transferred on the steamship Shuntien to Shanghai, arriving there on 6 October.[3] After saving the passengers, attention turned to recovering the cargo onboard. About one hundred packages were reported saved.[4] The crew was taken off the ship on Monday 4 October and, like the passengers was first moved to Weihaiwei and then moved to Shanghai onboard the steamer Tungchow. Like the S. S. Chusan, the S.S. Shuntien and the S.S.  Tungchow were CNCo ships built by Scotts. The two would be out of operation in the following years.

The vessels involved in the salvaging operation attest to the internationalisation of China’s shipping in the early twentieth century – a period of often-competing but occasionally collaborating foreign, commercial, and nationalist interests. According to The North China Herald, apart from the two British naval vessels, the Royal Navy tug St Breock was sent ‘with divers and carpenters with hawsers, timber and other needed appliances to assist in salvage operations’. The Japanese ships Dairen Maru and Yusho Maru were sent from Dalian (Dairen) – in Japanese-occupied Manchuria – and Moji, respectively, to assist the Chusan. Both the Herald and The China Press reported that ‘Japanese tugs with almost superhuman effort have managed to manoeuvre a sampan alongside the outer island and rescue the remainder of the Chusan’s crew and one officer, totalling about 17 persons’.[5] While these Japanese ships assisted the Chusan, Sino-Japanese tensions brewed elsewhere. The ship’s intended destination, Shanghai, had seen military clashes in the early months of 1932. Interestingly, one of the first reports of the steamer’s ordeal appeared in the same front page of The China Press whose headline celebrated: ‘Lytton Report Recognizes China Sovereignty,’ a major development in the Manchurian Crisis which would eventually lead to Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.[6] The fragile peace of the interwar years had started to go under, much like the Chusan.

Bad weather made the salvaging operations difficult. By 4 October ‘the fore-part of the ship had been broken off by the force of waves’ and the deck was already ‘partly submerged’.[7] The Chusan was reported ‘abandoned as a total loss’ a few days later.[8] The Herald published a sequence of three photographs showing the gradual sinking of the vessel on its edition of 19 October.[9]

‘Ship-wreck near Weihaihei’, The North China Herald, 19 October 1932.

The Hagger collection includes four other images, from different angles, of the salvaging operations, which offer an impressive closer look at the different phases of the ship’s sinking – the last image, taken three days after the first, shows only a few remaining parts still above water. Historians of maritime history may find them of interest – and those wanting to recreate similar events in historical fiction have here a set of images captured on site for their reference.

When I first saw it, the sequence caught my attention as it had a certain cinematic flair to it: a step-by-step account of a ship going down, from the first impressions in which a good deal of the vessel remains above water to a final shot in which only small reminders of its physical presence are visible, most of it having been swallowed by the waters. Together, the photos tell a dramatic story. After searching for some information on the event, I realised that what the photographs do not depict is arguably even more impressive. None of them shows (at least not up close) the ship’s passengers who, unlike the ship, all survived. Other potentially interesting details are also left to the imagination of the 2020 reader of 1932 news reports: the divers who were amongst the first sent to the scene, the removal of a good deal of the cargo, the several ships involved in the rescue operations… these are largely off frame here. Perhaps someone else’s camera registered different images at the time and they now rest in a private album or archives storage somewhere in the world?

The wreck of the S.S. Chusan, Weihai (威海). HPC ref: FH01-143.

The wreck of the S.S. Chusan, Weihai (威海). HPC ref: FH01-144.

The wreck of the S.S. Chusan, Weihai (威海) – the bows, three days late. HPC ref: FH01-145.

The wreck of the S.S. Chusan, Weihai (威海) – the stern, three days later. HPC ref: FH01-146.

Perhaps because after the accident the association with the name might not be positive, CNCo did not name any of its new builds Chusan. Chairman J.K. Swire would still register annoyance in 1948, however, when he heard that P&O was planing to use the name for a new liner it had commissioned for the UK-East Asia route. Nonetheless, P&O, which had already owned two vessels with the name, took delivery of its third SS Chusan in June 1950. For more on the history of John Swire & Sons and its China interests, including its maritime operations, see the recently published China Bound: John Swire & Sons and Its World, 1916-1980 by Robert Bickers.

[1] ‘Str. Chusan goes aground’, The North China Herald, 5 Oct. 1932, p. 15.
[2] Ibid.
[3] ‘Wrecked vessel sinks’, The North China Herald, 12 Oct. 1932, p. 50.
[4] ‘Str. Chusan goes aground’, p. 15.
[5] Ibid.; ‘Last of Crew of Chusan Are Rescued’, The China Press, 5 Oct. 1932, p. 7.
[6] ‘Chusan Grounds Off Weihaiwei; All Saved’, The China Press, 3 Oct. 1932, p. 1.
[7] ‘Wrecked vessel sinks’, p. 50.
[8] ‘Chusan Now Regarded As Complete Loss’, The China Press, 9 Oct. 1932, p.3.
[9] ‘Ship-wreck near Weihaihei’, The North China Herald, 19 Oct. 1932, p. 91.

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Guest blog: It’s the End of the World as They Knew It

James Carter is the author of the forthcoming Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (W.W. Norton), which uses the events of 12 November 1941 at the Shanghai Race Club to tell the story of China on the eve of World War II. He has written two previous books on Chinese history, and contributed to the Times Literary Supplement, the LA Review of Books, ChinaFile, and the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, among other venues. He is Professor of History and Director of the Nealis Program in Asian Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, USA.

Fires viewed from the Race Club, Shanghai, 1937. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0744.

Covid19 has fueled a fascination with apocalypses. The end of fictional worlds dominate our media choices: Contagion, 2012, Train to Busan, Deep Impact … we can fill our socially isolated nights with demise of worlds that never were. But worlds end all the time, and not just in fiction, and perhaps it is a good time to look back at some one of them. Historical Photographs of China provides us glimpses of what those moments of impending doom.

Perched at what seems like the end — if not the end of the world, at least the end of the world we have been living in up to now — I’m thrown back to think about when worlds ended before.

I’ve been immersed for some time in Shanghai as it toppled into World War II. I focused my research on a single day — Champions Day, 12 November 1941 — chosen precisely because it was on the margins between one world — old Shanghai, with all its cosmopolitanism and cruelty — and what would follow. It would not re-emerge, at least not as it had been.

Shanghai had existed as unique enclave since the 1840s. It looked like a colony, swam like a colony, and quacked like a colony … but officially, at least, it was not a colony. The International Settlement and French Concession, though, were unique spaces, insulated from most of the trials that swept across China in the last decades of the Qing dynasty, a revolution that overthrew it, and the turmoil that followed.

By the 1930s, the autonomy of these concessions was well established, but their future was increasingly hazy. The 1932 ‘Shanghai War,’ sparked by nationalist tensions and the death of a Japanese monk, killed more than 10,000 people in and around the city as Japanese and Chinese forces fought one another. For the ‘Shanghailanders’ — white (mainly British) inhabitants of the International Settlement — the fighting caused concern, but little real disruption to their lives. Consideration was even given to postponing Champions Day, the holiday in the Settlement when life paused for the running of the Champions’ Stakes, and crowds of 20,000 or more would see one of the city’s fastest horses crowned ‘King of the Turf,’ but in the end, a delay was not necessary. A ceasefire took hold in March, and life in Shanghai quickly recovered. Even the city’s two Chinese-owned and operated racetracks, which had been damaged in the fighting, quickly re-opened and began hosting races once again. Shanghai had survived the end of the world … for now.

Shanghai Volunteer Corps billet in Racecourse grandstand, Shanghai, 1932. Photograph attributed to Jack Ephgrave. HPC ref: Ep01-291.

The world would end again in the summer of 1937. If 1932 hinted that the world of Old Shanghai might not be permanent, 1937 shouted it. The hostilities that broke out between Japan and China at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping (as Peking was then officially known) in July spread to Shanghai later that summer. ‘Black’ or ‘Bloody Saturday’ — 14 August 1937 — was an accident. Chinese pilots mistakenly dropped bombs over the International Settlement, which was supposedly neutral in the conflict at the time, but the effect was no less deadly for having been inadvertent. Thousands died, including many refugees fleeing the fighting all around, and also the first Americans to die in World War II.

Casualties and debris, Cathay Hotel bombing, Shanghai, 14 August 1937. HPC ref: AL-s59.

From 1937 on, Shanghai entered its Lone Island (gudao 孤岛) era. Japanese armies completed their occupation of the city — except for the foreign concessions — in November, and for four years, until Japanese armies marched onto the Bund on 8 December 1941, the Settlement at the heart of Shanghai clung to its autonomy. We might routinely describe the moment as liminal, poised between the world the ending and the one about to begin. I often think of it more as Wile E. Coyote, suspended in mid-air while the smoke cleared and revealed the abyss below.[1]

Though glimpses into the chasm were common in the Lone Island period, the cartoon coyote stayed somehow aloft. Scarcity and hoarding led to inflation. Foreign consulates advised their nationals to leave. Refugees found their way to the city, escaping the war that was brutalizing China (the atrocities of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ were less than 200 miles away). But amid this chaos, life in the Settlement went on.

Racing went on too—the Chinese-owned tracks were closed (destroyed, really) by the war, but the Shanghai Race Club at the city’s centre was soon drawing larger crowds than ever as Shanghai residents sought escape from the grim reality surrounding them.

Shanghai Race Club clock tower, Shanghai, 1937. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0312.

It was not until December 1941 that the world ended again. The same offensive that Americans remember mainly for Pearl Harbor included Japanese attacks on Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Shanghai. The Japanese strike on Shanghai was quick — sinking or seizing the two remaining  Allied gunboats moored in the Huangpu River — but the fate of Shanghai was, as usual, slow to resolve. Although long apprehensive about its fate, Shanghai suffered less during the war than just about any city in Asia. Although there were a few arrests, it was eight months before a large number of Allied men were imprisoned, and another six months before most remaining Allied nationals were interned by the Japanese in euphemistically designed Civilian Assembly Centres.

Rev. Dr Forbes Scott Tocher, goats and staff, at the ‘farm’, Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, Shanghai, 1945. Photograph by Oscar Seepol. HPC ref: To-s27.

Even the race track stayed open, dominated still by British nationals into 1942, then controlled by Japanese interests who continued racing right into the summer of 1945. Just weeks before an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, newspapers in Shanghai were still advertising the races.

Old Shanghai did not return. Racing did not restart after the Japanese surrender. Although the city’s architecture survived the war (much of it lasting to be destroyed as part of the city’s economic resurgence in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries), it was fundamentally changed, in ways that few people looking at the gathering clouds in 1932, or 1937, or 1941 could have predicted.

[1] Ed.: for those too young to catch this reference, follow this link.

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Gina Tam on Dialect and Nationalism in China, and a grave in Amoy

Our latest guest blogger is Gina Anne Tam. An assistant professor of Chinese history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Gina’s research and teaching interests include the history of nationalism, race and ethnicity, language, and foodways. She received her BA in history and Asian Studies from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and her Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. Her first book, Dialect and Nationalism in China 1860-1960, is published by Cambridge University Press.

The grave of Carstairs Douglas, missionary and linguist, Gulangyu, Xiamen, c1877-1880. HPC ref: Mx01-100.

This photograph shows the grave of Scottish missionary Carstairs Douglas in the port city of Xiamen (Amoy), where he lived for nearly twenty years until his death in 1877. Among his many legacies—remembered, of course, as a pioneer, church leader—was his expansive and comprehensive Chinese-English Dictionary of what he calls the ‘Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy.’  Douglas’s massive tome, with hundreds of pages and thousands of entries, has stood the test of time, continuing to serve as a foundational text in the study of Chinese phonology even to this day.

Douglas was one of many missionaries from Europe and the United States who took advantage of the assertion of foreign power in East Asia after the first Opium War to travel to Qing China, and one of many who used his spare time between evangelical activities to study, analyze, and write about language. These men were instrumental in the invention of a China for the Western imagination—a imagined construct fabricated to adhere to a European and American worldview. Without what felt like a full picture of China before them, these sojourners filtered the fragmented information they collected through the lens of their own histories, making sense of what they saw by inserting it into streamlined narratives of historical progress modeled on the European experience. Nowhere is this process clearer than in European narratives about the Chinese language. It simply made sense to these men to equate the China’s literary language to Latin, its local languages (called fangyan in Chinese) to dialects, and the language of officials to a so-called ‘Chinese language’ that would, were China to modernize and become a modern nation, serve as its lingua franca.

Adam and Eve: Book of Genesis in Fuzhou dialect. Source: Seng ging du siok kie mung (Sheng jing tu shuo qi meng) (n.p., 1890)

But not to Douglas. One of the ways that he was unique among his peers was that he was one of the few to starkly acknowledge just how inadequate these metaphors were and how misleading the process of translation could be. He wrote the following in the introduction to his dictionary in regard to the spoken language of Xiamen:

Such words as “dialect” or “colloquial” give an erroneous conception of its nature. It is not a mere colloquial dialect or patois; it is spoken by the highest ranks just as by the common people, by the most learned just as by the most ignorant . . . Nor does the term “dialect” convey anything like a correct idea of its distinctive character; it is no mere dialectical variety of some other language; it is a distinct language, one of the many and widely different languages which divide among them the soil of China.

Douglas’s criticism highlights the inherent associations attached to each English term. The term ‘dialect,’ he claimed, implied a branch or auxiliary, a category or entity only made comprehensible through its relationship to its root language. It also implied mutual intelligibility, which could not be claimed of the local languages of Fujian, where Douglas was stationed, and Guangdong, Shanghai, or Beijing. Ultimately, Douglas recognized that terms like ‘dialect’ emerged from a historically contingent experience, and that by applying these terms to phenomena born of a different context, he was creating an imperfect metaphor that had the potential to mislead.

Lin Yutang in Sao Paolo, 1959, unknown photographer, Governo do Estado de São Paulo-
Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo

Several decades later, another language enthusiast, Lin Yutang, would make precisely the opposite argument about China’s fangyan. Lin spent much of his early adulthood abroad, first at the United States at Harvard, and then France and finally Germany, where he completed his doctorate in philology at the University of Leizpig. When he returned to China, he became a strident defender of the linguistic methodologies he absorbed in his training. In 1925, Lin wrote an excoriation of his colleagues’ insistence that the term fangyan, a word with a long history in Chinese literature stretching back millennia, referred simply to “languages spoken in a particular place” and nothing more. Lin chided:

There should be no confusion as to the definition of fangyan. The world’s languages are connected in one system, called a yuyanxi [family of languages]. Language families are then divided into yuyan [languages], and within each language there are divisions of fangyan [dialects]…We ought to declare that when we speak of fangyan today that we are using it [with the] meaning from modern linguistics.

Here, Lin insisted that his colleagues adhere to frameworks established by linguists in Europe and the United States. From his perspective, these categories were determined by science and science was not culturally contingent. Ultimately, Lin’s sought to include Chinese knowledge in a global scientific epistemology, which demanded an adherence to the categories it had prescribed.

My book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, explores Chinese nation-building by tracing shifting discourses on fangyan. This history is, in part, a history of translation. The history of how fangyan became equated with the English term dialect reveals how the process of nation-building compelled Chinese reformers at the end of the Qing dynasty to imagine a nation with a singular language—a characterization that we, today, frequently presume to be objective truth. The prescribed “need” for a singular Chinese language was first articulated by Douglas’s peers from Europe and America, who pronounced China “backwards” due to its lack of linguistic unity. But by the turn of the twentieth century, it had become the centerpiece of China’s national conception among Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. And once these reformers had deemed a national language necessary for national genesis, everything else had to be reframed as something other than a national language; dialects, with their connotations of subordination, felt like a natural fit. And once such designations had been deemed necessary for national modernity, linguists like Lin Yutang reframed categories like language and dialect as scientific, objective fact, not human constructions. Ultimately, their work masked the fact that translation is a product of creation—creations imbued with political interests and human biases.

By unpacking the process by which fangyan became twinned with ‘dialect,’ we can see firsthand how the translation was born out of the political needs of the moment of its creation. It was, in other words, not a neutral pairing, but a deeply fraught innovation with wide-ranging implications. And, as my book shows, this translation and the framework it upheld always had detractors. Lin and Douglas were not necessarily representative of their time or place: there were Western observers who uncritically found dialect a proper framework for understanding fangyan, and Chinese folklorists, authors, and scholars who were suspicious of Lin’s hierarchical taxonomical model which indirectly upheld northern Mandarin as more significant than other Chinese languages. These stories are important for understanding the vicissitudes of the relationship between language and identity, too.

While Douglas may be remembered for any number of achievements, to me, his legacy was his prescient recognition that categories born of a European experience might not fit neatly onto China’s linguistic landscape as the tombstone in the photograph ill-fits China’s deathscape. He highlights how the pairing of fangyan to the term dialect was one of creation, and how the translations we choose have implicate our lived realities.

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Guest Blog: The Chile Pepper: Mao’s Little Red Spice

Brian Dott received a Master’s degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan and his PhD in Chinese History from the University of Pittsburgh. He teaches in the History Department and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Program at Whitman College. His passion is studying changes in Chinese cultural practices from 1500 to the present. Brian R. Dott is author of The Chile Pepper in China A Cultural Biography (Columbia University Press, 2020). His previous book examines different groups of pilgrims to one of China’s most sacred mountains: Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2004).

Chile peppers (also spelled chilli or chili) first arrived in China from the Americas around 1570. Their popularity took off quickly. A source from 1621 described them as being grown everywhere and important for cooking and medicine. Ultimately, the Chinese use of chile peppers has influenced a wide range of cultural practices, from cuisine to medicine, from decorations to gender tropes. I began this project with a simple question; I was eating in a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing and wondered how the Chinese had begun eating something new with such a strong and distinctive flavour?

Dr Lucy Harris and two others having a wayside meal, on the way to Santai, Sichuan, c.1905. HPC ref: LH-s01.

As the photograph above might suggest, getting used to Sichuan food once chiles were super popular could take some adjustment! The variety of gazes is quite intriguing:  the photographer gazing at traveling companions and at the local Sichuanese; the locals gazing at the foreigners; the child at the table gazing directly at the camera; one of the women at the table contemplating her meal (chiles?); her companion gazing at her reaction.

Fresh chiles, Kunming. Photograph by Brian Dott, 2017.

Initial use as a spice probably began as a substitute for more expensive flavourings, such as black pepper (imported), Sichuan peppercorn, and salt (government controlled). If the chile had remained merely a substitute, it would not have come to play such a key role in Chinese culture. Indeed, by the nineteenth century very few sources referenced its use as a substitute, instead emphasising it on its own merits. For this blog, I will introduce class roles in the spread of the chile and its role as a metaphor for revolution.

Dried chiles, Dunhuang. Photograph by Brian Dott, 2016.

Modern sources about chiles in China tend to emphasise transmission and spread of chiles within China via merchants or traders. However, chiles did not become a widespread commercial crop until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Thus, the spread of chiles in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries actually happened in a different sphere. An important trait of the chile plant, which aided its spread around the globe, is that it can grow in temperate climates. Thus, unlike well-known spice trade spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or cloves, which require tropical climates to grow, and therefore had to be continually imported to places with temperate climates, chiles could be grown in vegetable or kitchen gardens throughout most of China (gardens such as the ones shown below).

A man watering vegetables in a field, c.1933-1946. Photograph by Hedda Morrison. HPC ref: Hv22-067.

Walled garden and house, c.1930s-1940s. Photograph attributed to Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-s110.

I argue that chiles spread within China primarily between neighbours. Seeds would have been passed from neighbour to neighbour, between relatives and communities that inter-married.  The spread was at the grassroots level. The internal spread of chiles in China was markedly different from other American crops introduced around the same time. The sweet potato, maize, peanut and tobacco all received a great deal of written attention and promotion from both local and national elites. In contrast, no written sources prior to the twentieth century promoted the growing of chiles.  With the history of the chile in China, reading between the lines of elite authored sources, we can see people taking their culinary and medical needs into their own hands.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century the Chinese began employing the chile as a symbol for military expertise and even for revolutionary success. Mao Zedong, a chile-loving Hunanese, absolutely adored eating chiles. He would tease people who ate with him if they couldn’t stand the heat. He even sprinkled chile flakes on his watermelon! At one point a doctor recommended that he cut back on his consumption of chiles, to which he acerbically quipped, ‘If you are even afraid of chiles in your bowl, how will you dare to attack your enemies!?’ Mao went even further in a conversation with American journalist Edgar Snow, asserting that the revolution would not be possible without the chile! Modern writers directly link the military prowess of Mao and other famous Hunanese military leaders with their chile eating.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976). HPC ref: Bi-s110.

Today a key component of Hunan regional identity is the ability to eat chiles. Mao is also an important symbol for Hunan, including his love for chiles. Many Hunan restaurants emphasise this connection with busts or portraits of the Chairman on prominent display. Menus often include dishes such as ‘Mao family red-braised pork.’ Below is the frontispiece from the menu of the Financial District Mao Family Hunan Restaurant in Beijing. Mao as revolutionary and chile-lover are both emphasised.

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Trading Places, a photographic journey through China’s former Treaty Ports

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.

Ice-skating on the Tientsin Country Club’s small lake in around 1930. My father is somewhere amongst those on the ice.

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.

Nick Kitto outside the Tientsin Country Club, immediately after locating it in December 1997.

The Tientsin Country Club, now known as the TY Club, soon after a full restoration was completed in 2014. The Club includes a heated indoor swimming pool, a squash court, a bowling alley, a small theatre, a sports bar and extensive dining facilities, largely all as in the original lay-out. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

The Astor House Hotel and alarm bell, British Concession, Tianjin, c.1903-1906. HPC ref: He01-120.

The Astor Hotel in Tianjin. In 2010 a restoration of the hotel was completed. The old brick walls, wooden trimmings, fittings, floors and doors were preserved down to the smallest detail; the result is magnificent. The main bar in the hotel is appropriately named after William O’Hara, the last owner of the Astor (from 1903 to 1949). Released from Japanese internment, he re-established the hotel after extensive renovations. But the municipal authorities confiscated the hotel in lieu of back-taxes and O’Hara left for New Zealand in 1949, heart-broken and virtually penniless. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

Butterfield and Swire premises, Victoria Road, Tianjin, 1919. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw04-112.

A great-great-uncle of mine, Lionel Howell, worked at the Butterfield & Swire’s shipping office in Tianjin, amongst other locations, and was present during the Boxer troubles. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

The Custom House in Guangzhou was built in 1914 to replace its predecessor which was destroyed by a fire in 1912. This image was chosen as the cover of the book and is a particularly good example of the painstaking efforts that were made during a restoration process. This image dates back a few years and the building has inevitably weathered somewhat since. Nevertheless the finely restored detail remains visible today. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

The British consulate in Beihai was constructed in 1885 to replace the first consulate established in 1877, which was little more than a fisherman’s shack balanced precariously on stilts over the water’s edge. In 1999, the building was moved 55.8 metres to make-way for a dual carriageway. It now stands at the entrance to the Beihai No.1 Middle School. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

The French Custom House in Mengzi, deep in Yunnan province, was built in expectation of increased trade with what is now Vietnam. In order to encourage this trade the French built a railway linking Haiphong on the Vietnamese coast with the provincial capital at Kunming. The construction of the railway was a massive undertaking through difficult mountainous terrain and involved more than 100 viaducts and 150 tunnels. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

The German Consulate in Hankou. The front door, which faces the Yangtze River, leads up to the consul’s apartment while the offices on the ground floor were accessed from the rear. The building is now part of a large Wuhan Municipal Government compound. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

The Custom House at Wuhu was completed in 1919 and replaced an 1877 version that was less accessible having been built further inland along a creek. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

The Shanghai Bund looks spectacular since its restoration was completed in 2012. Buildings from Butterfield & Swire in the French Concession to the British consular compound at the far end were restored. Much of the motor traffic has been diverted underground and the ten-lane road reduced to four. The resulting space was pedestrianised, creating a broad walkway running the full length of the Bund by the river. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

Gardeners at ‘Hazelwood’, Shanghai. Photograph by G. Warren Swire, taken soon after completion of the building in 1934. HPC ref: Sw08-019.

The Butterfield & Swire taipan’s residence, ‘Hazelwood’, designed by Clough Williams-Ellis. The building is now an annex to an international hotel, the main building of which is visible to the rear. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

River traffic on the Yangtze River at Yichang, including ‘Lung Mow’, ‘Wanhsien’ and ‘Shasi’, c.1923-1924. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw06-094.

The Yangtze River at Yichang, taken slightly further downriver from Warren Swire’s, but the consistent shape of the hills is clear. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, Dalian, c.1923-1924. Butterfield & Swire’s agent in the city rented a second-floor apartment as his residence. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. HPC ref: Sw06-129.

The HSBC building in Dalian. Photograph by Nick Kitto.

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.

Nicholas Kitto

Dedicated website:


Two podcasts on the book: Part 1: Part 2:


  1. 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‘.
  2. A complete set of my treaty port images resides with the Historical Photographs of China project at the University of Bristol.
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A Chan (Ya Zhen) in Guangzhou

A Chan’s studio and other shops, Heavenly Peace Street (天平街), Guangzhou (廣州). HPC ref: UB01-20.

This nice view of a commercial street in Guangzhou (Canton), that has been on the Historical Photographs of China website for a while, has been identified as the work of A Chan (雅真 Ya Zhen), an early Chinese photographer who worked in South China. A Chan’s authorship – confirmed by other versions of the image (see here and here, for example) – was cleverly hidden in plain sight, but it took a closer look to see this. The big shop sign on the right reads 香港 Xianggang [Hong Kong] / 雅真影相 Ya Zhen yingxiang/jing soeng [A Chan (Ya Zhen) photography]. It likely as not marked the entrance to A Chan’s studio in the city, with the reference to Hong Kong suggesting that it also operated in the then British colony, or possibly even that it had begun its activity there.

A Chan’s work is reasonably well known, and the information which had eluded us before had actually been mentioned in a couple of places. For example, in Terry Bennett’s History of Photography in China, Chinese Photographers 1844- 1879 (2013) and on the website Jiu yinzhi 旧影志 dedicated to the history of early Chinese photography.

The street in the photograph was 天平街 Tian ping jie, known as Heavenly Peace Street in English. The street is described in a 1904 guidebook as follows:

‘天平街 Heavenly Peace Street

In this street are shops for making bronze vessels (黃銅 [huangtong]), working in marble (雲石店 [yunshi dian]), and making palm-leaf fans.’

Dr. [John Glasgow] Kerr, A Guide to the City and Suburbs of Canton (Hong Kong: Kelly & Walsh, Ltd., 1904), p. 17

A Chan advertisement in A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (1905), p. 35

However, an advertisement published in the guidebook A Pictorial Handbook to Canton (Middlesbrough, Hood & Co., 1905), which also reproduces the same photograph of Heavenly Peace Street, lists ‘A. Chan’ as based on ‘179 Tai Sun Street, Canton (New City)’. The advertisement’s note that the studio ‘had always on stock a large assortment of Photographs[,] Views[, and] Post Cards[,] Etc., Etc., of Canton, Macao & Hong Kong’, suggests that he worked around the Pearl River Delta.

‘Tai Sun Street’ was likely 大新街 Da xin jie, or Great New Street, also known as Tai Sen Kai (an old romanisation from the Cantonese pronunciation) – today’s Da xin lu (大新路). It is listed in Kerr’s 1904 guidebook right after Heavenly Peace Street (both in the section on the New City). In Great New Street, that guidebook ensures, ‘the stranger will find much of interest, and the variety of articles made and exposed for sale will repay a careful survey of the shops’. One of them, it seems, was A Chan’s.

The Historical Photographs of China Projects holds several other photographs by A Chan, all of which were taken in Guangzhou.

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Visualising China in a global war

Dr Helena F. S. Lopes is currently a Senior Research Associate in the History of Hong Kong and a Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Bristol. She holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford. Her research interests include transnational encounters in South China during the Second World War.

Woman sewing, Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0198.

Woman sewing, Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0198.

Found between images of refugees and nurses, the photographs of women sewing clothes in 1937 Shanghai (here and here) are hardly the most obvious when discussing a global war. This seemingly banal activity is one that goes on in peacetime as well during conflicts. Yet, times of crisis make clear how much of an essential service this is, everywhere in the world. The current COVID-19 crisis is of course no exception. In accounts of the Second World War in China, making clothes is sometimes mentioned as one of the key activities through which women – this was an activity made mostly by women – supported the war effort. Sewing by hand or with the help of machines, women made uniforms for those serving in the frontline (including, of course, health workers as well as soldiers) and clothes for the destitute, and continued to make garments for everyday use. These images of resilience have obvious transnational parallels and perhaps it was a sense of familiarity that drew the attention of the American photographer Malcolm Rosholt who took those photographs. War is often dominated by dramatic shots of military operations or their devastating effects in humans and the environment but these photographs suggest something of the constructive activities done by those left in the shadows, often lacking recognition for their wartime contribution.

If histories of the Second World War were until fairly recently (and one could argue, still are to a large extent) marked by male-centred narratives, they were also dominated by Eurocentric and American-centric perspectives. However, in recent years, new studies challenging some of the ways in which the conflict had previously been presented in English have begun to enter mainstream discussion. For example, the three volumes of the Cambridge History of the Second World War, published in 2015, have several chapters covering East Asia.

The conflict in China is still more commonly known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, or, in China itself, as the War of Resistance Against Japan (抗日戰爭 KangRi zhanzheng), but many studies of the social, military, political, and diplomatic dimensions of the war in China published in the last few decades engage directly with that conflict’s place in a global Second World War. For a representative list of these studies, see the bibliography below.

The start of a global World War Two continues, to a considerable extent, to be placed in Europe in September 1939, but when looking beyond the standard starting point in central Europe – for example, to China, Ethiopia or Spain – other possibilities make sense as well.[1] One of them is 1937, when an all-out war began between China and Japan. Others may argue that was a mere regional conflict which did not lead to the start of a conflict engulfing the whole world. But neither did that happen with the war in Europe in 1939 – only in 1941.

The conflict in China was extensively covered by the overseas press at the time, including by photographers and documentary film makers, but would come to be overshadowed by the onset of the conflict in Europe. The official start of war in China is now 1931, not 1937, the opening salvo of the Sino-Japanese conflict being placed in the Manchuria Crisis, which started with the Japanese military invasion of the Chinese Northeastern provinces and led to the gradual occupation of parts of North China. The start of a continuous state of warfare in July 1937 surely marked a crucial turning point, though it is important to note that a culture of resistance, with a dimension of transnational mobilisation, existed long before.

A woman speaking at a parade commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of Sun Yat-sen’s death and the first anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War, Hankou, China. Photograph by Robert Capa. © Cornell Capa.

A woman speaking at a parade commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of Sun Yat-sen’s death and the first anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War, Hankou, China. Photograph by Robert Capa. © Cornell Capa.

For many in the 1930s, the war being fought in China had clear connections to those being fought in Spain or in Ethiopia. In other words, at least for some people, this was understood as a transnational conflict from early on. And whilst there were patches of nominal neutrality in the early phases of the Sino-Japanese War, notably concessions and colonies under foreign rule, even these were marked by global interactions connected to different dimensions of the conflict, including legal and illegal commercial activities.

The Historical Photographs of China Project (HPC) holds numerous images where we can find concrete visual traces of a global Second World War in China. The collection of Malcolm Rosholt photographs shows Shanghai in the early stages of the war in the summer of 1937. We see the physical markers of a divided metropolis, between Chinese Municipality grappling with a Japanese invasion and the supposedly neutral International Settlement and French Concession. But his photographs also show how the momentous impact of the conflict transcended those divisions in different ways and forged new connections, even if unintendedly. Rosholt’s photographs chronicle old and new faces of a global city at war. We find, amongst others, Chinese and Japanese soldiers, Sikh policemen, the French Jesuit missionary Robert Jacquinot de Besange who headed the Shanghai Safety Zone, and refugees fleeing the violence of the war and seeking shelter across the borders that had been drawn around zones of foreign residence and power, and sanctuary, in the city.

Refugees waiting by a steel gate, Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0374.

Refugees waiting by a steel gate, Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0374.

Some images provide subtle reminders of the many global connections coming together in wartime China. See for example, the photographs of Chinese Boy Scouts standing in front of a banner for a ‘Red Cross Society of the Republic of China’ hospital. These are two different symbols of an internationalised Nationalist China that gained new life during the conflict.

Boy scouts outside Shanghai Stock Brokerage Corporation office (serving as a red Cross hospital), Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0156.

Boy scouts outside Shanghai Stock Brokerage Corporation office (serving as a Red Cross hospital), Shanghai. Photograph by Malcolm Rosholt. HPC ref: Ro-n0156.

Other traces of China’s position in a global World War Two can be found in some of the Wuhan photographs among the HPC holdings, which have merited other posts in this blog. It is the case of this pro-resistance banner outside the headquarters of the France, Belgium and Switzerland Returned Students Association (L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS) – the location from where Robert Capa took one of his iconic photographs of wartime China. Capa was one of many – including the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens with whom he had come to the country – to draw parallels between the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese conflict. The role of Chinese communities overseas, including, but definitely not limited to, students is an important dimension when studying transnational connections in China during the war.

Banner outside the headquarters of "L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS", Wuhan. HPC ref: Bi-s162.

Banner outside the headquarters of “L’Association des Etudiants Chinois de Retour de FBS”, Wuhan. HPC ref: Bi-s162.

The visual record of China’s global war is made of many anonymous faces, but it also includes prominent individuals, both men and women. One of them, which had featured prominently in Iven’s 1938 documentary The 400 Million – in whose production Capa had worked – was Soong Ching-ling [Song Qingling]. The widow of Sun Yat-set and the sister of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Soong Ching-ling founded the China Defence League and was at the forefront of transnational networks of support for China’s resistance. Amongst others, she was photographed by Cecil Beaton, a British photographer who visited China as part of his wartime work for the Ministry of Information. Beaton also documented the conflict in other parts of the world. Many of his wartime photographs can be found at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Half length portrait of Madame Sun Yat-sen, in Chongqing. Photograph by Cecil Beaton. © IWM IB 3459C.

Half length portrait of Madame Sun Yat-sen, in Chongqing. Photograph by Cecil Beaton. © IWM IB 3459C.

There were multiple forms of Sino-foreign cooperation in the war, both civilian and military. From formal alliances to shadow diplomacy, from transnational institutions to personal relations, these left traces in different types of sources and attest to the variety of ways in which China was connected to the world and how the war in East Asia was connected to other theatres of the Second World War. HPC includes images of some of these various encounters, including of Sino-British intelligence cooperation in the 1940s evident in the photographs of the Stanfield Family Collection.

SOE officers and Chinese Directorate of Military Intelligence, Xi’an, 1945. HPC ref: JS03-21.

This collection also includes several photographs of the official ceremony of Japanese surrender in Beijing. Such events, often understood from national frameworks, were actually quite global: they had international consequences and drew observers and participants from different nations, in this case including Hankou-born John E. Stanfield, who served in the Special Operations Executive Far East Force 136 and signed the surrender documents of the Japanese forces in North China on behalf of the British Army.

American, French, and British attendees at the Japanese surrender, Beijing. HPC ref: JS04-048.

American, French, and British attendees at the Japanese surrender, Beijing. HPC ref: JS04-048.

Important international connections framed experiences of resistance but these were also present around practices of collaboration. A window into this can be found in the images of foreign diplomats attached to the collaborationist Reorganised National Government which, amongst others, were recently made available by Stanford University in cooperation with the Cultures of Occupation in Twentieth Century Asia Project at Nottingham.

No reference to China’s role in a global World War Two would be complete without mentioning its main wartime capital, Chongqing, which became a major political, diplomatic and cultural centre during the war. The Fu Bingchang Collection holds a series of incredible images of life in the city. The image below, of a party accompanying Fu at the San Hua Ba airport in Chongqing as he left to take up the post of Ambassador to the Soviet Union is one of the many images in his collection that provide a visual record of the rich history of Republican China’s wartime diplomacy. Chongqing also features in other images. The Joseph Needham Collection offers photographic evidence of knowledge exchange taking place in the 1940s through the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office which Needham directed in the city.

A group at San Hu Ba Airport, Chongqing. Photograph by Fu Bingchang. HPC ref: Fu01-049.

A group at San Hu Ba Airport, Chongqing. Photograph by Fu Bingchang. HPC ref: Fu01-049.

Even though important new work has been appearing recently on China’s wartime experience, several of its global connections remain unexplored and should keep historians busy for many years to come. The HPC collections will no doubt provide useful material for those of us interested in the complex history of the conflict in China and its many transnational links.

[1] Even for Allied War Crimes teams investigating cases in China, the definition of the conflict was set by the German invasion of Poland: Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (London: Allen Lane, 2003), pp. 326-27.

A few reading suggestions on China in a global war:

  • Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (eds), In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai Under Japanese Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Stephen R. MacKinnon, Wuhan 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
  • Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (London: Allen Lane, 2013)
  • Aaron William Moore, Writing War: Soldiers Record the Japanese Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)
  • Marcia R. Ristaino, The Jacquinot Safety Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008)
  • Hans van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China 1937-1952 (London: Profile Books, 2017)
  • Hans van de Ven, Diana Lary, and Stephen R. MacKinnon (eds), China’s Destiny in World War II (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014)
  • Shuge Wei, News Under Fire: China’s Propaganda Against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928-1941 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017)
  • Wen-hsin Yeh (ed), Wartime Shanghai (London: Routledge, 1998)
  • Pingchao Zhu, Wartime Culture in Guilin, 1938-1944: A City at War (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015)
  • Journal of Modern Chinese History, 13:1 (2019) – special issue ‘Wartime Everydayness in China during the Second World War’
  • Modern Asian Studies, 45:2 (2011) – special issue ‘China in World War II, 1937-1945: Experience, Memory, and Legacy’

On photography:

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A Banker and his Amanuensis

Andrew Hillier draws on the Richard Family Collection in Historical Photographs of China to evoke the moving relationship between Guy Hillier and his young amanuensis, Ella Richard. Andrew’s book, Mediating Empire: An English Family in China, 1817-1927, is published this month by Renaissance Books.

We last encountered Guy Hillier diving for cover, as he came under fire during the short-lived restoration of the emperor Puyi in the stifling heat of July 1917. The events were described by Ella Richard, Guy’s confidential secretary and amanuensis, who had joined him the previous year. Guy’s wife, Ada, was living in England with their four children but, already seriously ill, she would die later that summer. However close Guy and Ella then became, it would be over two years before they married. With twenty-two years between them, there may have been a paternal element in the relationship but it was one in which the famously austere banker found solace and amusement in his final years.

By the time he was appointed manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s Peking office in 1891, Hillier was already losing his sight through glaucoma and, by the early 1900s, it had completely gone. Rejecting his offer to resign, the Bank provided him with an amanuensis. When he returned from visiting his wife in 1916, the position had once again become vacant and the Bank asked Ella if she would be interested. Born on 7 September 1879, she was the eldest daughter of the famous missionary, Timothy Richard, and for some years had been looking after her widowed father. However, he had recently re-married and, with her new-found freedom, she jumped at the opportunity. A keen, if somewhat scatty, writer, she recorded their life together in a  diary and various other accounts, along with a cache of photographs, pasted into albums.[1]

Ella Richard (1879-1963). This photograph is undated, but was probably taken when she was about eighteen. HPC ref Hi-s343.

Ella Richard (1879-1963). This photograph is undated, but was probably taken when she was about eighteen. HPC ref Hi-s343.

Ella Richard had first met Guy in Shanghai 1902, when this ‘desperately shy young woman’ was giving a ‘finishing course’ to Morna, the youngest daughter of the well-known barrister, William Venn Drummond. Guy’s brother, the Customs Commissioner, Harry Hillier, was Drummond’s son-in-law and Guy was staying with the family during the Boxer Indemnity Protocol negotiations.[2]  ‘Listening to the blind banker playing the piano’, Ella later wrote, ‘little did I dream what Fortune was to bring us both.’

She arrived in Peking on 9 September 1916, a day earlier than expected. But far from causing embarrassment, there was a flutter of excitement as she entered this intensely masculine world. It soon became clear that, sharing her love of literature and sense of humour, Guy  was captivated. Ella would be there to comfort him when news arrived that his son, Maurice, had been killed in action. So also, when his wife died. Although conducted at a distance for over ten years, his was a not untypical empire marriage, and he and Ada had remained fond of each other. Unusually, given Ella’s non-conformist background, Guy was a devout Roman Catholic and a two year delay before re-marriage was customary. The wedding eventually took place on 20 December 1919 in Hong Kong. [3] Although there were few guests, it was celebrated in style, with Guy, as his son, Tristram observed, dressing as though he was still living in the 1890s.

Guy and Ella’s wedding, St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Garden Road, Hong Kong. On Guy’s right is, most probably, his mafoo (groom), ‘the stout and doughty’ Hooray. HPC ref: Hi-s344.

Although still manager of the Peking agency, Guy left the routine work to his deputy and  he and Ella spent much of their time in a set of rooms, he had long occupied at Pa-li-chuang (Balizhuang), a Buddhist monastery in the western hills. Whilst there were only the most limited sanitary facilities, including a large earthenware flower-pot for basic needs, it provided a tranquil haven from the bustle of Peking.

Here in spacious courts under beautiful old trees and sophora, we would sit, I reading out aloud to him while he knitted (he knitted very well)… In the trees overhead, we would hear the blue jays or the drumming of woodpeckers or the song of orioles, and outside in the high road would pass a string of camels with clanging bells.

Guy, knitting at Balizhuang, late autumn 1921. Books are on the table and Ella is holding their cat Carpentier. HPC ref: EH01-343.

Guy, knitting at Balizhuang, late autumn 1921. Books are on the table and Ella is holding their cat Carpentier. HPC ref: EH01-343.

‘Sitting out in sun in time of snow’ at Balizhuang. From left, Guy, Hatty B., Flo (Florence Harding, Ella’s sister) and Ella. HPC ref: EH01-289.

‘Sitting out in sun in time of snow’ at Balizhuang. From left, Guy, Hatty B., Flo (Florence Harding, Ella’s sister) and Ella. HPC ref: EH01-289.

Gladys Denham and Eleanor Hillier sketching maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba) trees near the pagoda at Balizhuang, Beijing. HPC ref: EH01-313.

Gladys Denham and Eleanor Hillier sketching maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba) trees near the pagoda at Balizhuang, Beijing. HPC ref: EH01-313.

In late 1921, Guy’s daughter, Madeleine, came out to join them and almost immediately became  engaged. Her fiancé, Charles Todd, was a dynamic and colourful personality, who had fought in the First World War and was now working for the Eastern Trading Company. [4]  Guy’s son, Tristram, also arrived from England and the wedding, which took place on 25 February 1922, was a large- scale family affair. [5]

The wedding of Madeleine Hillier and Charles Todd at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, Beijing. To their left, Guy and Ella, to their right, Kathleen Watson and Captain Stileman, Best man; in front, Eileen Hutchins and David Brown. HPC ref: EH01-349.

The wedding of Madeleine Hillier and Charles Todd at St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, Beijing. To their left, Guy and Ella, to their right, Kathleen Watson and Captain Stileman, Best man; in front, Eileen Hutchins and David Brown. HPC ref: EH01-349.

Having lived in the city for over thirty years, Guy had suffered from Peking’s harsh climate and was in failing health by the early 1920s. After a short illness, he died on 12 April 1924 in the presence of Ella, Madeleine and a Jesuit priest, Father Mullins. A lavish funeral was attended by large numbers of Chinese and Westerners and concluded with a long procession to the French cemetery at Beitang,  the flowers being carried in a separate carriage. [6]

The original head-stone on Guy’s grave at Beitang cemetery, later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution after its removal to Waiqiao Cemetery. HPC ref: Hi-s347.

The original head-stone on Guy’s grave at Beitang cemetery, later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution after its removal to Waiqiao Cemetery. HPC ref: Hi-s347.

The large granite slab marking Guy’s grave at Waiqiao Cemetery, Beijing, inscribed ‘sans peur et sans reproche’, which survived intact. Author’s photograph, 2017.

The large granite slab marking Guy’s grave at Waiqiao Cemetery, Beijing, inscribed ‘sans peur et sans reproche’, which survived intact. Author’s photograph, 2017.

Several days later, Ella returned alone to Balizhuang and, passing through ‘the little green gate into [their] own courtyard’, she was ‘enveloped by a sense of peace’.

The plum-trees were a mass of snowy blossom and the pear tree was in its exquisite livery of tender green and cool clusters of white bloom. I went to his room and knelt by his bed and felt at last I had come home and that he was near me, watching me … and looking upon all the beauty of our loved home.  [7]


[1] A selection from the Richard Family Collection can be viewed on Historical Photographs of China.  I am grateful to two of Ella’s great nieces, Fiona Dunlop and Jennifer Peles, for allowing me access to Ella’s writings and providing me with much fascinating information about her.  Save where otherwise stated, all quotations are from Ella’s papers.

[2] Drummond owned a sumptuous mansion, Dennartt,  just off Bubbling Well Road.

[3] North China Herald, 3 January 1920, p. 48.

[4] See generally, Sue Osman, ‘Charles Todd and his family, 1893-2008’ (unpublished, Private Collection).

[5] Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose (London: Longmans, 1954), pp. 42-61.

[6] China Illustrated Review, 19 April 1924. For Guy’s last days and a moving description of the funeral, see Frank King, The Hongkong Bank Between the Wars and the Bank Interned, 1919-1945: Return from Grandeur, Vol. 3 of The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 146-147.

[7] Ella survived well into her eighties, a somewhat daunting presence for her great-nieces, when they visited her in her South Kensington flat. She died on 14 October 1963.

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